Rice became an important crop in America during the 18th century. In the Carolinas it became farmer's main source of income and by the 19th century it became a significant crop in Virginia and Georgia. Rice was labor intensive and large numbers of slaves were purchased to do this work. They were also used for the construction of canals and ditches to maintain adequate supplies of water. Rice was a labor-intensive crop – at least for the slaves – as this 1775 account explains:
The first business is to drain the swamp, in which work they have no particular methods deserving notice, or which are unknown in England. The moment they have got the water off they attack the trees, which in some swamps are very numerous; these they cut down at the root, leaving the stumps in the earth. ... However they do not wait for the ground being cleared of them, but proceed to plant their rice among the stumps. In March, April, and May they plant; the negroes draw furrows eighteen inches asunder, and about three inches deep, in which the seeds are sown; a peck is sufficient for an acre of land: as soon as planted they let in the water to a certain depth, which is, during the season of its growth, repeated, and drawn off several times; but most of the growth is while the water is eight, nine, or ten inches deep on the land. The great object of the culture is to keep the land clean from weeds, which is absolutely necessary, and the worst weed is grass. This is the only object till it is reaped, which is usually about the latter end of August or beginning of September. Like wheat in England, they prefer cutting it while the straw is a little green, leaving it on the stubble to dry and wither two or three days in case the weather is favorable: after which they lay it up in barns or stacks. The next operation is the threshing of it, after which it is winnowed, which was formerly a very tedious operation, but now much accelerated by the use of a wind fan. When winnowed it is ground, to free the rice from the husk; this is winnowed again, and put into a mortar large enough to hold half a bushel, in which it is beat with a pestle by negroes, to free it from its thick skin; this is a very laborious work. In order to free it from the flour and dust made by the pounding, it is sifted; and again through another sieve, called a market sieve, which separates the broken and small rice, after which it is put up in barrels, and is ready for market. The reader must observe upon this account that the cultivation of it is dreadful: for if a work could be imagined peculiarly unwholesome and even fatal to health, it must be that of standing like the negroes, angle and mid-leg deep in water which floats an oozy mud, and exposed all the while to a burning sun which makes the air they breathe hotter than the human blood; these poor wretches are then in a furnace of stinking putrid effluvia.
Through time there were "improvements" such as the introduction of tidal or steam threshing mills, but the slaves' work in the fields was always the same.
Slave woman using a fanner basket to process rice.
Growing rice was a difficult job. It took many months and required many different skills. Rice was a relatively new crop in America and planters knew very little about how it was grown. Slaves who were captured in West Africa were very familiar with the process–their knowledge made it possible for their masters to succeed. Slaves in rice plantations worked under what was known as the task system. While slaves on cotton and tobacco plantations worked for the master from sunrise to sundown, rice plantation slaves had a specific task that they had to complete each day. Once they finished that job, they could spend the rest of the day doing things for themselves.
Still, slaves on rice plantations worked long, tiring days. Rice grows in water, and snakes, alligators, and dangerous insects that live in that water made the slave’s jobs extremely dangerous. The marshy fields where rice was grown were breeding grounds for mosquitoes carrying diseases such as malaria and yellow fever. Because they were continually exposed to these dangers, slaves on rice plantations usually died much sooner than slaves on other types of plantations.
In the South Carolina rice plantations, the hazards of the job included the unhealthy swamps that made up the rice fields and the poisonous snakes that lived there. The work had a different pattern to that of sugar and tobacco. The working day could be shorter as each worker had a set task to complete per day rather than work in the gang system, but the mud and the swamps made the job exhausting.
Rice of the Old World
Rice is a tall annual grass that grows in a variety of conditions although it flourishes in wet, warm tropical climates. It is an ancient plant whose origins go back over 130 million years. Portuguese explorers reported African rice fields south of Cape Verde, probably along the Gambia River, as early as 1446. In the 1590’s it was reported that West African rice farmers, "construct dikes of earth for fear of the tide, but despite them the river breaks them frequently, flooding the rice fields. Once the rice has sprouted, they pull it out and transplant it...." West Africans learned to grow rice in the Niger River Delta and, from modern Senegal to Liberia, adapted different methods of production to different climatic conditions including tidal floodplains, inland wetlands, rain-fed Guinea uplands, and mangrove swamps along the Atlantic coast. Although different tribal groups divided rice cultivation work differently, women typically sowed the rice (covering the grains with clay before planting), milled rice using mortar and pestle, created coiled-grass fanner baskets to winnow rice as well as storage baskets for the cleaned rice, and cooked rice for their families. The Portuguese introduced Asian rice to Africa around the middle of the 16th century; by the height of the slave trade many Africans were familiar with the techniques of cultivating both the African and Asian species of rice.
