Reconstructing the Landscapes of Slavery

Guest post by Dale W. Tomich, co-author of Reconstructing the Landscapes of Slavery: A Visual History of the Plantation in the Nineteenth-Century Atlantic World, on sale April 19, 2021

The terms “plantation” and “plantation landscape” commonly conjure up the image of the Big House of the great planters of the Americas. The Big House is how the plantation was meant to be presented to the world; its impressive façade and the elegant interior intended to display the wealth, power and prestige of the owner of the home. The Big House symbolized authority, gentility, tradition—a paternal and hierarchical agrarian civilization that stands in opposition to the mundane, plebeian, commercial order of the industrial city. This image symbolized a way of life, part real and part imagined, that evokes tradition, nostalgia, and romanticism. Such a fixed and closed representation coexists uneasily with the history of slavery. The inclusion of the slave quarters alongside the Big House and the inclusion of the history of the enslaved alongside the imagined history of the planter elite complicates the idyllic and harmonious vision of the plantation by introducing massive inequalities that juxtapose wealth and poverty; black and white; power and marginality; violence and resistance. Throughout the Americas the best historians, anthropologists, sociologists and historians of art and architecture have sought to reconcile these oppositions within the multifaceted and unequal reality of plantation slavery.

Reconstructing the Landscapes of Slavery reframes these efforts to reconcile the tensions and conflicts within the history of slavery by shifting the focus to the as a productive space. Our interest is in the forces that produced the space of the plantation and how the space of the plantation produced. The sites that we selected – the American cotton zone, the Cuban sugar zone, and the Brazilian coffee zone—demonstrate how slave production restructured as part of the industrializing world-economy of the nineteenth century. Global forces of industry, commerce, finance, and transportation mobilized land and slave labor in order to transform nature in each of these zones in accordance with the demands of plantation monoculture in order produce on an unprecedented scale the key commodities of modern mass consumption.

Plantation landscapes reveal how the physical organization of space integrated slave production into emerging industrial world division of labor. Each of these extensive and expanding new commodity frontiers was relatively unpopulated and each had favorable environmental conditions for its particular commodity. In each, the material processes entailed in the production of the crop shaped the restructuring of the natural environment and the organization of slave labor. More land was brought under cultivation, and the size of holdings and the area cultivated were increased. Internal and trans-Atlantic slave trade increased dramatically the number of slaves engaged in the cultivation of each crop.  The division of labor on the plantation was reorganized in relation to the crop. New technologies were adopted, and new conceptions of plantation management planter control over the labor of the enslaved and maximized the production each crop. Increasingly precise calculation of the quantity of material, time and distance regulated the activities of the laboring population and shaped the landscape. Sophisticated systems of transportation, including steamships and railroads, integrated the production of the new slave frontiers in the world market. The industrialized landscapes of Cuba, US South, and Brazil were the platforms of modern mass production and mass consumption.

The expansion of the world-economy and creation of an industrial division of labor produced distinct local landscapes, which, in turn produced, ordered, and regulated distinct conditions of slave life and labor. Thus, the plantation landscape and built environment do not merely provide the background or context for Atlantic slavery; rather, they express and reproduce the entire ensemble of relations and processes that created the slave regimes of the US South, Cuba, and Brazil. The slave plantation was, above all, a productive space and slavery was a means of organizing work. Slavery did not exist in the physical and material space of the plantation, but developed through them. To be able to place masters and slaves in time and space, that is, struggling in their different ways with one another and with nature to wrest the crop from nature transforms our understanding of the history of slavery as a system and of the relation between masters and slaves. For this reason, the physical landscape and material processes of production provide a privileged vantage point from which to reinterpret the history of slavery in its entirety.

The slave commodity frontiers of the US South, Cuba, and Brazil have left a rich and varied legacy of maps, drawings, paintings, photographs and lithographs that enable us to reconstruct the making of the plantation landscapes in each zone. These images are not simply illustrations. Rather they played an active role in constructing, ordering, and controlling the landscape and activities that took place in it as well in presenting them to the wider world. In Reconstructing the Landscapes of Slavery, we have used these materials to create a visual history of the landscape. We do not treat the images as self-contained representations, but as historical documents of a reality beyond the image. However, we do not impose on them histories that are not depicted in the image. Our emphasis is on the documentary character of the image. Our purpose is to disclose to social, intellectual, and cultural history of the plantation landscape, not to write the social economic or cultural historical of slavery. We read the images as evidence, direct or indirect, of the reality they depict and have arranged them to give a visual account of the production of plantation space. The book is organized as a visual narrative; the images tell the story and the text supports the images. It is a book that is intended to be seen more than to be read. Each image and the series of images builds up and documents a multilayered and comparative visual reconstruction of the spatial relations forming plantation slavery in the Atlantic world. In each, series of images we have emphasized certain aspects of the landscape: slave labor in the US South, technology in Cuba and environment in Brazil. Once these themes become clear to the reader, it is possible to go back and see how each aspect is also present in the other series. It is therefore possible for the reader to at least mentally rearrange the images and create new narratives.

Dale W. Tomich is professor emeritus of sociology at Binghamton University.