Patrick Luck, Replanting a Slave Society: The Sugar and Cotton Revolutions in the Lower Mississippi Valley (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2022). Ebook or hardcover: $49.50 USD.
by Evan C. Rothera
In the mid-1790s, tobacco and indigo cultivation fell apart in the lower Mississippi valley and slavery looked like it was on the brink of collapse. However, by 1811, the people living in this area had surpassed the economic prosperity of the 1790s. This occurred due to the sugar and cotton revolutions that took place in the region. Patrick Luck, currently Assistant Professor of History at Florida Polytechnic University, seeks to “explain and analyze how these commodity revolutions were made and how they changed the direction of the region’s urban and rural histories” (4). Although historians have emphasized the importance of cotton during the second slavery, Luck argues that both sugar and cotton were integral to this transformation and he focuses on how elites used three technological systems – cotton cultivation, sugar production, and the international and internal slave trades – to remake the region.
Luck begins with the history of the lower Mississippi valley. The Pointe Coupee Conspiracy of 1795, a slave rebellion, shook the region. Elites were particularly frightened because an investigation “implicated several whites as having encouraged the enslaved” (28). Elite fears led them to curtail the slave trade into Louisiana. Furthermore, the tobacco economy collapsed and planters abandoned indigo production. Cultivators had few alternative commodities to produce and, by the mid-1790s, the region was in a full-blown economic crisis, a far cry from the prosperity of the early years of the decade.
Luck devotes one chapter each to the three technological systems that helped elites revitalize the region – cotton cultivation, sugar production, and the international and internal slave trades. On September 10, 1795, prominent residents of the Natchez district gathered to see “the second public demonstration of the first Eli Whitney-style gin built in the lower Mississippi valley” (39). The introduction of this machine, Luck asserts, represented a turning point in the region. Planters and merchants jumped at the chance to own or use cotton gins and people throughout the region adopted cotton cultivation. Consequently, by the time of the Louisiana Purchase, “cotton was the dominant commercial crop throughout much of the lower Mississippi valley” (40). Cotton cultivators ultimately “made their own luck by quickly adopting cotton and the gin and adopting, adapting, and improving these technologies and other technologies to develop a successful system of cotton cultivation” (68), a system that relied on enslaved labor.
Of the two crops – cotton and sugar – sugar was the more lucrative and “produced even greater excitement and higher profit margins than did cotton” (71). Sugar was not new to the region when the sugar revolution began in the mid-1790s, but planters had to work to adapt sugar to subtropical Louisiana and the crop required more capital than cotton. That said, it was not long before the region saw a rapid increase in sugar production. Sugar had disastrous effects on the lives of enslaved people and, from their perspective, the crop “was like a cancer spreading across the landscape of the early nineteenth-century lower Mississippi valley” (100). Ultimately, “sugar proved to be a profitable crop that mostly benefited the region’s largest planters and, alongside the more widely adopted cotton, helped to drive the region’s agricultural commodity boom” (102).
Throughout the chapters on cotton and sugar, Luck examines, whenever possible, the experiences of enslaved people whose labor grew the crops. The chapter on the final technological system, the slave trades, explores how enslavers “augmented their labor forces via the internal and international slave trades” (15). Regional white residents were not passive recipients of the slave trade; they worked to direct the trade toward their region, since their new crops relied on the labor of enslaved people. Importantly, unlike the cotton and sugar technological systems, “the slave trades were directly influenced and structured by governmental action, with governments closing and reopening the slave trades and at times regulating them” (107). Enslavers and merchants brought enslaved people from other parts of the U.S. into the lower Mississippi valley in increasing numbers. Enslaved people, Luck observes, adapted and resisted at the same time. Ultimately, the slave trades “transformed a creolized enslaved population into one that was Africanized, Americanized, and diverse” (134).
The final chapter of the book analyzes the events leading up to and surrounding the 1811 German Coast Insurrection. The test of the transformations of the region came with the German Coast Insurrection of 1811, “the largest slave revolt ever to occur in North America” (136). By the 1810s, the region’s elite had attained even more prosperity than tobacco and indigo cultivators had in the 1790s. However, this prosperity, fueled by sugar and cotton, necessitated an ever-increasing population of enslaved people. The German Coast Insurrection occurred because of the dramatic increase in the number of enslaved people as well as the brutal treatment they received from planters. The German Coast Insurrection did not succeed. Elites suppressed the revolt and employed grisly punishments to make an example of some participants. Critically, one generation earlier the Pointe Coupee Conspiracy caused the elite to curtail the slave trade. In 1811, in contrast, flush with their victory, triumphant elites “signaled their continued commitment to slavery through the purchase and enslaved people and plantations” (162). In other words, planters believed “they could continue the basic course they had laid out over the previous two decades with little fear that the enslaved population would successfully waylay them” (163).
As Luck correctly observes, accounts of the second slavery tend to foreground cotton. Replanting a Slave Society insists on the importance of sugar as well as cotton in explaining the transformation that took place in the lower Mississippi valley as elites employed technological systems to remake the region. Anyone interested in slavery and race in the Americas, the history of Spanish and French Louisiana, the history of technology, and the colonial and antebellum United States, should read this book.
Evan C. Rothera is an assistant professor of history at the University of Arkansas – Fort Smith.