The Nature of the Farm: Explaining Different Methods of Feeding Enslaved People in the Antebellum South and British West Indies

Journal of Legal Studies, Submitted

Penn State Law Research Paper No. 08-2021

15 Pages Posted: 4 May 2021 Last revised: 12 Jan 2022

See all articles by Eleanor Marie Brown

Eleanor Marie Brown

The Pennsylvania State University

Ian Ayres

Yale University - Yale Law School; Yale University - Yale School of Management

Date Written: April 29, 2021


A plantation typically has two agricultural functions. The primary function is the production of the main cash crop, with cotton becoming dominant in much of the antebellum South and sugar cane being dominant in the West Indies. The secondary agricultural function is producing food to feed the enslaved labor.

This article focuses on two different models of feeding enslaved people, and how their differences may have helped abet the creation of a property-owning class of enslaved people. In the first model, primarily associated with the cotton, tobacco and rice plantations of antebellum South and the early sugar plantations of the British West Indies both functions were typically performed within one unit, the plantation. That is, the obligation to feed the enslaved person was executed by the plantation. In contrast, a system known as provisioning developed in the British West Indian colonies. Instead of feeding enslaved people through the plantation administration, the master allocated land to enslaved people to grow their own food. Over time, this land was understood in the wider community of both those enslaved and planters to be the “property” of the enslaved person. Thus, an enslaved person could “bequeath” land to their children, as long as their family remained with the plantation. Under the provisioning system, counterintuitively, enslaved people were both property themselves and the owners of property.

In the process, units developed by enslaved people aimed at fulfilling the food-provision function “spun off’ from the main plantation administration. Thus, while the plantation continued to produce the main cash crop, the production of food for enslaved people was essentially outsourced from the plantation to those enslaved. Although the primary purpose of farming for enslaved people was to ensure that the enslaved head-of-household and his family were fed, an enslaved person could also retain the cash proceeds of any excess food sold at weekend food markets.

This article offers an explanation both for why provisioning was adopted in West Indies, and why provisioning did not take hold in southern U.S. plantations. The key difference was that the increased difficulty of importing food to the West Indies necessitated that plantations provide their own food. This difference, combined with the high degree of absentee ownership in the West Indies (and a low opportunity cost of allocating land unsuitable for sugar production to enslaved people), made decentralized provisioning more efficient than centralized plantation production of food. . Provisioning was not adopted by antebellum plantations in the southern United States because they retained robust access to external Midwest food markets and they had lower prevalence of absentee ownership.

Coase’s key insight from his 1937 The Nature of the Firm article can also help us understand how firms are internally structured. Provisioning represents a kind of subcontracting with in the firm. Following Coase, we should expect to see such subcontracting when doing so economizes on transactions and agency costs. Provisioning sacrificed the plantations claims to surplus food, but in the West Indies such decentralized production could enhance incentives for enslaved people to produce their own food while economizing on the need for supervision.

Suggested Citation

Brown, Eleanor Marie and Ayres, Ian, The Nature of the Farm: Explaining Different Methods of Feeding Enslaved People in the Antebellum South and British West Indies (April 29, 2021). Journal of Legal Studies, Submitted, Penn State Law Research Paper No. 08-2021, Available at SSRN:

Eleanor Marie Brown (Contact Author)

The Pennsylvania State University ( email )

Lewis Katz Building, Bigler Street
University Park, PA 16802
United States
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Ian Ayres

Yale University - Yale Law School ( email )

P.O. Box 208215
New Haven, CT 06520-8215
United States
203-432-7101 (Phone)
203-432-2592 (Fax)

Yale University - Yale School of Management

135 Prospect Street
P.O. Box 208200
New Haven, CT 06520-8200
United States

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