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Plantations and Chesapeake Bay Life in the 17th Century

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Most of the land in the Chesapeake region during the 1600s was part of a plantation, plantations which were a major player in the shaping of the society both economically and socially.

Plantations slowed the growth of cities and hindered the development of an advanced economy. Few merchant class folk existed. Most people were either a plantation owners or workers. A lack of a middle class meant few consumers, and many industries never arose to a great extent. Most goods were bought by the rich landowners, of whom there weren’t many. Thus instead of having them manufactured in the colonies, they simply imported them from England, paying the higher cost.

Socially, the landowners themselves communicated very little, since the size of their holdings made the population very spread out. Very few of them knew more than a few of the others, there was no reason to. Each plantation was its own, nearly self-sufficient, community. They grew most of their own food, and only needed outside contact to get clothing and a few other goods.

The biggest and most fundamental part of these communities was the workers. At first these were indentured servants. They were primarily men and worked from childhood until there twenties for little pay, at which point they were freed. The men were basically slaves for their early lives, and didn’t get much education. Once released, they couldn’t do much other than farm, so many did this. Unfortunately, prices of the primary crop, tobacco, were too low for many of them to make profits. Children of these servants often had no choice but to enter this mock slavery as well. The result was a very poor class and a very rich class, with very little chance for moving up in society.

The rift caused in white society by servants and owners was great. Hard feelings and grudges between mistreated servants and owners were prevalent.

These tensions were eventually relieved by an outside group, African slaves. Slaves were bought from Africa, and then served until their entire lives without pay and with little chance of becoming free. There was a monopoly on the slave trade and business of obtaining slaves from Africa and selling them in the New World. However, it was still cost effective for the plantation owners to buy large numbers of them. The practice of indentured servitude all but ended for this cheaper form of labor.

Over time, it became one’s race that made one a slave, and not if one was bought as such. This racism became part of that society, and remains one even today. Blacks were not allowed to participate in the government or have influence in society.

While it is surely not a commendable practice, the Chesapeake society of the 1600s relied on cheap and free labor to make a profit. Tobacco costs, as mentioned, were low, and huge fields with lots of workers were the only way to grow it for a living. Plantations defined the growth and evolution of both the economical and social aspects of 17th century Chesapeake society.

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