Rice Comes to the New World
Early Spanish explorers introduced rice to the Caribbean and South America; rice first arrived in Mexico in the 1520s and their African slaves introduced rice at about the same time to Brazil.
Tradition says that rice arrived in South Carolina around 1685 when sea captain John Thurber's ship was being repaired in Charleston. Thurber gave a sack of "Gold Seede" rice from Madagascar, a great rice-producing island off the east coast of Africa. However, a bushel of rice had been sent to the colony on the supply ship William and Ralph as early as spring1672. By September 26, 1691, the General Assembly of South Carolina passed an act permitting colonists to pay their taxes in rice, as well as other commodities.
South Carolina Colonial Rice Exports (in tons)
Many of early settlers of the Carolinas came from Barbados. These experienced sugar planters were offered land incentives to bring slaves; for example, contracts from 1664 guaranteed emigrants from Barbados a bonus of 20 acres for every male slave and ten acres for every female slave they brought to the new colony. However, the Carolinas were too cold for the cultivation of sugar, and the exports of lumber, cattle, and deerskins provided slim profits.
A Feat as Great as Building the Pyramids:Rice cultivation is dirty, hard, dangerous work. Converting 150,000 acres of virgin land into tidal plantations is an undertaking comparable to building the Pyramids.
An acre of mud flats would be measured into a rectangular field. Slaves would clear the land, chopping down and burning or removing any trees. Oxen were the only draft animals that might be used to assist, but they had to wear a special boot or else they would sink in the muck. Using only picks and shovels, slaves excavated a five-by-five foot ditch through the clearing that would serve both as the canal that brought tidal waters to the field and its main drain. The slaves used the muddy soil they had excavated to form a levee as high as six feet tall around the field. Slaves constructed sluice gates (first of cypress plug trunks and later hanging floodgates) to drain the water from the field for sowing and flood it for cultivation. Typically the following season, the field would be divided into four ¼-acre sections. Slaves added quarter drains (secondary canals) and cleared stumps. With the extra weight of water-laden soil, the danger of snakes and alligators that had been stranded behind the levee, mosquitoes and hot summer temperatures, the slave's work was dangerous and exhausting.
The cultivation of the rice began in late spring, around April, with the seed being sown. Ploughs were dragged through the wet soil to create furrows about three inches deep spaced 18 inches apart. Then, the slaves planted the rice in rows called drills. Slaves' daily work included operating the sluice gates with the tides. They flooded the fields following their planting of the seeds to the time of sprouting. After three weeks, they weeded and flooded the plants to cover the top of the young plant, gradually draining it halfway down the stem after a few days. The fields were drained and weeded, and the ground around the plants "hilled up" (hoed). Around mid-June or early July, the plants were gradually flooded and remained underwater for two months. Slaves freshened the water in the fields to keep it from stagnating. Tidal water is where fresh, inland water meets the salt water of the ocean. Fresh water rises on top of salt water, so the rice fields would be sown below the level of the high tide. A slave would open a sluice gate to skim off the fresh water floating on the top of the tidal waters to irrigate the crop, shutting it off before the salt water could intrude and kill the plants. At low tide, the gates were reopened to drain the fresh water out. A slave would be expected to weed a 105 foot square plot (¼-acre) in one day. Charles Ball, a runaway slave reported:
Watering and weeding the rice is considered one of the most unhealthy occupations on a southern plantation, as the people are obliged to live for several weeks in the mud and water, subject to all the unwholesome vapors that arise from stagnant pools, under the rays of a summer sun, as well as the chilly autumnal dews of night.
At harvest time, slaves with iron sickles reaped the rice stalks, bound them into sheaves (bundles), and stacked them in mule-drawn wagons. The slaves would unload the sheaves on a piece of hard ground or a barn's threshing floor and allow it to dry before threshing it with flails. (Treading the grain with mules was easier but resulted in more damage to the rice, so slave labor was used rather than animal labor.)
Rice must be processed to be the familiar white grain we see at the grocery store. The seed shell has to be removed, and then the brown coat of bran polished off the grain. Slaves used wooden mortars and pestles to mill the rice, separating the hulls from the grain with hand-sewn black rush winnowing baskets. An account from 1775 reported, "When winnowed it is ground, to free the rice from the husk; this is winnowed again, and put into a mortar large enough to hold half a bushel, in which it is beat with a pestle by negroes to free it from its thick skin; this is very laborious work." Following the pounding, the grain was sifted to remove the flour and dust produced in the process, and finally the rice was run through a market sieve, which separated the whole grains from the broken grains. Grains that were damaged in the process were called "little rice" and brought a lower price than whole grains. When the rice was clean, it would be placed in barrels that held roughly 600 pounds each..
