RICE AND SLAVERY IN COLONIAL AMERICA
In honor of Black History Month, I thought I would repost this article I wrote a couple of years ago when my novel The Driver's Wife was first released.
When most Americans think of the Old South, they envision the cotton plantations of Gone with the Wind or Roots. Most think cotton was all the South produced. They might also think of tobacco growing. But I would wager few outside South Carolina think of rice.
My novel The Driver's Wife is set on a plantation in the Charleston area of South Carolina. During the 17th century, Charleston was Charles Town, and South Carolina was simply Carolina; the North and South Carolina we know today were one province controlled by a group of Englishmen known as the Lords Proprietors. My fictitious plantation, Leighlin, is like other 17th century plantations along the Ashley River—it produces a variety of goods, from fruits and vegetables to deer hides, beef, and naval stores. But it is also one of the region’s first plantations to grow rice.
Demonstration rice field at Middleton Place plantation near Charleston.
Today you may be familiar with a type of rice known as Carolina Gold. It was this specie of rice that made Colonial Carolina extremely rich. It’s the type grown in the photo above. However, before Carolina Gold was grown, other species were grown with various levels of success. My novel takes place in the early 1690’s, so it would not have grown the more famous specie.
“Nowhere in the Americas did rice play such an important economic role as in South Carolina,” writes author Judith A. Carney in her excellent book, Black Rice. “Rice and South Carolina share a history that led to the establishment of the crop early in its settlement and the colony’s growing emphasis on rice as a plantation crop by the end of the seventeenth century…. On the eve of the American Revolution…rice exports from South Carolina exceeded sixty million pounds annually.”
Rice is a labor-intensive crop, and the cheapest labor back then, of course, was enslaved peoples. In Carolina, the transplanted Englishmen enslaved local Indians as well as Africans brought from their home continent or from the Barbados sugar plantations that many of the planters left for the land-rich colonies of America. The planters mostly abandoned using Indians, citing a certain laziness compared to African laborers, as well as the fact that they were more likely to escape back to their local tribe. Africans had no such haven to which they could flee. Once in the wilderness of Carolina’s plantations, there was nowhere to go without immediate recapture and punishment.
Many of the slaves came from Africa’s “rice coast,” countries such as Senegal, Sierra Leone, and Liberia, fed by the Niger River, as well as other rivers that made rice production possible. While some Colonists may have claimed credit for introducing rice to Carolina, the more likely source was the slaves who were born and raised along the Rice Coast of Africa and provided the knowledge of rice cultivation that sugar cane plantation owners from Barbados would not have had.
“…before the outbreak of the American Civil War, an estimated 100,000 slaves were planting between 168,000 and 187,000 acres of wetlands to rice,” Carney writes. “Charleston…gloried in one of the greatest concentrations of wealth in the world…. About a hundred slaves accompanied the first settlers arriving in South Carolina from Barbados in 1670; within two years they formed one-fourth of the colony’s population, and by 1708 blacks outnumbered whites.”
The broad tidal rivers that flowed on either side of the Charles Town peninsula, the Ashley and Cooper Rivers (named after Anthony Ashley Cooper, the chief Lord Proprietor), were highways to the interior plantations. No roads yet existed in the wilderness. Rice was grown in fields adjacent to the brackish waterways, fed and flooded through trunk gates from inland swamps, then drained into the marshy rivers through more trunk gates like that pictured below. (The trunk gates of my novel’s era are more primitive—literally a cypress tree trunk hollowed out and buried in dykes that surround the fields.)
Slaves tended these fields in insufferable heat, tormented by clouds of insects and fearful of poisonous snakes.
Painting of rice cultivation; picture taken at Middleton Place plantation near Charleston.
One of the most unique things about Carolina slavery at the time of my novel was the task system of labor. The antebellum slavery most people are familiar with functioned differently—slaves worked from dawn to dusk everyday in work gangs. In the earlier task system, slaves were assigned a task each day, and when that task was completed, their workday was done. They were free to tend their own crops or visit friends on other plantations or hire themselves out for paid work. They also worked only during the morning on Saturdays and had Sundays off. On other days of the week, work was suspended during the hottest part of the day. This system remained in place until the Civil War. “The task labor system is probably of African origin,” Carney writes, “as it was already a feature of African slavery along the Upper Guinea Coast and its hinterland during the Atlantic slave trade.”
In my novel, rice culture not only provides the backdrop of the story but is used to show the struggles of enslaved people in early America. Without the blood and sacrifice of those Africans and their knowledge of rice cultivation, one of America’s greatest cities would never have risen above its meager beginnings and become the icon that it is today.