Sunday, July 15, 2012

Just Finished Reading

Over the past ten to fifteen years regional studies on slavery have proliferated and thus brought a better understanding of how geography, climate and different crops affected how the institution was practiced.

Due to cotton's extensive growth in the antebellum South, those studies have dominated the histories, but with increasing regularity the upper-South and other previously somewhat ignored areas are finally getting their just attention.

So, enters The Sugar Masters: Planters and Slaves in Louisiana's Cane World, 1820-1860, by Richard Follett. This book  looks at a different kind of slavery; one that due to the processes necessary for growing and then refining its crop developed into an "agro-industrial" empire that used up its labor force at an alarming rate and increased demand for more.

The very nature of the labor that sugar cane growing, cultivation and processing demanded required a different type of worker than that of the cotton kingdom. Whereas cotton growers used males and females on a general somewhat equal basis to plant, hoe and pick cotton, sugar masters preferred a more male dominated workforce in order to handle the extreme physical demands of the work. In highest demand by the sugar masters were young male slaves of impressive height and size; these men brought the highest prices on the market and made up the vast majority of sugar plantation workers.

As America moved into the steam age the sugar masters moved with it. They expended huge amounts of capital to update their processing and refining equipment in order to produce more sugar and thus more profit, which was then spent on more slaves, more land and better equipment. This industrial efficiency had dire results on the workforce. Slaves were worked to their endurable limits and beyond, especially in cutting season - which had to be done before the first frost hit or the crop would be less valuable - and during the refining process.

In order to gain even more labor from their slave workers, masters often offered remunerated "overwork." When slave work was done for the day, either by gang or task assignments, slaves could earn extra benefits by doing additional labor such as draining swamps, cutting timber as fuel for steam production, erecting fences and growing grain crops or animals that were then sold to the master or other neighboring whites. Masters usually either kept log of overwork and rewarded the laborers with gifts, or sometimes they had plantation stores, where slaves could redeem their overwork credit for goods; not too unlike the sharecropping that would come about after the Civil War. While this practice did allow slaves the opportunity to improve their standard of living on some levels, one has to wonder if they had any energy left to enjoy the fruits of their labor after working so hard for the master and then for themselves. In reality their overwork often only reinforced the master's paternalistic dominance and their subservience and dependency.

The Sugar Masters is a very well written and researched look into the lives of Louisiana's profit-minded owners and their exploited laborers. I highly recommend it to those that wish to better comprehend yet another style and form of slave labor that proved to be adaptable to geographic requirements in the South. On a scale of 1 to 5, I give it a 4.75.

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