Southern History Series: Review: The Rise and Fall of the Plantation Complex

Philip D. Curtin’s The Rise and Fall of the Plantation Complex

Philip D. Curtin’s The Rise and Fall of the Plantation Complex is a series of essays about the transnational cultural zone that we have described as the Golden Circle or the South Atlantic System. Curtin coined the term “South Atlantic System” but now prefers to use the term “the plantation complex” to describe the world of the plantation as it evolved over five centuries across three continents.

We have already told the story of how free-market capitalism aka slavery was created on this website:

  • Sugarcane comes from the Persian Gulf and was first cultivated by Muslims in Iraq with black slaves from East Africa during the 7th and 8th centuries. From Iraq, Muslims spread sugarcane to Egypt, North Africa, southern Spain and Sicily under the Caliphate.
  • The earliest sugar plantations in Europe were in the Arab-controlled areas of southern Iberia and Sicily during the Middle Ages. Sugar was unknown in Europe during Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages – honey and fruit juices were used as sweeteners.
  • Sugar was grown throughout southern Spain during al-Andalus. It was becoming more familiar to Europeans through merchants who traded in Egyptian ports.
  • During the Crusades, Europeans encountered fields of “honey wood” in Palestine and Syria and the Crusader states would harvest it and sell it to Western Europe where a market developed for it. After the expulsion of the Crusaders from Palestine, the Venetians created their own sugar plantations in Cyprus and Crete and which was cultivated in Sicily before and after the Norman Conquest. After the reconquest of Iberia and Sicily over the course of the Middle Ages, the Portuguese, Spanish and Normans took over the sugar plantations in those areas.
  • In the Late Middle Ages, sugarcane was being grown on free-labor plantations around the fringes of Europe in southern Spain, Sicily, Cyprus and Crete. Even here, sugarcane is a tropical plant and didn’t grow well in southern Spain and Sicily, which are colder and drier and are at the northern fringes of its range. Still, Europeans already had the idea of sugarcane’s potential as a crop.
  • In Europe, a combination of free-laborers and slaves (often Slavs from around the Black Sea, which is the source of the word “slave”) had been used to work on these sugar plantations. The European plantations in Cyprus and Crete were also more of an international venture that was financed by merchants from across the continent. It was the earliest stage of capitalism.
  • In the 14th and 15th centuries, the Spanish and Portuguese would famously begin the Age of Exploration and quickly came across the Azores, Canary Islands, Madeira, Porto Santo and the Cape Verde Islands off the coast of Africa. In its first major leap into the Atlantic, the “plantation complex” jumped from the Mediterranean to Maderia, the Canary Islands, and São Tomé off the coast of Africa which were better suited to the growth of sugarcane.
  • In Madeira and the Canary Islands, the Spanish and Portuguese created the prototype of the plantation system which was soon exported to the New World.
  • Madeira was uninhabitated and was burned off to make way for sugarcane plantations. In the Canary Islands, the natives were enslaved and the Portuguese brought Berbers, North Africans black slaves from West Africa and even some European free-laborers to work on sugarcane plantations.
  • The conquest and colonization of the Canary Islands was the prototype for the conquest of the Caribbean and the creation of the South Atlantic System which would eventually spread to southern North America and northern South America.
  • The Canary Islands became a commercially oriented colony that existed not for its own sake, but as a proving ground for the type of unrestricted mercantile capitalism that would later export valuable tropical commodities back to European markets.
  • In Maderia and São Tomé, there was a gradual transition from using European free-laborers and slaves to using Berbers and blacks as slaves on the sugar plantations. These two islands dominated the plantation complex in the early 16th century (1500 to 1550) and were the template for the transition to New World slavery.
  • In the late 15th century (1550 to 1600), the plantation complex jumped from Maderia and São Tomé and established a foothold in northeastern Brazil, specifically to Pernambuco and Bahia where Sephardic Jews seem to have played a major role in getting it off the ground and where it took on all the familiar characteristics of New World slavery.
  • In 1493, Christopher Columbus would transplant sugarcane in La Isabela on the north coast of the Dominican Republic during his second voyage to the New World, and black slaves would first be brough by the Spanish to Hispanolia. It represented the very beginning of a type of society that had never existed before in European history: the development of fixed ideas about race, white supremacy, whiteness as a type of racial nobility, the idea that whites are natural masters fit to command non-Whites who are natural slaves and especially White racial consciousness.
