- The Sugar Masters: Planters and Slaves in Louisiana’s Cane World, 1820–1860
Richard Follett's interesting new book on the sugar masters of Louisiana is the first in some years to focus on enslavement in that particular area of the pre–Civil War South. The slave labor camps of Louisiana's sugar parishes consumed hundreds of thousands of lives before the Civil War. Follett discusses the lives of those unlucky enough to find themselves cutting the cane, feeding the conveyor belt that carried it to the mill, or tending the kettles and fires that made syrup into crystallized sugar. For a number of reasons—overwork and high morbidity and infant mortality rates—people enslaved by the sugar masters did not reproduce themselves very successfully, and so the owners continually used the New Orleans slave market as a source of new workers. Many died too young, but the testimonies of some of those who survived past the end of slavery are key sources for his account of the world the enslaved made. They suggest that in this black-majority part of the South, African Americans created social, religious, family, and other associational networks that sustained souls and bodies.
The master's perspective, however, ultimately looms largest in Follett's argument. As elsewhere in the New World's sugar complex, the system of harvest and milling imparted a driving seasonal rhythm to the lives of the enslaved, subjecting them to months of endless labor and little sleep. In Louisiana every harvest raced against the possibility of crop-destroying frost. Yet planters became wealthy, in part because of a protected national market for their product. But they also provide an interesting counterpoint to those who have argued that slavery was a precapitalist system that produced a ruling-class worldview antithetical to that of the industrialists and merchants of the North and Britain. Stuart Schwartz, Sidney Mintz, and others have argued that European settlers created in sugar plantations the first economic system that successfully coordinated deskilled labor, machines, and skilled technicians in large-scale commodity production. And Louisiana planters adopted radical innovations that upgraded the sugar complex's technological repertoire. As Follett argues, the successive adaptation of steam-driven mills, conveyor belts, vacuum pans, and an ideal of coordinated, numerate management should force us to rethink the idea that the system of production in the South was "backward."
Sugar slavery was in fact all too forward-looking. For Follett, their managerial strategy depended on incentives such as small cash bonuses, alcohol, and extra food during the harvest season. According to Follett, these strategies prevented [End Page 64] resistance from impeding the steady flow of planter profit. By doing things like working hard in return for the $5 bonuses that followed a successful slave harvest, the slave "inadvertently and tragically fortified the sugar masters' power and sway" (237). If the enslaved person worked hard in return for the $5 alone, as a free choice, Follett's repeated insistence that enslaved people were responsible for their own entrapment might make sense. If the master-slave relationship could be broken by a slave who decided that, let us say, the rewards of small property ownership did not in fact compensate for sale and forced separation, subjection to random violence, sexual abuse, and daily coerced labor, then perhaps the ability of some slaves to earn extra money by woodcutting would in fact be an example of how "by accommodating the machine, the slaves descended into greater entrapment" (233). Follett leaves his discussion of the torture and other forms of physical violence that awaited those who refused to work until rather late in the book, and it is far briefer than the discussions of the positive incentives offered to the enslaved. Yet physical violence with no limit but the master's will was the ultimate underlying principle of management on the sugar plantations. This threat faced the enslaved whether they agreed to earn a little extra money or not. They would labor for the enslaver or...