The 1400s; from Madeira down to the Gulf of Guinea
In our study of the origins of Southern culture and identity we have see that the first of the Lower South colonies, South Carolina, was founded by English-Barbadians who had an enormous cultural impact there. We have seen how the plantation system was developed in Brazil, spread to the Lesser Antilles and soon after to Carolina and the Lower South, where it produced tremendous wealth. We have also studied the introduction of sugarcane into the region and the revolutionary impact that it had.
Herein we are going to take a closer look at the origins of the plantation system prior to its evolution in Brazil. This continues the story that we started in our review of the introduction of sugarcane in the Caribbean region. In that piece we traced the migration of sugarcane from its ancient home in southeast Asia, to India, and then to Mesopotamia, to the eastern Mediterranean, to Spain and the eastern Atlantic islands colonised by Portugal and Spain in the early 1400s. The information below, unless otherwise noted, is taken from an article by University of Chicago professor of anthropology and social sciences Stephan Palmié called ‘Toward Sugar and Slavery.’ This article appears as chapter eight in The Caribbean: A History of the Region and Its People, edited by Stephan Palmié and Francisco Scarano.
By the late Middle Ages, slavery had disappeared in much of central and northern Europe, but persisted on the war-torn Christian-Muslim frontier of southern Iberia. It would be Iberians (Portuguese and Spanish) who would transfer it to the islands of the eastern Atlantic and later to the Caribbean and the New World. Along the way, they would develop the plantation system which would economically and culturally dominate northern Brazil, the Caribbean and Dixie.
ENGLISH UNDERSTANDING OF ‘PLANTATION’
The English first experimented with the plantation concept in Ireland. ‘Planting,’ to Englishmen of the time, meant much more than simply growing a crop; it meant gaining control of a new area, compelling subjects into agricultural labour and establishing a new, economically profitable social order in that land. Plantations were distinguished by their demographic and economics characteristics. Native (and later foreign) populations were employed as the chief labour source. As well, capital was required as an investment in plantations with the intention of producing a profit. In British North America, the Southern colonies became plantations in this old sense of the word: Virginia developed tobacco production as a cash crop while Carolina developed rice. The New England colonies, on the other hand, never worked out as plantations as intended (New Hampshire, for example, was specifically created for the purposes of ‘making a Plantation & establishing of a Colony’). Eventually, ‘plantation’ would come to be understood, Palmié explains, as an agro-industrial complex worked by slave labour.
FEITORIAS & SLAVE LABOUR
In the 1400s the Portuguese and Spanish left Iberia and began exploring the eastern Atlantic and the western coast of Africa. As we have previously seen, the Portuguese turned the previously uninhabited island of Madeira into a sugar-exporting colony and the first slave-based plantation society of its kind. The Spanish soon did the same to the nearby Canary Islands. By the mid-1400s the Iberians had successfully established profitable sugar plantations on these islands.
Around this time the Portuguese also began establishing fortified trading posts called feitorias (literally, factories) along the coast of Africa. Eventually, the Portuguese would build dozens of these trading centres (such as São Jorge da Mina) in Africa, India, Asia and South America. Henry the Navigator, famous Portuguese explorer of the era, built the first overseas feitoria on the island of Aguin in 1445. By the 1480s the Portuguese had developed a flourishing slave trade with their feitorias providing the labour which made the plantations of the eastern Atlantic, and later the New World, possible. Well over a century later the Dutch and other European powers copied the Portuguese and began building trading centres modeled on the feitorias along many of the same routes. Vast numbers of slaves a year were exported from these feitorias on the African coast to the emerging plantations of the eastern Atlantic and New World.
EXPANSION INTO THE GULF OF GUINEA
After Madeira and the Canary Islands, the Iberians soon spread their plantation system to the islands of the Gulf of Guinea. São Tomé and Príncipe were discovered by the Portuguese in 1472 and successfully settled in 1493. The rich, volcanic soil proved ideal for growing sugarcane. Large numbers of slaves were brought to the islands from the mainland and for a time these were prosperous sugar-exporting islands. It is interesting to note that many of the early inhabitants of the islands were Portuguese Jews (just as Portuguese Jews and the Dutch later took the plantation system from Brazil to the Lesser Antilles, as we have already seen). After sugar colonies were later built in the Americas these small islands were converted into slave-exporting centres. Portuguese (and multiple Portuguese creole forms) remains the language of São Tomé and Príncipe to this day. Annobón was another Portuguese island in the Gulf of Guinea. It was colonised in the 1470s and African slaves were brought in from what is today Angola to work plantations on the island. The island passed to Spanish control three hundred years later in 1778, becoming part of Spanish Guinea.
PIECES COMING TOGETHER
The necessary parts which combined to form the plantation system which would re-make the Caribbean region and eventually provide the Southern States with a wealthy, export-based economy were quickly coming together. Europeans saw the great potential (and profit) of such a system on Madeira and the Canaries. Improvisation initially allowed for a mixed-labour system (of free workers combined with a limited number of slaves of various origins). However, as time went on, African slave labour quickly pushed free workers out of the market. The innovation of the Portuguese feitorias enabled the exportation of the massive labour force necessary to work eastern Atlantic sugar plantations. The establishment of small island colonies such as São Tomé, Príncipe and Annobón, initially sugar plantation islands but soon converted into slave-exporting centres, provided the infrastructure and network necessary to supply the feitorias with sufficient slaves to meet the growing demand of the plantation colonies which would continue to be built over the next several hundred years.