Rather than the "gang system," where overseers or drivers directly supervised a group of workers, most rice plantations used the "task system," a specific amount of work that an average hard-working slave could complete in ten hours. When the slave completed the work to the driver's satisfaction, he or she could use the remaining hours of the day for their own purposes. Typically work began at dawn to avoid the worst heat of the day.
Fugitive slave Charles Ball reported one overseer's method of controlling slaves:
I gave them a hundred lashes more than a dozen times; but they never quit running away, till I chained them together, with iron collars round their necks, and chained them to spades, and made them do nothing but dig ditches to drain the rice swamps. They could not run away then, unless they went together, and carried their chains and spades with them. I kept them in this way two years....
Deadly Work: The mortality of slaves working in the rice fields was extremely high. One 18th-century writer declared:
“If a work could be imagined peculiarly unwholesome and even fatal to health, it must be that of standing like the negroes, ankle and mid-leg deep in water which floats an oozy mud, and exposed all the while to a burning sun which makes the air they breathe hotter than the human blood; these poor wretches are then in a furnace of stinking putrid effluvia.”
Up to a third of Low Country slaves died within a year of their arrival.Part of the problem was poor health. The environment in which rice is cultivated is the perfect breeding ground for mosquitoes. Both malaria and yellow fever may have been introduced from Africa to the rice cultivation regions by the slave trade. Slaves suffering from malaria may have brought the disease to the New World, where it infected mosquitoes. Yellow fever victims would not have survived the Middle Passage, but other types of mosquitoes could have bred in the slave ships' open-water barrels. A sickle cell genetic defect provided protection from malaria to some slaves, while yellow fever survivors had a lifelong immunity to the disease. Nonetheless, malaria and yellow fever claimed the lives of many slaves working the rice plantations.
Slaves' nutrition, clothing, and shelter typically were poor. A pint of boiled rice, a pint of cornmeal, and either a couple of pounds of butter or fat rendered from bacon were a slave's typical daily ration, supplemented by salt and molasses. Those slaves who completed task work might grow vegetable gardens with beans or yams or fish, if near the water, to improve their diet. Although high in carbohydrates, it was a low-protein, low-calorie diet for persons involved in heavy physical labor, and the resulting malnutrition contributed to slaves' early deaths. Slave quarters consisted of wooden frame buildings in which a family or a group of individuals lived. They were inexpensive to build because "One buys only a few nails for them." They were also flimsy and prone to fire.
Most plantation owners provided their slaves with five yards of heavy, coarse cloth from which to make winter clothing each year and a pair of shoes. Slaves might spin their own summer clothing, although some provided linen pants or skirts, and a cap or kerchief for head cover. Some plantations had sick rooms or slave hospitals, but since doctors didn't know the cause of fevers and resorted to blood-letting and purging medicines, slaves may have fared as well (or as poorly) remaining in the slave quarters and taking home remedies.
Gold Mines of Grain: The cultivation of rice required not only a large initial investment of labor, but also required money. In the late 18th century, it cost £2,500 to establish a 200-acre rice plantation. Most of the money was required for the purchase of slaves (an estimated cost of £1,800). In 1710, Thomas Nairne estimated that it was necessary to have 30 slaves to start a rice plantation; contemporaries calculated that a field hand should produce a ton (2,000 pounds) of rice each year working on two to three acres of old rice fields or five acres of new rice fields.
Based on average prices for rice between 1768 and 1772, the average slave generated five-six barrels of rice worth $1,000. Between 1722 and 1770, slave prices averaged around $150; from 1780-1809 they were substantially higher, averaging $305 per slave. By 1850, prices averaged $480 per slave. In the 1760s and 1770s, prices for women slaves grew more quickly than for men and sometimes exceeded them. Since African women (rather than men) milled rice on a daily basis and broke less grain than inexperienced male slaves, this may have been a case of price responding to demand for an important skill. A contemporary remarked, "Rice is raised so as to buy more Negroes, and Negroes are bought so as to get more rice."
Consequently, rice plantations could produce profits of up to 26 percent, prompting one Savannah River planter to describe his rice fields as "gold mines." For example one man invested $49,500 in Gowrie Plantation in 1833, and, by 1861, the plantation was worth $266,000.
The Legacy: The rice-fields of the Southeast, created at such a cost of human labor and life, were abandoned as the soil depleted and new rice-growing regions opened to the West as the nation expanded. Emancipation and the Civil War finished off the Low Country rice industry. The last stand of "Carolina Gold" rice in South Carolina was destroyed in 1911 by a hurricane.