- The Sugar Masters: Planters and Slaves in Louisiana's Cane World, 1820-1860
Richard Follett's fine new book makes it clear that life for masters and slaves on a Louisiana sugar plantation was significantly different than on other plantations. Slaves had to be more skilled, conditions were factory like, there was an imbalanced ratio of men to women, and the death rate was appalling. More so than other types of plantations, owners used incentives to squeeze more labor out of their enslaved people.
Follett, who teaches American history at the University of Sussex, England, shows how the very nature of sugar cultivation dictated heavy capital investment. Land and slaves were obvious expenses, and sugar plantations were typically twice the size of Louisiana cotton plantations. Sugar plantations also required much machinery, typically $20 per acre. Cotton plantations used about $1.60 per acre and rice plantations saw $10 expended per acre on machinery. Such lavish expenditures forced would-be sugar planters to form partnerships or business arrangements to raise the necessary funds. The heavy reliance on machinery, what Follett calls a "technological revolution" (p. 30), created a highly structured plantation complex.
Not only did sugar require much capital investment, it voraciously consumed labor. Cutting and stacking cane for up to eighteen hours a day taxed the stamina of even the strongest laborer. The extreme physicality of the work required an overwhelmingly male slave population. In an insightful discussion, Follett describes the planters' age and sex selectivity in their purchase of bondservants. The sugar masters purchased men perhaps 85 percent of the time and preferred them to be less than twenty-five. This sexual imbalance, when coupled with poor diet and the strenuous work conditions, suppressed the natural growth rate to 6 or 7 percent, a figure four times smaller than the regional average. The killing fields of Louisiana [End Page 423] created a steady demand for enslaved people that the interstate slave trade rushed to fill.
Life on a Louisiana sugar plantation mimicked northern industrial capitalism as slaves adhered to strict regimentation and discipline. This "agro-industrial order" (p. 30) stressed speed, control, and continuous production. Follett aptly sums up the mania for increased production in a setting that approached a factory: "Time defined the sugar regime" (p. 110). With such inhuman conditions, one might expect that slaves would engage in wholesale resistance. That was not the case. Planters used capitalist incentives like post-harvest parties, rewards, holiday meals, payment for chopping wood, and cash bonuses to stimulate production, minimize sabotage, and provide motivation. In an inherent climate of disorder, the sugar masters were searching for (and demanding) order.
The slaves, it appears, accepted these inducements because it gave them temporary equality with the masters. Things such as payment for overwork and possession of cash allowed slaves to establish some autonomy within the brutal system of sugar slavery. Enslaved people also asserted their culture and individuality and culture through song, dance, and community. Slaves used their hard-earned money to buy fabric and the resulting clothing became expressions of self-assertion, identity, and individuality. The culture that the slaves forged became a blend of African, European, and American folkways.
Follett's book is long overdue. There is a paucity of recent scholarship on the cane plantations of Louisiana and this book reinforces the need to understand the various forms of plantation development. The book is a product of prodigious research and Follett has a command of the relevant historical literature. The writing is usually engaging, although Follett lapses into jargon on a number of occasions. It is a useful source for anyone interested in the Old South, slavery, or Louisiana history.