Tuesday, November 24, 2015

American Slaves & Tobacco


Within a decade after the settlement of Jamestown, Virginia began exporting tobacco to England. The alluring weed had been known in Europe for more than a century; sailors on early voyages of exploration had brought back samples & descriptions of the ways in which natives had used it. 


Slaves Working in Virginia by Anonymous c. 1670

Smoking tobacco had increased in popularity during the 16C; thus, even though James I viewed it “so vile & stinking a custom,” it was a relief to the English to find a source of supply so that tobacco importation from the Spanish would be unnecessary.


Tobacco Paper, Virginia, 17C Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Williamsburg, Virginia

Particularly suited to Virginia, tobacco needed a long growing season & fertile soil. Furthermore, it could be cultivated in small areas, on only partly cleared fields, & with the most rudimentary implements.  


Virginia Tobacco Plantation

As successive plantings exhausted the original fertility of a particular plot, new land was readily available, & British ships could move up the rivers of the Virginia coast to load their cargoes at the plantation docks. All that remained was for the colonists to learn the proper curing, handling, & shipping of tobacco; & for many years the American product was inferior to the tobacco produced in Spain. Nevertheless, colonial tobacco was protected in the English market, & the fact that it was cheaper led to steady increases in its portion of the tobacco trade. The culture of tobacco spread northward around the Chesapeake Bay & moved up the many river valleys. By the end of the 17C, there was some production in North Carolina.


Tobacco Production, Virginia, 1700s Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Williamsburg, Virginia

American tobacco swelled the supply of tobacco in British & European markets; & tobacco prices fell precipitously, until the last quarter of the 17C. By the turn of the 18C, it was apparent that the competition in colonial tobacco production would be won by large plantations; & that if the small planters were to succeed at all, they would have to specialize in high-quality tobacco or in the production of food & other crops such as wheat.


Shipping Tobacco 1700s A Map of the Most Inhabited Part of Virginia..., by Joshua Fry and Peter Jefferson (ca. 1755).

Larger production units were favored in tobacco cultivation because slaves working in large groups could be closely supervised. To achieve the best results, a plantation owner needed enough slaves to ensure the economical use of a plantation manager.


Tobacco Production in Virginia 1821 Richard Holmes Laurie, Publisher (London, April 12, 1821).

A plantation with fewer than 10 slaves intermittently prospered, but larger units earned substantial returns above cost, provided they were properly managed & contained sufficient acreage to avoid soil exhaustion. Thus, the wealthy, those who were able to secure adequate credit from English & Scottish factors, attained more efficient scales of tobacco production; &, in so doing, became even wealthier & further improved their credit standing.


1700s English Tobacco label New York City Public Library

Recruited as an inexpensive source of labor, enslaved Africans in the United States also became important economic & political capital in the American political economy. Enslaved Africans were legally a form of property—a commodity. Individually & collectively, they were frequently used as collateral in all kinds of business transactions. They were also traded for other kinds of goods & services.


Representation of a Tent Boat, or Plantation Barge c. 1772 - 1777

The value of the investments slaveholders held in their slaves was often used to secure loans to purchase additional land or slaves. Slaves were also used to pay off outstanding debts. When calculating the value of estates, the estimated value of each slave was included. This became a source of tax revenue for local & state governments. Taxes were also levied on some slave transactions.


1788 The Federalist Title Page.  A Tobacco Plantation

Of the first 6.5 million people who crossed the Atlantic & settled in the Americas during the colonial period (1492-1776), only 1 million were Europeans. The other 5.5 million were African. Only some 450,000 of the Africans who survived the Middle Passage during the transatlantic slave trade settled in the continental United States. Nevertheless, these 450,000 had grown to more than 4 million people of African descent by 1860 near the start of the Civil War.


A map...of Virginia...Drawn by Joshua Fry & Peter Jefferson in 1751 Showing Hogsheads of Tobacco Being Readied for Export

The American Revolution cost Virginia & Maryland their principal European tobacco markets, & for a brief period of time after the Revolution, the future of slavery in the United States was in jeopardy. Most of the northern states abolished it, & even Virginia debated abolition in the Virginia Assembly.


Virginia Plantation Owner








 Plantation of the York River in Virginia






Tobacco Label - 18C  “ROLLS’s Best Virginia in Whites - Alley Chancery - Lane, LONDON


 Tobacco Label c. 1740 - 1776 


 Tobacco Label c. 1740 - 1770


Tobacco Label c. 1740 - 1770 Margerum’s Best Virginia at Church Street in Hackney


 Trade Card


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