Sunday, December 20, 2020

The Trials and Tribulations of Tobacco in Colonial Virginia

I've been reading a biography of Landon Carter Sr. (1710-1778), a Virginia planter who left behind a famous diary. Its fame comes partly from his ambivalence toward the American Revolution; he was all for it when it was about more rights for white property owners, but when others started talking about freedom, notably his slaves and his daughters, he began to worry that it had been a mistake. More on that when I get around to writing a review.

But as you would expect the diary was mostly about his own life as a tobacco planter. The diary's description of tobacco planting is very rich, detailed, and made me anxious just to read it. Raising tobacco involved dozens of separate steps and failure at any one step could ruin the whole crop. An entirely typical passage from Landon's diary goes, "This is the eleventh day that it has rained successively. But why complain? Has not every crop this year been ruined thus? Whole fields of tobacco have fired away with the blight. . . ."

Landon Carter was very rich, but as a farmer he endured the same worries and risks faced by anyone who grew the valuable weed, and since he was rich what he wrote about it was preserved. (Our other good account of the process is by another very rich man, Thomas Jefferson.) The tobacco year began in November, when the recently-harvested fields were plowed and hoed into mounds. Then the mounds had to be covered with brush that was then burned, to reduce the number of insect eggs and increase the fertility of the soil. This had to be done before winter so that not a day was lost in the spring. I have spent many of my Novembers working outside in Virginia, and I can tell you that the fields are often a cold, muddy mess.

In December or January, the next year's tobacco seedlings were planted in special, protected beds. Too much rain would kill them, or too much frost; too little rain and they had to be hand-moistened with water carried in buckets from a well or creek. Immediately after sprouting they were very vulnerable to pests, especially tobacco "flies" (actually beetles) that sometimes destroyed all the seedlings, leaving planters bankrupt. This happened to Landon Carter in one of the years covered by the diary; he had the resources to immediately replant but that made the planting so late that the fall crop was well below average.

As soon as the ground could be worked in the spring, manure was dug into the mounds that had been prepared in the fall. (On Landon Carter's plantation, this involved about 1800 wagon loads of dung, distributed among 264,000 mounds.) Then the seedlings were transplanted to the mounds, another anxious time when too much or too little rain would kill the plants. 

As the plants grew they had to be constantly tended. Weeds had to be hoed down between the rows, and the plant had to be shaped by lopping the crown and removing undesirable side shoots so it would put all its energy into the main leaves. Later in the summer came the tobacco horn worms, huge, fat, ugly caterpillars that could consume a whole crop but were large enough that they could be plucked off and stomped on. They came in the tens of thousands, but enough human labor could still keep up with them.

Then came the anxious moment of choosing when to harvest, one of the most stressful times for any farmer. Tobacco's growing season was barely short enough to make it practical in Virginia, so every possible day was needed, especially if (as so often happened) anything delayed the spring planting. And yet if the tobacco froze, it was ruined. It was best if the tobacco was cut while dry, but if you waited too long for it to dry, it might freeze or rot or wilt.

When the moment was chosen, after anxious consultation among the planter, the overseer, and the senior slaves, the cutting began. A skilled man chopped the plants off at the base and left them to lie in place for just enough time to "render them pliable," usually a few hours. Then they were "skewered", a sharp stake run through the stem near the base. These tobacco stakes, hundreds of which seem to have been lying around everywhere on plantations, caused many injuries. The skewered tobacco was then hung over fences or specially prepared "scaffolds" and left hanging until the plants were thoroughly wilted. Again, too much rain at this stage could ruin them. Then they were carried to the tobacco barn and hung in the rafters, another dangerous operation partly because anyone who fell was likely to land on one of the sharp skewers. Tobacco barns or houses were specially made structures with slat sides something like a half open Venetian blinds, to let in the wind but keep out the rain. The plants hung in the house until dry. If the weather was dry and windy, this happened naturally, but if it was wet or cold the process had to be helped by building charcoal fires, which had to be constantly tended less they burn the barn down. (Eventually tobacco farmers switched to gas fires, and I have found several patent gas drying systems in old tobacco barns over the years, fascinating steampunk contraptions.) The people tending the drying tobacco were constantly sniffing for the smell of the dreaded rot, a fungus that would ruin the crop and could spread very rapidly through a whole tobacco house. If any was smelled, a search had to be made for the infected leaves so they could be burned.

After a month or so in the tobacco house the weed was dry. This was tested by stretching the leaves over the knuckles of a hand; it should be slightly elastic, like leather, and difficult to break. If it crumbled, it was worthless and had to be discarded. 

The tobacco was then "struck", that is, lowered from the rafters, then "bulked," piled on the floor to sweat out some of its moisture. At exactly the right moment the bulked leaves had to be stripped from the stems and rolled into "hands." This operation was so time-sensitive that it had to be done all night until complete, which involved bribing the slaves to do the extra work with extra food and liquor. (In Virginia, slaves could be whipped for not doing the standard work, but for anything extra they had to be paid in extra rations or time off.) Inferior leaves had to be "stemmed," removing the main central veins.

