The Myth of the Peaceful Plantation

THE WHITEWASHING OF HISTORY

By Wayne Curtis

A few years ago I was working with a family that wanted to build a rum distillery on their land—a 2,000-acre sugar plantation that their ancestors had acquired in the 1850s. They insisted to me from the outset that it not be called a sugar plantation but rather a “sugar farm”—with no mention of plantation in marketing materials, despite the fact that for more than 150 years that’s what everyone called the place. They were very aware the name was problematic—with its longstanding connections to slavery and the savage mistreatment of humans. They thought it best to avoid it.

I argued against this. Keep “plantation” I said. The history of rum and sugar is inextricably tied with slavery, and to start calling it a farm is whitewashing. A name change won’t hide the fact that your forebears profited from slavery. Your customers aren’t stupid. They will surely wonder, what else are you hiding from us? Better to face up to one’s ignoble past, let everyone know you’re aware of it, make amends to the public as best you can.

The family never built the distillery. And in the years since, I’ve had the chance to rethink my thinking.

“Plantation” first cropped up in the English language in the 1400s. It has since traveled far and wide, accumulating baggage along the way. In the past century, that baggage has been covered with enough colorful and distracting stickers—heritage! nostalgia! graciousness!—that much of society was enchanted enough not to bother examining what was inside. That’s over. We are all now TSA agents, taking out and scrutinizing the unmentionables.

Recently Plantation Rum—part of the France-based firm that also produces Pierre Ferrand Cognac—announced that it was going to drop its old name and relaunch under a new identity. Like the Washington Redskins or Aunt Jemima, the times had caught up with and overtaken the nomenclature. Plantation Rum would be no longer.

“We produce rum to make people happy and share great moments and support lasting social change,” a spokesperson for Pierre Ferrand replied by email to inquiries I’d sent. “The world is changing, and we are changing with it…We understand now, as the world is looking at itself through a different lens, the definition of the word plantation is associated with slavery.”

That seems obvious, but the word wasn’t always linked to the horrors of enslavement. Plantation is derived from a classical Latin word meaning “propagation.” By the 1500s a plantation simply meant something akin to a farm—a place where things were planted and propagated.

It’s been used to describe various other enterprises. It also meant a colony, “usually in a conquered or dominated country” as the Oxford English Dictionary has defined it. Rhode Island’s official name is “State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations,” which dates to 1636. (In November, the state will vote on a referendum whether to keep the name, or drop the latter part.)

Starting in the 17th century “plantation” also referred to “an area planted with trees, esp. for commercial purposes.” I spend much of the summer in Maine, where I live on a plantation—it’s officially appended to my village’s name, as it is in 34 other communities in the state, mostly sparsely settled and rural. (Maine is apparently the only state in which “plantation” is a common term for a minor civil division). In the Canadian island province of Newfoundland, mainland ports dominating by fishing were once called plantations, with the ocean evidently being the farm.

By the 19th century the word took on a more enduring meaning as a large-scale farm. Plantation was to farm what factory was to workshop—a place that implied that many workers were needed to keep the cogs moving. (The 1913 Merriam-Webster dictionary defined it as “a large estate appropriated to the production of the more important crops, and cultivated by laborers who live on the estate.”) There were Patagonian pine plantations, African rubber plantations, Indian tea plantations, and in the American South, there were abundant cotton, tobacco and sugar plantations.

Plantations were a foundational institution in the South, the units upon which the regional economy was built. According to the National Humanities Center there were some 46,000 plantations across the American South at their peak. And where there were plantations there were certainly people who were enslaved, as slavery was the engine that generated the output that created the wealth. “Rice Plantation and Prime Negroes” for sale, read a typical real estate ad in Charleston in 1839, noting the package also included “seven double Negro Houses and Drivers House”—amenities ticked off like factory loading docks today.
The plantation economy collapsed after the Civil War, and by and large plantations were rendered obsolete. More modest plantation homes fell into disrepair and disappeared; the grander homes from the wealthier estates struggled on. And those that survived the Reconstruction and Redemption eras soon found a new role in a new industry: Nostalgia.

Railroads were expanding rapidly nationwide in the late 19th century, as an expanding middle class embraced tourism. A flood of inexpensive books and magazines featured images of old plantation houses wreathed in live oaks and Spanish moss. Northerners became as enchanted as Southerners in the lost world of the Old South, a fascination that would continue well into the next century, culminating in the publication of the novel Gone with the Wind in 1936, followed by the blockbuster 1939 movie based on it.

