The hunger plantation

Augustine Sedgewick

This paper uses new evidence from the coffee trade to rethink the role of hunger in the plantation production of tropical commodities after global emancipation.
One aspect of the relationship of hunger to capitalist commodity production is well known. By the conventional analysis, the hunger that replaced enslavement as the dominant factor in labor discipline on tropical plantations was a consequence of land privatization. This standard analysis locates the origins of hunger in a prior transformation of the means of subsistence into the means of production—“primary accumulation.”

But I show that hunger was not imposed once and for all with land privatization. “Primary accumulation” was a necessary but not sufficient condition for the long-run reproduction of a social class comprised of people who were compelled to work in order to eat. Instilling a reliable hunger to work that could be accessed through markets for wage labor also required what I describe as the plantation production of hunger itself. This took shape as ongoing and focused project to contain energy fit for human consumption within private property lines. By this project, hunger was “cultivated” across time and space alongside plantation commodities. Like commodity production, hunger production was an agricultural and economic enterprise into which vast funds of capital, technical knowledge, and managerial power were invested.

I support my argument with unprecedented archival evidence on coffee production: the private business files of James Hill, the son of a Manchester industrialist who left England in 1888, the year of Brazilian emancipation, to try his hand at coffee growing in El Salvador. Perhaps drawing on his father’s success in Manchester, Hill managed his plantations in precise, technical, innovative ways that were designed to route the land’s potential energy into coffee rather than sources of energy fit for human consumption. Hill used the monopoly of energy and calories he achieved to govern the work of coffee production. He produced coffee and hunger in proportionate amounts, simultaneously feeding his trees and starving his workers.

My concept of the plantation production of hunger reframes the problem of “world hunger.” I suggest that the caloric and nutritive gap between the global north and the global south is not a result of the “underdevelopment” of the global tropics but instead has been fundamental to the creation of certain types of robust capitalist economies there. This analysis cuts against the developmentalist assumption that intensified capitalist production and exchange is the solution for rather than the cause of global hunger and poverty. It also puts a broad historical frame around the basic importance of the politics of food and hunger to the anticolonial and anti-capitalist social movements that have arisen in opposition to export-led economic development across the global south. Indeed, when the people who worked on James Hill’s plantations organized against coffee in El Salvador and opened an armed struggle that endured for much of the twentieth century, their organizational alliance with international communism reflected nothing so much as the fact that they had been starved.