Seasonality in the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade

Stephen D. Behrendt (Victoria University of Wellington), 2008

Agricultural calendars and labor requirements

Agricultural production requires different numbers of farmer-hours, “labor inputs,” at various stages in plants’ growth cycles. Labor intensity differs by the type of crop and the ecosystem in which the plant lives. Crops planted annually in shifting agricultural communities required heavy labor inputs clearing land and sowing seed. In regions prone to unexpected drought, all available people hurried to sow during the season’s first rains. After the planting season, families weeded and controlled insect and bird pests—work less dependent upon physical strength. Some crops required long workweeks to transplant shoots from seedbeds to fields. On both sides of the Atlantic, farmers worked intensively during dry season cane, fruit, berry, leaf, or cereal harvests.

African crops require varying numbers of farmer-hours during land clearing, planting (“crop establishment”), weeding, and harvesting/threshing. Sorghum and millet, often inter-cropped, demanded intense labor during the summer rains when the cereals were planted and weeded. Threshing the cereals demanded fewer worker-hours. In the coastal West African rice region, from July to early October villagers cut mangrove trees, built dikes, and transplanted rice to paddies. Labor demand intensity is highest during the October/early November harvest. Rice is the most labor-consuming African crop. Men and women plant maize each year; along the Gold Coast and in the Bight of Benin the spring and fall equinoxes marked the beginning of the planting weeks. Weeding was the most labor-intensive activity in maize cultivation, but, as with other crops, children helped weed plants and eradicate pests. Growing yams in the Biafran hinterland requires the greatest labor inputs during the clearing/planting (January-April) and harvesting (August-October) seasons, and the fewest hours of crop work during spring/summer weeding.

New World merchant-planters’ demand for workers increased during dry seasons north and south of the equator, when crops ripened, dried, and needed to be harvested. Sugar was the most important slave-produced crop, the one with the longest crop cycle, and the one that placed the greatest short-term demands on workers. Hours worked in cane-holing, trenching, and cutting tripled those hours worked by modern factory hands. Intensive tobacco work occurred when men and women transplanted tobacco stalks to the fields and they cut and stripped tobacco leaves. In the rice-growing Carolina/Georgia Lowcountry, Surinam and Maranhão, labor intensity increased when workers sowed seed, hoed wet fields, and harvested and processed rice. Planters throughout the Plantation Americas hired seasonal workers (“hired slaves”) to help harvest and process cash crops.

Rainfall, crop type and agricultural calendars Provisioning-slaving seasons
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