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The economy of the Chesapeake region revolved around tobacco and relied heavily on slave labor.
Discuss how planters in the Chesapeake region increasingly invested in the Atlantic slave trade to support their rural tobacco-based economy
The Chesapeake colonies developed similar agricultural systems based on tobacco, which later diversified to include cotton and indigo.
Tobacco required intensive labor for cultivation, and the declining availability of white indentured servants—as well as fear of uprisings from wealthy whites—made Chesapeake planters turn toward African slave labor.
The introduction of large-scale cheap labor via slavery allowed for an increase in tobacco exports, which generated significant wealth for whites in the region.
The presence of slaves created an economic gap between wealthy and poor Chesapeake farmers, with the wealthy elites dominating the social and political life.
The Chesapeake region was composed of Virginia—with Jamestown, its first successful settlement established in 1607—and Maryland. Each of these colonies developed a similar agricultural system that revolved around tobacco, which was later diversified with the introduction of cotton and indigo.
During the later part of the 17th century, the development of the Chesapeake region revolved around tobacco cultivation, which required intensive labor. At first, Chesapeake farmers hired indentured servants—men and women from England who sold their labor for a period of five to seven years in exchange for passage to the American colonies—to harvest tobacco crops. However, by the 1680s, fluctuating tobacco prices and the growing scarcity of land in the region made the Chesapeake less appealing to men and women willing to indenture themselves. The scarcity of indentured servants meant that the price of their labor contracts increased, and Chesapeake farmers began to look for alternative, cheaper sources of bonded labor.
As a result, many Chesapeake farmers turned toward imported African slaves to fulfill their desire for cheap labor. Although African chattel slavery was a more expensive investment that white indentured servitude, it guaranteed a lifetime service of free labor. As the demand for Chesapeake cash crops continued to grow, planters began to increasingly invest in the Atlantic slave trade.
A great deal of support for the system of chattel slavery came from the wealthy white's fear of rebellions from the labor force. In the late 17th century, indentured servants made up the majority of laborers in the region. Wealthy whites worried over the presence of this large class of laborers and the relative freedom they enjoyed, as well as the alliances between black and white servants. Replacing indentured servitude with black slavery diminished these risks, alleviating the reliance on white indentured servants, who were often dissatisfied and troublesome, and creating a caste of racially defined laborers whose movements were strictly controlled. It also lessened the possibility of further alliances between black and white workers. Racial slavery even served to heal some of the divisions between wealthy and poor whites who could now unite as members of a “superior” racial group.
While laws in the tobacco colonies had already made slavery a legal institution, new laws were passed toward the end of the 17th century that severely curtailed black freedom and laid the foundation for racial slavery. Virginia passed a law in 1680 prohibiting free Africans and slaves from bearing arms, banning Africans from congregating in large numbers, and establishing harsh punishments for slaves who assaulted Christians or attempted escape. Two years later, another Virginia law stipulated that all Africans brought to the colony would be slaves for life. Thus, the increasing reliance on slaves in the tobacco colonies—and the draconian laws instituted to control them—not only helped planters meet labor demands, but also served to assuage English fears of uprisings and alleviate class tensions between rich and poor whites.
Rural Economy and Society: Slavery as a Social Identifier
The local economy in the Chesapeake was overwhelmingly agrarian, rural, and rooted in the headright system, which guaranteed numerous acres of land to any immigrant who paid their own passage to the New World and settled in the region. The headright system was designed to promote immigrant settlement and the cultivation of key staple crops that increased the prosperity of the Chesapeake region. As the headright system attracted more and more settlers to the Chesapeake, an increasing divide between coastal planters and farmers on the frontier began to emerge, with those in the westernmost areas usually poorer than planters in the east.
With the importation of African slaves, most social and economic divisions between wealthy and poor farmers in the Chesapeake increased. As African slaves were generally more expensive to purchase than indentured servants, the wealthy planters invested heavily in African slaves and agricultural technology and expanded their lands, while poor farmers struggled to maintain their smaller agricultural enterprises.
These wealthy slave-owning planters came to dominate the top of the social and political hierarchy in the Chesapeake, placing pedigree and wealth as significant social identifiers. However, small farmers composed the largest social class in the Chesapeake. These agriculturalists owned small amounts of property and a limited (if any) enslaved labor force. The class division between wealthy planters and small farmers continued well into the 19th century, until the Civil War united these factions against the Northern states.