Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Brown on Property Ownership among Former Slaves

Eleanor Marie Brown, George Washington University Law School, has posted On the Evolution of Property Ownership Among Former Slaves, Newly Freedmen, which is forthcoming in the
Journal of Law, Property, and Society.
One might think of the slave property system of provision grounds (or “provisioning”) in the West Indies as a happy coalition of interests between planters (who wanted to provide slaves incentives to feed themselves), Westminster (who wanted well-fed slaves to ensure the productivity of the sugar sector, a hefty tax contributor to the Exchequer), and slaves (who saw the advantages of a system which ensured that they were fed and encouraged private enterprise). Yet while this was generally true, notably, not all members of the plantocracy viewed these developments as positive. An outspoken minority feared that the roots of the ultimate failure of plantation society would lie in the slave provisioning system. Moreover, they pointed to the resistance of the plantocracy in the U.S. South to private enterprise among slaves as the preferable course. The views of this outspoken minority ultimately proved prescient, as a struggle over true ownership of provisioning plots played out against the backdrop of Emancipation in the British colonies.

I focus on the era immediately after British Emancipation. During slavery planters were willing to grant slaves provisioning plots because the planters themselves exacted a benefit from doing so; they essentially “outsourced” the job of feeding the slaves to the slaves themselves. Once labor became free, this benefit vanished. Planters began to wonder how to handle ex-slaves farming provision grounds. Although provision grounds were de facto (perceived to be) slave property, typically these lands were instead de jure planter property (plots at the edge of the plantations for which the planters held title).

The issue became particularly acute in the aftermath of Emancipation, when planters sought to “tie” former-slaves-turned-freedmen to the plantations to secure a reliable workforce. Newly freed, the former slaves had no obligation to accept planters’ “offers” of employment on the plantations.

Property acquisition during slavery (when there were no formal protections) turned out to be singularly important in determining who continued to remain in the employ of the plantation post-Emancipation. The irony is that the extensive nature of the provisioning system (which acculturated slaves to a form of “property-and-contract-lite”) made it less likely that ex-slaves continued to remain in the employ of the planters once leaving became a viable choice. West Indian freedmen who already had a taste of property ownership were typically not enamored with long-term plantation employment.

Following this logic, one might predict that planters in the U.S. South would ultimately prove more successful in maintaining a long-term plantation-like society (even after the abolition of slavery) than their West Indian counterparts because they never allowed provisioning to develop. This prediction is spot-on. In particular, the early demise of status relationships that undergirded plantation society in the West Indies had much to do with the general failure of share tenancy (and its most popular iteration, sharecropping) in the West Indies.

In a system of sharecropping, a landowner allows a tenant to use the land in return for a share of the crops produced on the land. This significantly reduces the strain that up-front labor costs place on a plantation’s cash-flow. Although now most widely associated in the popular American imagination with the U.S. South, sharecropping has a long historical heritage that pre-dates Southern plantation society. Sharecropping was attractive to the West Indian planter for the same reason that it was attractive to the Southern planter – primarily as a mechanism of tying slaves to the plantations while saving on labor costs.

In summary, both planters in the West Indies and the U.S. South sought to institutionalize sharecropping arrangements. But it is largely because of the provisioning system that West Indian planters fail in their efforts, while Southern planters succeed. West Indian slaves opted instead in large numbers to use the money that they had accumulated from contracting at food markets during slavery to buy their own land and become de jure property owners.

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