Coffee takes at least four years from the planting of seedlings to getting a viable crop, so you had to find ways of living in the meantime... Then there was the depression in the 20s. not as bad as the one in the 30s but quite bad - and the price of coffee went right down and so we struggled on until my father had to sell the farm in 1923 or 1924." Elspeth Huxley

Slave Plantation in Antigua

A staple form of agricultural production throughout the entire history of the British Empire was the plantation. From the very beginnings of the empire it was clear that the plantation would provide enough economies of scale to make production of goods viable in all sorts of places around the world. The first wave of plantations were those in the New World geared towards producing Sugar, Tobacco and Cotton. But the system would survive right through to the Twentieth Century. Coffee in East Africa, Rubber in Malaya or Tea, Indigo and Jute in India were all examples of crops that were farmed into Independence and beyond.

Usually, a significant amount of capital was required to start such an enterprise. Housing, seeds and land were required to get this kind of venture underway. Some skill and knowledge was also required, but the concentration of efforts on a single commodity made it significantly easier to acquire any such kind of specialist understanding. A lot of this knowledge was also picked up through trial and error. Farmers would experiment with all sorts of crops until they either ran out of money or discovered a crop that took to the local climate and soil. In East Africa, all sorts of commodities were experimented with until it was found that coffee could grow in the area. And even then there was a great deal of experimentation over what varieties of bean to use. The British Empire presided over mass migrations of seeds and plants throughout its lands in pursuit of profit.

The economic system of plantation life suffered from two major drawbacks. The first was the quantity of labour required to man them, the second was their inability to adequately respond to market changes. The first problem was initially solved in the New World by the importation of slaves. This brutal system made many Liberals at home uneasy from the outset. The slave trade was abolished in 1807 after a very effective public opinion campaign was carried out in Britain. Slavery itself was not outlawed until 1833. However, conditions for workers improved little as many plantation owners revived the system of indentured labour. This was a system whereby the labourer agreed to work for a period of years in return for their cost of passage and a small wage. It was this system that helped create massive imperial internal migration as workers from India and China were shuffled around from colony to colony in their hundreds of thousands. In reality, the conditions could often be as unrelenting, degrading and brutal as those found in the days of slavery. The work was invariably unpleasant and the labourer received extremely low wages for the arduous work that he completed. In a tacit form of governmental recognition of these terrible conditions the Indian government outlawed the system in 1917. However, by this time, there were already millions of workers dependent upon plantations for their livelihood.
Sugar Plantation Owners

The inability to respond to world market changes was a more intractable problem still. Being geared to producing a specific commodity, there was no way that a plantation could change its produce if the market were to take a dive or even collapse. Agriculture is a notoriously long term activity and decisions had to be made years in advance. Besides, particular lands were frequently beholden to single crops. Sugar in the West Indies was one of the first big casualties of this problem. This was when Sugar Beet was found to be much easier to produce than sugar cane. At a stroke, plantations throughout the Caribbean became economic liabilities and thousands of workers and slaves were no longer required. This phenomenon occurred time and time again right up until decolonisation. Indeed, the legacy of certain Commonwealth countries being over-dependent upon a few staple commodities is often sited as one of the more unpleasant side effects of imperialism. As indeed it is, but it should be remembered that the system was designed around a huge empire where certain colonies could specialise in certain products and then trade them with the other colonies. This system only worked when all the countries were bound together, once they went their separate ways, each individual country could find itself at the mercy of international commodity markets. Even in the hey day of the empire, there was always somewhere in the empire that plantation owners were complaining about the prices of commodities being set in London, Paris, New York or Chicago. In fact, many plantation owners were in the vanguard of calls for imperial preference and protection. Categorically demonstrating their difficulties in adjusting to the world markets.

Plantations were unwieldly and unpleasant institutions at the best of times, but their existence and operation were often critically important to the lifeblood and economic development of many of the colonies. They shaped many of these colonies in specific ways and with specific workers to such an extent that their impact on these colonies can still often be seen even in present times.

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by Stephen Luscombe