[Back] [Forward] [Contents] [Home]

4.2 Example 2 – Slavery and the landscape

Another archaeological example illustrates several cognitive behaviors which can be modelled with spatial proxies (Whitley 2002b). Between the 1730s and 1860s an economically successful 'rice empire' evolved in the Coastal Plain region of South Carolina and Georgia, based on the application of slavery to the management of tidal marshes. Rice plantations required the use of large numbers of enslaved Africans and African-Americans. As many as a thousand slaves might at any one time be under the management of a single overseer, and perhaps a few slave drivers. Unlike the upland cotton plantations, where a single person might oversee only a small group of slaves and direct their labour from sun-up to sun-down (known as the gang system), the peculiarities of rice agriculture demanded a unique style of slave labour control. This was known as the task system.

Using the task system to manage slave labour was an outgrowth of the cognitive interaction between slaves and plantation owners. Rice agriculture involved a heavy investment in labour over very short periods of time, and across large expanses of terrain. Given the lack of incentives for hard work under any system of coerced labour, the individual slave would use every opportunity possible to avoid it. In a system where the number of required slaves is large, the expanse of terrain within which they are working is wide, and the available overseers or drivers are few, the chances of any individual slave avoiding coerced labour is extremely good. This potential for work avoidance can be simulated with the spatial proxy variables of visibility and distance (Figure 8). Visibility is directly causally related to the ability to avoid work; any area where a slave can avoid the detection of the overseer provides him or her with the opportunity to reduce their labour. Distance (or cost distance in highly variable terrain) is indirectly causally related since work cannot be avoided merely by increasing the distance from the overseer, but increased distance is statistically correlated to decreasing visibility, and therefore increased ability to avoid detection.

Map showing no labour management
Figure 8: No labour management system

Map showing gang labour management
Figure 9: Gang labour management system

In response to the slaves' increased ability to avoid work on a rice plantation, the plantation owners had several options (Figure 9). First, they could increase the number of overseers and drivers available to minimise the opportunities for slaves to avoid detection. Second, they could organise labour groups into more closely aggregated units. Or, third, they could reduce the number of slaves being managed. The first option is prohibitively expensive, while the second and third options decrease the amount of acreage which can be tended and harvested. Instead, plantation owners made a cognitive decision to assign tasks to slaves on an individual basis without direct supervision, yet keyed to an understanding of what amount of labour was expected within a given time frame. Punishment could always be administered later if the tasks were found to be incomplete, since it was known to whom the tasks were assigned at the outset. This reduced the immediate and direct punishment of slaves in the field, eliminated their ability to avoid work altogether (regardless of their potential to avoid detection), and allowed free time if the work was completed quickly. Under the task system the proxy variables no longer represent the ability to avoid work (Figure 10).

Map showing task labour management
Figure 10: Task labour management system

An agent-based perspective on interpreting this particular cognitive decision-making suggests that the plantation owner understood and directly manipulated the slaves' cognitive landscapes to achieve his economic aims. From the perspective of the individual slave it altered his/her perceptions of their place in the landscape and it created additional barriers to avoiding work in general. In contrast, a communal perspective suggests additional interesting interpretations. The decision to employ the task system by the plantation owner cannot be seen in isolation from the choices and decisions made by other plantation owners. Though they did not form a typical 'community' that acted and interacted as such with each other on all levels, they did have strong social and kinship ties between them. The task system itself may have arisen as the invention of an individual plantation owner, but it was very much within the context of the economic success of all rice plantations and thus represented the generalised cognitive behaviour of a community of plantation owners.

The slaves responded in a communal fashion as well. Increased independence from direct supervision allowed the enhancement of social and gender identities within their own families and communities. Their response to a lack of ability to avoid coerced labour directly led to an increase in other ways of indirectly altering the labour they were expected to produce. This may have taken the form of avoidance through injury or illness, as well as lobbying the overseer or plantation owner to reduce the assigned tasks using the argument they were excessive. Although each case could be seen as individual behaviour, together they represented a communal adaptive response.

[Back] [Forward] [Contents] [Home]

© Internet Archaeology URL: http://intarch.ac.uk/journal/issue16/3/4.2.html
Last updated: Thur Nov 11 2004