  • During this period, Portugal and Spain were united under a single crown under King Philip II in the Iberian Union. Spain was the superpower of its day, the leader of the Counter-Reformation in Europe and was embroiled in religious wars with England, France and Holland. The Spanish Armada was sunk off the coast of Ireland in 1588.
  • The Northern European powers later signed treaties with Spain (France in 1598, England in 1604 and Holland in 1609) that there would be peace in Europe, but “no peace beyond the line” where European international law wouldn’t apply and where anarchy would be allowed to prevail. This was the great age of piracy in the Caribbean.
  • “Beyond the line” referred to a north-south line in the mid-Atlantic that intersected an east-west line along the Tropic of Cancer. The Americas, Asia and sub-Saharan Africa were “beyond the line” until the 1690s when a declining Spain finally ceded its claim to sovereignty over much of the New World to its Northern European rivals.
  • So what happened that was so important while the Americas were “beyond the line”? For starters, the British (or should I say, the English) under King James I, King Charles I and Oliver Cromwell moved into Virginia (1607), Bermuda (1612), Massachusetts (1620), St. Kitts (1624), Barbados (1627), Nevis (1628), Montserrat and Antigua (1630s) and Jamaica (1655).
  • The French moved into Québec (1608), Saint-Christophe (1624), Guadeloupe (1634), Martinique (1636), Saint-Domingue (1659), French Guiana (1660s) and Louisiana (1682). At the time, the English (or British) and French saw themselves as challenging Spanish power in the New World. Most of their settlements were far away from the heartland of Spanish power in Mexico and Peru and were seen as strategic staging grounds for undermining the Spanish Empire.
  • The Dutch as Western Europe’s leading capitalists played a critical role in the spread of “the plantation complex” north into the Caribbean in the early 17th century. Like the English and French, the Dutch took their own bite out of the New World: Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao (1630s), New Netherland (1614), Sint-Maarten (1648), Sint Eustatius (1636), Cape Colony in South Africa (1652),  and most importantly, the brief Dutch occupation of Northern Brazil from 1630 to 1654.
  • At this time (roughly from 1600 to 1640), the plantation complex was confined to its foothold in Portuguese Brazil, where Sephardic Jews seem to have been very active, as they definitely were before in São Tomé, but the Dutch occupation of Northern Brazil from 1630 to 1654 resulted in the dissemination of “sugar and slavery” to the Dutch, English and French West Indies.
  • In 1640, Portugal revolted against Spanish rule. For most of the previous forty years, Portugal had been at war with Holland, and during the course of shaking off Spanish domination was able to focus its own energies on the reconquest of Dutch Brazil.
  • This resulted in a miniature Shoa in Brazil where many of the Portuguese “New Christians” had reverted to the open practice of Judaism under Dutch protection. Even before the Portuguese reconquest of Pernambuco, these Sephardic Jews hightailed it to the English, Dutch and French West Indies, and many of them would later wind up in New Amsterdam (now New York) and South Carolina which allowed toleration of Jews under John Locke’s constitution.
  • The arrival of these Jews in the Caribbean (namely, in English Barbados, French Guadeloupe and Martinique, Dutch Curaçao and St. Eustatius, and later Dutch Suriname after 1667) coincided with the spread of the plantation complex north into the Caribbean.
  • No one disputes the fact that these Dutch and Portuguese Jews played a critical role in bringing the plantation complex to Barbados in the early 1640s. From 1640 to 1660, Barbados became the first Caribbean island to go through the “Sugar Revolution,” and it became the model New World “slave society” that was copied in the British Leeward Islands and Jamaica as well as in French Guadeloupe and Martinique in the late 17th century.
  • From the 1670s and 1680s forward, the plantation complex spread from Barbados across the Caribbean from the Lesser Antilles to Jamaica and Saint-Domingue in the Greater Antilles. After 1670, it spread to the North American mainland in South Carolina which was spawned by colonists from Barbados.
  • It is less well known that thousands of less successful Barbadians also moved to the Chesapeake in Virginia in the late 17th century and brought their culture with them which also became a Slave Society after Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676.
  • The 18th century from 1700 to the beginning of the American Revolution in 1776 was the Golden Age of the plantation complex which had blossomed from its New World foothold in northeastern Brazil, shifted its center of gravity to Saint-Domingue in the Caribbean in the eighteenth century and spread as far north as the Mason-Dixon Line in the United States.
  • In the early 19th century century (following the destruction of Saint-Domingue during the Haitian Revolution), the plantation complex reached its apogee as it spread into Spanish Cuba, the Cotton Kingdom in the American South from 1820 to 1860 and in the Coffee Kingdom in São Paulo and Minas Gerais in Central Brazil.

