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Plantation Kingdoms pulls together four prominent agricultural and economic historians—each with significant recent scholarship on a commodity crop—to explore the rise and fall of the southern plantation system. The book evolved from a series of lectures the authors gave in 2012 and 2013 at the University of Sussex, but the talks seem thoroughly revised for print and work well as an edited collection (a rare feat). Each essay explores the history of a different southern commodity, defined by Peter Coclanis as “a class or type of marketable good or service, members of which are generally sold in a rather undifferentiated, interchangeable manner and which at one end of the spectrum possess complete fungibility” (p. 12). This concise collection follows southern plantations on their paths to “commodity hell,” a world of global labor and sales markets where growers have little control over inputs or prices and crops are freely moved to the site of cheapest production (p. 5).
Coclanis examines the history of rice culture in coastal South Carolina. He admits that rice lacks the economic and cultural significance in North America that it holds in some other parts of the world but argues that it highlights the networks of global capitalism that came to surround southern commodities. He defines lowcountry rice planters as aggressively capitalist from the early colonial era. Coclanis’s primary historiographical intervention comes in his argument that coastal rice production was in irreversible decline before the Civil War because of escalating competition from Asian producers, countering the traditional narrative that pins the collapse on the Civil War and emancipation. Sven Beckert’s essay on cotton explores the spread of the fiber across the Deep South. He attributes the commodity’s meteoric expansion to a unique set of factors, summarizing that “the United States was the one area in the world in which emptied lands, plentiful bonded labor, and a politically influential planter class existed” (p. 46). [End Page 287]
Richard Follett’s account of Louisiana’s sugar culture follows the same arc as that of Caribbean sugar production, if in a more compressed timeframe. Follett pays particular attention to the importance of tariffs in nurturing, protecting, and—when withdrawn in the twentieth century—hastening the decline of southern sugarcane, as well as the postemancipation struggles over labor that plagued the industry. Finally, Barbara Hahn emphasizes the crucial role of various institutions in shaping and sustaining commodity agriculture. Through the history of southern tobacco she explains how tax structures, marketing legislation, curing technologies, and government agencies all created and defined tobacco varieties, such as bright leaf and burley, and made these types seem natural rather than human constructs.
Quibbles are few. Although the introduction promises a history of “the real Americans, free and unfree, who transformed the countryside and produced the raw materials from which much of the nation’s wealth derived,” relatively few people appear in the book, at least as individuals (p. 2). A few prominent planters are mentioned, and only the occasional slave (such as Stephen Slade, whom Hahn discusses as an—perhaps apocryphal—“inventor” of bright tobacco); on the whole these are economic histories interested in national or global exchanges, markets, and institutions. This seems a product of the authors’ interests as well as the limited length of the book. All the essays are crisply written, though they vary a great deal in tone and style; each has a distinct authorial voice, which is a good thing at the chapter level, but which also makes for a less-than-seamless whole.
In sum, this is an interesting collection with a number of uses. It serves as a good, short, accessible primer on southern plantation agriculture, while at the same time offering a few fresh takes on familiar narratives. It could be particularly useful in courses on southern, agricultural, or economic history. [End Page 288]
DREW SWANSON is an associate professor of history at Wright State University. He is the author...