Then the bundled leaves were ready to be "prised," that is, packed into casks. Thomas Jefferson said this was done with a lever made from a tree trunk 20 feet (6m) long, weighted with hundreds of pounds of stones (see the top scene in the picture at top). The casks were packed until they weighed as much as a thousand pounds.

The casks were rolled to the nearest landing, put on boats, and taken to a tobacco warehouse to be inspected. If they passed (Landon Carter's always did), they could be sold.

Notice that by the time one year's crop was prised, the plowmen were already out preparing the ground for the next year's planting. There was no break.

The complexity of this process and the risk involved goes a long way to explaining why Virginia became a slave society. A single person simply could not do all the work necessary to raise a quality crop; even a household with three or four workers had a tough time. The returns to scale were significant, making large operations much more efficient than small ones. And if the crop failed, as it regularly did, small planters could be ruined and lose their land. The price also fluctuated widely, depending on American production and European demand. Only large, well-capitalized operations could ride out the frequent crises. Virginia therefore came to be dominated by large plantations with many workers, first indentured servants and then slaves.

Tobacco production plummeted in Virginia after slavery ended; the plantation system was wicked but highly productive, and not until modern tractors, fertilizers and insecticides did any other system equal it. Tobacco farming moved west in search of new lands in Kentucky and Tennessee, since the vast labor needed to maintain soil fertility (burning, manuring, etc.) proved impossible to do without unfree workers. Tobacco was eventually brought back in some parts of the state by new types of tobacco, South American guano, and other 19th-century technical advances. But the share croppers who raised most of it were terribly poor, probably poorer than the slaves on a plantation like Landon Carter's had been. It was simply a rough business for anyone to take on alone.

The nightmare cruelty of African Slavery in the New World was largely driven by demand for crops that were very difficult for small, independent farmers to raise: sugar, first of all, but then also tobacco, indigo, and rice.


G. Verloren said...

"Landon Carter was very rich, but as a farmer he endured the same worries and risks faced by anyone who grew the valuable weed, and since he was rich what he wrote about it was preserved."

Oh, so he not only worried that his crops might fail one year, but also that he would not have enough money to feed himself and his family over the winter of that year? Strange, being that he was apparently so very rich - one would think he could afford to weather a few losses or even suffer a total yearly planting failure now and again and still not be on the brink of starvation and death, like so many others...


La majestueuse égalité des lois, qui interdit au riche comme au pauvre de coucher sous les ponts, de mendier dans les rues, et de voler du pain!

G. Verloren said...

Reading all the steps involved in this labor intensive process, all I felt was seething indignation at the sheer avarice that led people to try to grow this plant in climates it wasn't suited for.

Nicotiana tabacum is a tropical plant from the Caribbean - it has no business being grown in cold and muddy pre-industrial Virginia, where the growing season is so much shorter, where planting is inherently at risk from frost or excessive rain without sufficient drainage, and where the local insects and fungi are so keen and well suited to ruin crops either in the fields or after harvests.

This is a plant which has no practical usage except the production of a luxury recreational drug that slowly kills people. And it was forcibly grown in a place it biologically was never meant to exist, at scales that were wildly unsustainable, at such an expense of human labor and misery as is flatly impossible to achieve with anything other than chattel slavery (or modern argricultural advances which negate the need for so insanely many manhours to be invested in the project).

These plantation owners could have grown countless other crops far more suited to the climate, producing something of far greater practicality and importance than cigars, doing so with staggeringly less risk, and requiring only a fraction of the toil and human misery to accomplish it.

But no - it wasn't enough for them to be successful and sustainable; to produce food or medicine instead of dangerous drugs; or even just to simply move their operations to parts of the world where the superior climate did not necessitate slave labor. They had to grow the crop that would get them the MOST rich, the MOST quick, and damn the consequences - particularly those for their "lessers".

If there's anything like a hell, I can only hope it has a special place for such men - perhaps where they spend eternity slaving away at all the tasks they forced their slaves to undertake in order to fatten their own bloated wallets; frostbite rotting away their bootless feet as they trudge through the frozen mud at planting, inspired by the sting of the lash; being buried under countless wagonloads of steaming and reeking manure; immeasurable swarms of beetles and caterpillars feasting upon their flesh rather than tobacco; being impaled over and over again upon an infinity of tobacco stakes; smothering to death in a haze of charcoal smoke while fruitlessly trying to sniff out the stench of rot whose source eternally eludes them; not one leaf of the wretched weed they grow ever failing to crumble to dust in their hands once dried...

David said...

Verloren's indignation is appropriate, but I confess my main reaction to this post was that I was utterly fascinated. It is always amazing to me that humans figured these long, complicated processes out. The preparation of wool from shearing to cloth is also bewildering. Who figured out fulling? And then there's leather tanning. Who looked at a pile of skins and said to themselves, "Hey, I bet urine would be good for this!"