Plantations Essay

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Plantations are farms covering a large land area that are usually devoted to growing a single crop that will be sold for cash. They are classified according to the manner in which they employ laborers, or according to the kind of crop that is grown. The crops grown are usually something other than a cereal grain or pasture for cattle. Sometimes, orchards may be classified as plantations, especially if nuts are grown.

The English in Northern Ireland first developed plantations. Colonists were “planted” in Ireland on land that had been lost by the Irish in fighting against the English and the Scots. These and other Europeans and their descendants brought the plantation system to the Americas. These plantations resembled ancient latifundia in the Mediterranean, which were worked by slaves for the growing of olives for oil. In the 19th century plantations were established in Asia and Africa and on many Pacific islands. A common factor in almost all plantations is the necessity of gaining and maintaining a reliable source of affordable labor. The number of laborers required has usually been sizeable.

In the United States, plantations developed during colonial times. African Americans who had been imported as part of the slave trade and free whites worked on these plantations, which often grew tobacco. Tobacco was grown first in Virginia, and then in other colonies. Soon after tobacco cultivation began, slaves were introduced into the Virginia colony. However, many of the laborers on the early plantations were indentured servants who had to work for a number of years in order to pay for the cost of their passage to the New World. However, smaller farms that were sometimes “glorified” with the name plantation raised other crops besides tobacco, such as corn. Rice was first grown in the colonies in South Carolina’s Low Country plantations. Slaves worked the coastal indigo and rice plantations for generations until the abolition of slavery. After the emancipation of the slaves, freed African Americans continued to work the rice plantations until new rice lands were developed in southwestern Louisiana and eastern Texas, where mechanical rice farming took the place of manual labor.

Cotton plantations developed rapidly in the south after the invention of the cotton gin. Plantations developed on the coastal plain, and later on the southern coastal plain of the Gulf of Mexico. Any plantation that was over 1,000 acres was considered large. As settlers moved inland to the Piedmont Region of the southern states, they established cotton plantations there as well. These upland cotton plantations were somewhat smaller than the coastal plantations, but they were usually devoted to producing crops that maintained the people on the farm, and cotton served as the cash crop of the plantation.

When the Civil War ended, slavery plantations changed from slave plantations to plantations using “free” labor. In effect, the people on these plantations were trapped. They would sell their labor to the owner of the plantation where they worked in exchange for a share of the crop. However, in order to pay for the seeds, fertilizer, farm tools, and other supplies needed to maintain themselves until the crop was harvested, they had to buy on credit. If the harvest was poor, they were still in debt after the harvest. If the harvest was good, they usually found that what they earned from their labor was barely enough to cover their debts.

Around the world, plantations developed to grow other crops. In many Caribbean countries such as Cuba, Haiti, and Jamaica, and also in Brazil, sugarcane was the plantation crop, and slavery was used extensively. The end of slavery did not see the end of plantations. In Hawaii, pineapple plantations developed along with the sugarcane plantations. In Central America, Ecuador, and other countries, banana plantations were developed with free labor.

Europeans developed plantations in the 19th and early 20th centuries in their colonies. The people of India worked many British plantations in Guyana and in the Polynesian Islands. Large numbers of their descendants now populate these areas. Other European countries using plantations included the Portuguese, French, and Dutch. Tea plantations were established in Ceylon, India, and China. Development of the motorized vehicle generated an enormous growth in the demand for rubber for tires. Rubber plantations where the trees could be tapped for their sap arose in Central and South America and in Malaysia.

Modern Plantations

Modern plantations continue to produce a great many crops, and there are now even “environmental plantations” devoted to preserving a watershed area. The laborers who work on modern plantations are increasingly well educated and employ machinery in the production of their respective crops. Many of the problems posed by modern plantations are environmental. The development of plantations in places such as Indonesia threatens tropical forests. Palm oil, for example, is produced on land that could be left as wilderness preserves; palm oil could be grown on older, but less suitable land and still be profitable. Developing both policies and a culture that will abide by these policies is an ongoing task.

Industrial plantations are those that are devoted to a single crop (monoculture). In the southern United States, pine tree plantations (tree farms) covering vast areas supply the demands of pulp mills that produce paper. A major problem faced by any plantation is that growing only one crop is a specialization of the species. This single species growth invites different kinds of pests-for example, the boll weevil once nearly destroyed cotton production in the southern United States. The concentration of a single crop on plantations over a wide area requires pesticides to protect the crop, and the use of pesticides can have a negative environmental impact.


  1. C. Rodrique, Reconstruction in the Cane Fields: From Slavery to Free Labor in Louisiana’s Sugar Parishes, 1862-1880 (Louisiana State University Press, 2001);
  2. C. Royce, Origins of Southern Sharecropping (Temple University Press, 1994);
  3. J. Scott, Slave Emancipation in Cuba: The Transition to Free Labor, 1860-1899 (Princeton University Press, 1986).

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