In the preface of The Rise and Fall of the Plantation Complex, Philip D. Curtin describes the full range of the plantation complex as it spread across the New World:

“With the passage of time, the heart of the complex moved westward by way of the Atlantic islands, Brazil, and the Caribbean. It ultimately stretched from Rio Grande do Sul in southern Brazil to the Mason-Dixon line, and it had outliers, even at its eighteenth century prime, on the Indian Ocean islands of Réunion and Mauritius. Later on it spread even more widely to Peru, Hawaii, Queensland, Fiji, Zanzibar, and Natal – among other places – but this worldwide dispersion during the nineteenth century took place just as the complex began to be dismantled – first, with the ending of the slave trade from Africa, then with the widespread emancipation of slaves throughout the tropical world under European control.”

Here’s another excerpt which touches on the Jewish role in spreading “sugar and slavery” to the British and French Caribbean. The plantation complex spread from there to southern North America:

“Meanwhile, some “Dutch” had already migrated from Brazil to the French and British Antilles. Many of these were not even of Dutch origin; they were Portuguese New Christians. In Brazil, they had resumed their old religion under the Dutch flag. They therefore had reason not to stay around to see what the Portuguese might do if they reconquered Pernambuco. Many important Sephardic Jewish families of the Caribbean today trace their presence to this migration.”

The most useful contribution of this book is the way in which Curtin defines the plantation complex, clarifies the role of the American South as a peripheral exporter of commodities to Western Europe within the the larger New World plantation civilization that emerged out of the South Atlantic System and sets the overall system within the wider context of world history.

In describing the settlement of the New World, Curtin distinguishes between “trading post empire” zones (this pattern was more typical of the East Indies than the West Indies), “true empire” zones (Mexico and Peru where a European minority ruled over the Amerindian indigenous minority), “transfrontier zones” (stateless societies like the vaqueros in Mexico, the métis in Canada, the trekboers in South Africa, the buccaneers in the Caribbean, the guachos in the Rio de la Plata), “true colony” zones (places like the United States where European settlers replaced the natives) and “plantation zones” (where the natives died off and Europeans imported African slaves as a workforce).

Originally, Barbados, Virginia, Georgia, Massachusetts Guadeloupe and Martinique were all intended to be “true colonies.” In time, Mexico and Peru became “plural societies” as a European settler minority thrived alongside the rebounding Amerindian population. In the Caribbean, the “transfrontier zone” created by the buccaneers as well as the “true colonies” were overwhelmed by the plantation complex. The American South was an unusual hybrid between the “true colony” zone and the “plantation zone.”

In the overall scheme of New World slavery, the American South, Cuba and Puerto Rico were peripheral to the plantation complex which was centered on the Caribbean, or the Golden Circle as Southerners sometimes described the plantation complex in that region. In Dixie, a big “planter” was someone who owned about 40 slaves on a cotton farm with an average size of about 200 or 300 acres, and the slaves there spent only about 33 percent of their time doing anything related to cotton.

