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Changing Landscapes: Slave Housing at Monticello 4 pages: | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 |

Shifting the Strategic Balance between Slaves and Owners

The forced importation of Africans into the Chesapeake slowed after 1750 and effectively ended with the Revolution. As the 18th century wore on, the increased density and generational depth of kin ties meant that it became easier for enslaved people to build and maintain large kin-based social coalitions to pressure for change. But why would slave owners accede to these pressures?


It became easier for enslaved people to build and maintain large kin-based social coalitions to pressure for change.

 

Under tobacco monoculture of the 17th and early 18th centuries, labor tasks were relatively simple and physically demanding, requiring the work of a large gangs of laborers, all of whom did the same thing, in the same place, at the same time. Punishment incentives can actually raise productivity for such tasks. Gang labor meant surveillance costs were low and planters found they could efficiently rely on physical punishments to motivate work and compliance.

This began to change as a more diversified agricultural regime emerged. Wheat was especially important. Wheat cultivation required plows, which in turn required smithing facilities and draft animals. Smithing required skilled smiths. Draft animals required fenced pastures, shelter, fodder crops, and attentive care. Plowing required permanent fields, which in turn required manuring and crop rotations to maintain soil fertility. Grain, fodder, and manure all required carting, which meant wagon makers and drivers. Slave owners, therefore, had to divide their workforces up into small groups who pursued these diverse tasks scattered across the landscape. This sent the costs of surveillance, on which the delivery of punishment incentives relies, skyrocketing.

Actors from Williamsburg Working Tobacco Fields
Working tobacco fields like these was unskilled- but intensive - labor. Cultivation crops like wheat required slaves with more specialized skills.
 

In addition, some tasks in diversified agriculture required greater skill, concentration and initiative than hoeing tobacco and corn. As task complexity increases, punishment incentives can reduce laborer productivity. The new agriculture also required more valuable livestock and costly equipment, increasing slaves' ability to retaliate against punishment incentives by damaging these assets. In these new circumstances, some slave owners found it in their interests to begin to include a few more positive rewards in the management mix. Acceding to slaves' wishes for greater control over whom they lived with was one such reward.


As the 18th century drew to a close, many Chesapeake slaves seem to have achieved modest gains in their living situations.

 

So it seems that the changing costs and benefits associated with diversified agricultural production subtly altered the strategic balance between slaves and their owners. As a result, as the 18th century drew to a close, many Chesapeake slaves seem to have achieved modest gains in their living situations.

I emphasize that the gains were partial. During and after the housing revolution, Chesapeake slaves were increasingly at risk of being sold and separated from their families. The cotton-growing south and western territories created demand for slaves that owners - including Jefferson - had few scruples about satisfying. And the gang-labor requirements of cotton agriculture encouraged many 19th-century cotton planters to rely on punishment incentives like those that dominated tobacco culture in the 18th-century Chesapeake.
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