The environmental history of the southeastern United States — as in many parts of the “New World” — was irrevocably changed by the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. European colonization decimated Indigenous and Native communities, and the need for resources and cheap labor drove economic growth as the world entered the Industrial Revolution. While the landscape was already undergoing monumental changes, as slaves arrived from the dread of the Middle Passage, forests disappeared, swamps were drained, and mountains of soil were eroded away. In their place came new settlements and rows of crops like cotton that required exploiting the tides and twisting rivers and streams to water fields. These crops exhausted the soils of its nutrients, further increasing erosion, but planters and slave owners simply packed up and moved to new fertile regions, moving the boundary across landscapes, and deepening its impact.
As I was trying to hammer down a research focus as a graduate student at the University of Georgia, I thought that there must be data suggesting slavery’s potential long-term impacts on the environment. Being a geoscientist and archaeologist, I assumed there must be physical and chemical evidence of these activities. My suspicions only grew as I read through historical accounts and summaries. As a Black person, I became frustrated by the lack of research that presented the data I was looking for. More than 200 years of forced labor that spread from the Virginias, affecting life in each of the then British Colonies, and sparked a Civil War, but so little is known about its impact on the environment. Even as we’ve learned how our impacts as a species has altered our planet, the bodies that helped build the U.S. were separated from this story. These feelings and ideas have stayed with me, even now as a geoscience PhD student at Baylor University.
It’s not complete, but historians, social scientists, and other scholars have documented many aspects of slavery. An individual plantation may have a registry of the enslaved community, crop yields, profits, or even how often the plantation changed owners. There are missing records and gaps, especially in the archaeological record, but these studies have provided a glimpse into the lives of enslaved people and planters. More importantly, there’s a relatively steady stream of research. Yet basic questions detailing how these communities altered the physical environment remain unanswered.
How much did enslaved communities alter these environments? Did the soils enslaved communities were forced to exhaust ever recover? How did intensive agriculture–which had only been practiced in select Indigenous and Native American societies–affect soil chemistry and nutrient cycling? If antebellum plantations required the clearing of forests, then how much carbon in those landscapes was lost due to deforestation? What about the effect of erosion? Could we estimate the number of ecosystems lost due to plantation agriculture? If we could measure these impacts, then how would that change our understanding of the modern landscape?
But these aren’t simple questions. The environment is complex, dynamic. Defining and using the appropriate methods takes time. Plus, these are events that happened more than a century ago and on a relatively short timeline compared to other events in Earth history. Agriculture activity tends to mix soils and trying to parse out which soils are related to which human actions adds more complications. Historical plantations along the coast are also under threat due to climate change, while modern development threatens others. Not to mention that society is still trying to figure out how to approach topics related to slavery.
As I started to ask these questions, I learned about the trickle of research into these questions. They’ve provided a glimpse into the answers we could gain from using geoscientific methods applied to plantations. Research by Kemp et al. (2020) revealed the increase of erosion due to anthropogenic impacts across North America as European colonization spread. Daniel Richter has used links between soils and ecology to understand how humans have changed the soils of the Southern Piedmont of the United States, particularly as it relates to cotton agriculture. Wells et al. (2018) used geoscience and soil science methods to determine the historical impacts of agriculture on a plantation on the island of Antigua, revealing changes in soil chemistry after historical agriculture began in the 1700s. And new research from scholars like Dr. Suzanne Pierre, a Black ecologist, biogeochemist, and National Geographic Explorer, who founded the Critical Ecology Lab are looking to blur the boundaries between fields to comprehend both societal and natural science questions related to plantation agricultural impacts on the island of St. Croix of the Virgin Islands.
Plantations are snapshots of human-environment interactions–they represent a moment in time when the global economies of today industrialized with profound effects on the environment. Yet, while our current understanding rightfully focuses on the societal impacts of slavery, bringing stories of resilience and perseverance of individuals and entire communities to the forefront, we’ve separated them from the physical environment. In doing so, our understanding of the environmental history of regions from the Southeastern United States, to the Caribbean, and even to South America has been buried. It’s time we uncovered it.
About the Author
Jordan serves as the founding President of The Black Science Coalition and Institute (B-SCI), a nonprofit that seeks to foster scientific interest, research, skepticism, objectivity, knowledge, and innovation in black and historically underrepresented communities. He received a master’s in anthropology at UGA and is currently a Ph.D. student in geoscience at Baylor University. His research uses geological methods to examine the long-term environmental impacts of slavery.