Despite observations of rice cultivation along the West African coast from the earliest[15thcentury]Portuguese voyages, remarkably, until the twentieth century no scholar suggested the crop might have been established prior to the arrival of Europeans. Prejudicial views toward Africans precluded consideration that rice farming might be indigenous or Africans capable of developing the irrigated systems Europeans found south along the coast from the Gambia river…
There is debate about how rice first came to America; some scholars believe that it came with European colonists who knew of its cultivation elsewhere in the world and had been eating some genus of it for centuries. Other more recent scholarship, like Judith Carney (quoted above) suggests that the people who were forcibly removed from their African homelands brought with them not only the seed, but the skills and knowledge required to cultivate it, as they traversed the deadly Atlantic triangle trade routes that saw them disembark in vast numbers in the Caribbean and along the southern coast of the British Colonies. Almost certainly the grain was brought on board ships as food for kidnapped Africans – something familiar for the newly enslaved to subsist on – but was it also brought along with the intention to plant? Very likely so. But how much do we really know about the innovation of rice agriculture, and its effects on Colonial America?
It has been said that the construction of the southern colonial landscape into the tapestry of rice fields that once dominated it was a rival for the construction of the Great Pyramids at Giza in Egypt; from the sheer numbers of people required, to the movement of considerable amounts of raw materials. Can you imagine the vast amount of labor, and the enormous workforce required, to transform such a landscape? One that continues to persist today? This analogy of the labor required by the institution of slavery in the Southern colonies just to get the crop growing is becoming more well-known by the day. What is perhaps less well-known is the affect that the rice industry had on the development of the nation.
The cultivation of rice as a cash crop in the colonial South was not just an industrial enterprise. It was a singularly devastating endeavor; one that shaped the future of the citizenry of the United States. Other crops were grown throughout the colonies, many with the forced labor of kidnapped Africans (and later generations of captive-born African Americans), but none were so formative of an entire geographical region as the rice crop. From the extensive earth movement required to create the fields and dikes, to the relentless attention the plant’s development required, the commercialization of rice as an American commodity was in a class all its own. Scholars such as Peter Wood have examined the phenomenon that was the rice industry – something he describes as having grown haltingly and slowly over the first generation of European settlement in Carolina. However, once the crop was established, its dominance was assured. Wood writes, “The fact that the mastery of rice paralleled closely in time the emergence of a black majority in the colony’s population has not been lost upon scholars of the early South.”One of those early scholars went so far as to imply that in fact, that haltingly slow path that rice took on its path to being the dominant crop sped up once new avenues of procuring enslaved labor opened up.
It seems to make sense that with the introduction of a labor-intensive crop, there would be increase in the procurement of that labor. Every British colony was either actively or passively complicit in the triangle trade, whether building the ships that transported captives, or filling those ships with objects to trade for people, or (as were the planters of Carolina) the end purchasers of those captives. The attitude that the Carolina planters had, that producing the crop and growing its scale were the most important aspect of their pursuits, is telling; it shaped the face of the colonies, creating a black majority by the mid-18thcentury, and producing a number of long-reaching consequences. Because the population so quickly became a majority of those who were in bondage, the resulting outcomes were unsurprising; slave revolts (none entirely successful), attempts at self-emancipation (many of which were successful), and some of the most restrictive slave laws and codes of any colony. The wealthy enslavers, most of whom had come from the sugar plantations of Barbados, had to address a number of secondary challenges in order to have the reward that Carolina Gold eventually yielded.
Sometimes, an accurate assessment of history needs the long lens of time to allow it to come into focus, but the emphasis on rice and its importance to the Carolinas was known even as it was growing and changing the commerce of the world. Before Americans were whispering about rebelling against King George III and declaring Independence, agriculturalist James Glen wrote, “The only Commodity of Consequence produced in South Carolina is Rice, and they reckon it as much their staple Commodity as Sugar is to Barbadoes [sic]and Jamaica, or Tobacco to Virginia and Maryland.”
You can learn about how rice is grown at Middleton Place – there is a demonstration rice field that is often planted in the spring, tended through the summer, and harvested in the fall. You can check out these Plugged In To History episodes from last year about planting and tending rice, and processing the crop once it has been harvested:
You can come out for a program, like the one we’re having on Saturday, July 31, 2021 from 10-3! We are excited to offer many opportunities to examine the technical side of rice cultivation.
In order to understand all of the ways that rice, and its industry have influence the development of a nation, however, more research is required. The process of cultivating Carolina Gold is complex, back-breaking, and genius. While people of African descent are beginning to be acknowledged as the originators of the seed in this country, they are still little involved in conversations about how the crop was adapted to the climate and landscape of the Carolinas. Stay tuned to our blogs and social media as we tease out more and more meaning from rice – both its cultural influences and how it helped people retain their identities.
Carney, Judith A. Black Rice, p. 32.
Wood, Peter. Black Majority, p. 35.
Wood, Peter. Black Majority, p. 37, footnote 7.
Wood, Peter. Black Majority, p. 35, quoted, footnote 1.