The plantation was the backbone of the whole colony, where the production of sugar, tobacco and cotton literally created vast wealth from the blood, sweat and tears of the enslaved. Here too the enslaved worked from before dawn until after dark without pay, living in huts and growing their own crops on a piece of land to survive.
In the early colonial period sugar cane, cotton and indigo were predominantly grown. Indigo was used to dye clothes. On St. Thomas coffee and tobacco were grown for a period. Some plantations also produced the draft animals and meat, which did not require as much investment in buildings, equipment and labour as the later predominant crop – cane sugar.
Sugar production requires a mill, a factory, more draft animals and several enslaved Africans, and altogether this is a larger investment. From early in the 1700s the sugar plantations became more and more prevalent. From about 1750 sugar cane was virtually the only crop, because the price of sugar was so high in Europe and the USA that investors and planters made large profits.
The Company earned fortunes selling the plantations to the planters and garnered further profits when several plantations were eventually sold to be merged into larger properties.
The owner of a plantation was called a planter, his manager an ‘overseer’ – both English words that were imported into the colony’s vocabulary. In actual field work the working team of enslaved Africans was led by a so-called ‘bomba’ – this is an African word. The bomba was the most reliable – and often the biggest – of the enslaved Africans on the property.
In the middle of the 1700s a strong male field worker had a value of at least 2000 dollars. His ‘earnings’ consisted solely of cloth to wrap himself in, a hut to sleep in and some extra corn or other food should his own crops fail. In the enslaved African’s kitchen gardens – called provision grounds – they cultivated their own food, mostly vegetables and root crops. They were not allowed to keep animals, because they required too much feed. In years of crop failure the enslaved Africans starved and mortality increased.
The plantation consisted of fields that were hoed, planted with sugar cane and harvested. In the first decade the sugar crop was grown again and again. After several years the soil was exhausted and sugar plants had to be replanted more frequently. The ‘Big Gang’ consisted of the strong, adult enslaved Africans who took the tough stint in the endless field work. The ‘Small Gang’ was the old, the infirm and young children who looked after animals and performed lighter tasks.
If an enslaved African woman became pregnant, she would continue to work hard, and a woman often lost her child. If a living child was born, the mother could have it with her in the field and might be permitted to leave it in the shadow of the watch house. The slave trade and the plight of the slaves were increasingly recognized by officials and opinion-makers in Copenhagen around the 1790s. In 1792 it was finally decided to implement a ban on slave trading to take effect ten years on, to come into force in 1803.
In 1796 Peter Lotharius Oxholm, the King’s adviser on the islands, himself a plantation owner and slave trader, wrote that 8,000 of 20,000 slaves died each year. With a high child mortality rate, the enslaved Africans’ numbers could not be sustained without supplies of more from Africa. For this reason he went into the slave trade himself in the final 10 years – from 1792 until 1803 – when it was still by Danish law legal to fetch Africans into slavery in the colony.