Curtin describes the plantation complex in terms of six conditions: (1) most people were slaves or forced laborers, (2) the population was not self-sustaining, (3) agricultural enterprise was organized in large-scale capitalist plantations, (4) the plantations had a feudal element in that masters exercised functions normally provided by government, (5) the plantations were created to provide a distant market with a specialized product and (6) political control rested in another continent and kind of society.

In the American South, the majority of the population were White free-laborers and slaves were the minority in most states. The White population and the black population was not only self-sustaining, but grew faster than the White population in Europe. While there were plantations in the South, these plantations were relatively small, most of the slaves were not owned by planters and the planter class was nowhere near as rich or as dominant in the total scheme of agriculture as sugar planters in the Caribbean. Finally, the plantations in the South were controlled by republican planters and farmers in their own sovereign and independent state legislatures rather than in a European metropole.

If one were to make an ethnocentric comparison between Virginia and South Carolina to Massachusetts and New Hampshire, then Virginia and South Carolina would appear to be Slave Societies, or societies based on slavery, as opposed to “slaveholding societies” like the northern United States before the abolition of slavery. Alternatively, if one were to compare South Carolina and Mississippi to Barbados and Saint-Domingue, then South Carolina and Mississippi (to say nothing of Missouri, Kentucky or Tennessee) wouldn’t qualify as true Slave Societies at all. Brazil and Cuba are similarly intermediaries between a full blown Slave Society like Saint-Domingue and a “true colony” like Ohio.

Philip Curtin does a great job of setting the plantation complex within a wider international context. It was interesting to learn about the complex web of economic exchanges that defined the Early Modern global economic system: bullion came from Mexico, Peru and Minas Gerais in Brazil, some of this would go through a complex series of channels (misleadingly called the “triangular trade”) and would wind up in India where European traders sold Indian textiles to Africans in exchange for a range of products that varied from slaves in Congo and Angola, gum in Senegal to gold from the Gold Coast.

In the long nineteenth century (1770 to 1890), we have already seen how the plantation complex came under sustained attack from the abolitionists, who were motivated by evangelical Christianity and Enlightenment liberal republicanism. They ultimately succeeded in destroying the plantation complex in the long “Democratic Revolution” which lasted from the American Revolution in 1776 through the triumph of the Spanish Republicans during the Spanish Glorious Revolution in 1868.

After the destruction of the New World plantation complex by abolitionists, slavery was gradually reinvented as “free-labor” using Asian coolies from China and India, who were used as the labor force in the next phase of the plantation complex in Cuba, Trinidad, and the Guianas in the Caribbean, Hawaii, Fiji, and Java in the Pacific, and Mauritius, Natal and Reunión around the Indian Ocean. Slavery was rebranding with libertarian rhetoric as industrial free-market capitalism in this period.

In the early 20th century, the plantation complex went global and spread throughout the tropics in the Banana Republics in Central America, the American Sugar Kingdom in the Caribbean and in places like the rubber plantations in Liberia in sub-Saharan Africa, as well as parts of Southeast Asia like Malaysia and Indonesia. The production of many of these commodities (cotton, tobacco, sugar and rice to name a few) is now fully mechanized and machines have replaced negroes as the preferred slaves in the workforce, but that is a subject better left to be explored on another day.

This was a very interesting book. Who knew that the abolitionists succeeded in bringing liberty, equality and poverty to the blacks in New World, economic collapse, political chaos and colonialism to the blacks in West Africa and finally quasi-slavery misleadingly labeled “free-labor” to the darkies in India and China? Who knew they accomplished this while convincing themselves that slavery had gone away?

Bruh, what if I told you capitalism is slavery

The first plantations in the New World were in Brazil and the West Indies.

The plantation complex organically spread through the New World into climate zones that could sustain cash crop agriculture.

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  1. You left out another peripheral, which also had an early plantation phase when the Spaniards had full control of Hispaniola: Spanish Santo Domingo, on the eastern end of that island. This place would also be significant due to the fact that it was the first one were African slaves landed in the New World with governor Nicolás de Ovando in 1503.

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