Just as agricultural plantations were ruthlessly efficient in managing slavery, nostalgic plantations proved equally efficient at eliminating all mention of it. Slavery was either ignored, or plantation guides were instructed to talk about the fine relationships the people who were enslaved had with their owners—always “treated like family.” Sometimes efforts to manufacture nostalgia went badly awry, at least in hindsight. The city of Natchitoches, Louisiana, for instance, erected a bronze statue of a Black man “with hat in hand” over an inscription noting that it had been erected “in grateful recognition of the arduous and faithful services of the Good Darkeys of Louisiana.”

The concept of the gracious plantation devoid of slavery was heavily promoted nationwide. A review of a popular 1929 book about Virginia plantations compared southern plantations to the “Chateaux of France” and the “Castles of the Rhine.” In the 1930s, garden clubs in Natchez, Mississippi, urged visitors to “Come to Natchez where the Old South still lives,” and touted their “before the war” theme featuring “romantic plantation homes, old-fashioned balls, Negro spirituals and flower gardens.” In 1948, Oneida Silverware rolled out its Romantic Plantation pattern.

The focus was on the beauty, charm and graciousness of plantation life. For the majority of Americans, plantations became less about misery and death, and increasingly about tourism and weddings to remember for a lifetime. “Share your first kiss as man and wife under the Spanish moss-laced, live oaks lining the grounds of a breathtaking plantation,” read promotional copy put out by the state of Louisiana. A 2016 study mentioned in the Journal of Southern Linguistics showed that a Google search of the word “plantation” connected to weddings turned up 17.2 million responses, compared to 834,000 for “plantation” and slavery.

Of course, despite the marketing push, for many “plantation” never lost its link to slavery. The regal houses persisted in historic memory as the source of inhumanity and injustice, of high infant mortality and low life expectancy. For many African-Americans, plantations remained an emblem of dominance of white over Black. As the singer Billie Holiday put it concisely in her autobiography: “You can be up to your boobies in white satin, with gardenias in your hair and no sugar cane for miles, but you can still be working on a plantation.”
Yet no matter how often “plantation” was whitewashed, the stains of slavery continued to bleed through. And in recent months, society has apparently come to terms with the fact that whitewashing doesn’t make it pure. Let the stain remain, the thinking now seemed to be; demote the word.

Last year retired sportscaster Walter Wolf was arrested for wrenching off the word “plantation” from the gates of his Florida community. The town of Plantation, Florida, is currently debating a name change. And this past summer Plimoth Plantation—a living history museum in Massachusetts depicting an early Puritan settlement—announced it would drop “plantation” from its name and rebrand as Plimoth Patuxet. The idea was to better reflect the Native Americans who were originally here, but the change also quietly put to pasture a troublesome word.

And plantations have lately grown in disfavor with wedding planners. Last year, both The Knot and Pinterest—two popular platforms for researching wedding venues—reworked their search functions to effectively demote plantations as destinations. “Weddings should be a symbol of love and unity. Plantations represent none of those things,” Pinterest said in a written statement it provided earlier this year to the Post & Courier in Charleston.

“Soon the word plantation will be erased from history books, just like we were warned by Orwell,” groused one alarmed Boston.com commenter, about the Plimoth Plantation change. I don’t recall George Orwell’s warnings about “plantation,” but I’ve come to believe an eraser might be called for.

If I were again advising that family interested in setting up a rum distillery on a former plantation, I’d still argue that they not shy away from their grim heritage. But I now would agree that they keep the word plantation off labels and marketing material. Whether they intend it or not, it’s employing a term that’s thoroughly bleached and whitewashed, a word that had transitioned from being authentic and true to their history, to one that’s more about inauthentic iconography and a version of history filtered through the soft lens of Hollywood.

Plantation Rum’s founder, Alexandre Gabriel, proprietor and master blender at Maison Ferrand, has said in the past that when growing up in France the word “plantation” simply meant “farm.” He named the brand “without any malice or ill will, and never with any intent to make anyone feel marginalized,” the company’s statement said.

Plantation Rum hasn’t yet announced its new name. “As you can imagine, it is a significant, important and momentous undertaking for a family operation like ours,” the company said in its statement. “As soon as we have agreed on this name evolution and it has cleared all global availability and legal approvals, we will make our announcement.”

Any student of lexicography knows that words are never fixed—meanings evolve, sometimes adding definitions, at other times subtracting. And not infrequently words simply fall out of use, reflecting broader shifts in technology, culture or ethics. Which is exactly how it should be.

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