Rice and Slavery: A Fatal Gold Seede
Jean M. West

On New Year's Day, many Americans, especially those with southern origins, eat a dish combining black-eyed peas and rice called "Hoppin' John." It's supposed to bring good luck since people who "eat poor New Year's Day, eat rich the rest of the year." Most would be surprised to learn that rice is not a plant native to the New World. They would be even more surprised to learn that the dish has roots in tragedy rather than in luck. In Alexander Falconbridge's 1788 narrative, An Account of the Slave Trade on the Coast of Africa, he describes food served during the Middle Passage and reports, "The diet of the negroes, while on board, consists chiefly of horse-beans, boiled to the consistence of pulp; boiled yams and rice, and sometimes a small quantity of beef or pork." How did rice come to the New World, and why is its New World history intertwined with slavery?

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, hypothetically when South America, Africa, India, Australia, and India were joined in the southern hemisphere super-continent of Gondwanaland. When the continents broke up, a red rice of the species oryza glaberrima evolved in Africa, while today's dominant crop species, oryza sativa, evolved in Asia. People living along the Niger, Sine-Saloum, and Casamance Rivers began cultivating African wet rice around 2,000 to 3,000 years ago; archaeologists have discovered Asian rice grain imprints dating between 5,200 and 4,000 years ago in northern China, while Asian rice cultivation may have begun several thousand years earlier. It is believed that members of Alexander the Great's army brought the Asian variety of rice back from India, leading to its cultivation in the Mediterranean region, including Spain and Portugal.

Portuguese explorers reported African rice fields south of Cape Verde, probably along the Gambia River, as early as 1446. In the 1590s, André Alvares d'Almada 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 Asian rice to the Caribbean and South America; rice first arrived in Mexico in the 1520s at Veracruz, which was selected for its warm, wet, Gulf climate. Portuguese colonizers and their African slaves introduced Asian 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, either to Dr. Henry Woodward or Thomas Smith, who was a landgrave (governor of a major land grant). 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. According to Edward Randolph, the collector of customs, planters exported 330 tons of rice from Charles Town (Charleston) to England and English Caribbean colonies in 1700; the governor complained that they had produced more rice than there were ships on which to export the grain. While some of the red-colored rice in early South Carolina was the African oryza glaberrima and may have arrived on slave ships, planters quickly adopted two varieties of the Asian oryza sativa, "Carolina White" and the prized, high-yield "Carolina Gold." Rice cultivation was centered in the Low Country of South Carolina, with the Georgetown District emerging as a major production zone. North Carolina's Lower Cape Fear Region (from the 1720s onward), northeastern Spanish Florida, and coastal Georgia (after the 1750 repeal of the Trustee's ban on slavery) also produced rice throughout the colonial and antebellum eras.

Table 1: South Carolina Colonial Rice Exports









5 tons

330 tons

5,000 tons

10,000 tons

25,000 tons

35,000 tons

40,000 tons

42,000 tons

Many of early settlers of the Carolinas (both the Cape Fear settlers of 1663 and the Ashley River emigrants of 1670) 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.

Slavery in the Rice Fields

The English settlers began to enslave the region's Native Americans in large numbers, selling them in the slave trade and using them as laborers. African slaves were imported from the earliest days, as well. In 1671, Sir John Yeamans arrived at the Ashley River settlement (the future Charleston) with 200 African slaves. According to South Carolina's 1708 census, there were 3,000 African slaves and 1,400 Native American slaves in a total population of 9,500. However, smallpox and yellow fever killed many Native Americans and it was impossible to get enough European indentured slaves to provide the colony with adequate labor. Indeed, Charleston merchant Samuel Eveleigh asserted in 1735, "I am positive that the Commodity can't be produced by white people. Because the work is too laborious, the heat very intent, and the whites can't work in the wett at that season as Negrs do to week rice." By the 1730s Carolinian slavery was predominantly African.

Table 2: Slave Population of South Carolina 1708-1860




Percentage Of Slaves Population Enslaved




31.5 percent




69.5 percent




60.9 percent




75 percent




69.2 percent




42 percent




42.1 percent




46.1 percent




50.2 percent




53.9 percent




53.9 percent




57.6 percent




57.2 percent

From early on there was a close relationship between African slavery and rice cultivation. Planters buying slaves showed some preference for West Africans from the Gold Coast. In An Account on Life in the Carolinas in 1750, Johann Martin Bolzius claimed, "The best Negroes come from the Gold Coast in Africa, namely Gambia and Angolo." In the 1730s, roughly 12 percent of South Carolina's slaves were from the centers of rice-production (the Upper Guinea Coast, Senegambia, and the Windward Coast), but that number rose to 54 percent by mid-century, and 64 percent in the 1770s before receding in the 1780s; averaging 43 percent for the 18th century. Some slave brokers in coastal Africa apparently trained captives in African rice fields prior to selling them to slave traders bound for the Carolinas; the Charleston Evening Gazette of July 11, 1785, advertised "a choice cargo of Windward and Gold Coast Negroes, who have been accustomed to the planting of rice." These African slaves brought knowledge from their homelands of different modes of rice cultivation, soil and water management and milling, which they adapted to the rice plantations of the Southeast, such as using hollow cypress log "trunks" to control the flow of water from levees (embankments) into fields.

A Feat as Great as Building the Pyramids

Rice cultivation is dirty, hard, dangerous work. Contemporaries compared the work of converting 150,000 acres of virgin land into tidal plantations as an undertaking comparable to building the Pyramids or re-channeling the Euphrates River.

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 -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 (-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 vapours 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. Rice mills appeared in the late 19th century, first operated by oxen, then by water (Jonathan Lucas, 1787), and finally tide-operated (1792). Although much of the work was back-breaking, unskilled labor, skilled slave artisans, such as carpenters, coopers, millwrights, and surveyors, contributed a great deal to the engineering, construction, and maintenance of the rice plantations.

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.

On rice plantations, a daily task might be the excavation of 24 linear feet of main drain excavation (the ditch dug five-by-five feet for each linear foot) or 133 feet of quarter-drain excavation (three feet by 18 inches). Sam Polite, a freedman, explained:

Every slave have task to do, sometime one task, sometime two, and sometime three. You have for work till task through. Have to cut cord of marsh grass maybe. Task of marsh been eight feet long and four feet high...If slave don't do task, they get licking with lash on naked back.

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 ouzy 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 furness of stinking putrid effluvia.

Up to a third of Low Country slaves died within a year of their arrival. Records from Somerset Place Plantation in North Carolina indicate that 80 Africans were brought to the site in June 1786 to transform the land into a rice plantation. By 1803, only 15 of the original 80 slaves were still alive. At Gowrie Plantation in South Carolina during an eight-year period between 1846 and 1854, 92 more slaves died than were born; 90 percent of the infants who survived birth died before they were 16 years old.

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 Anopheles mosquitoes. Yellow fever victims would not have survived the Middle Passage, but Aedes (Stegiomyia) aegypti 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. Zamba, an African king brought as a slave to South Carolina, reported, "Under the influence of a powerful sun, this practice naturally produces what is called marsh miasma, which engenders fevers of a dangerous nature: fatal, indeed to white men in most cases; and even negroes, in some seasons, suffer greatly from it."

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, Johann Bolzius explained, 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.

As rice plantations expanded, the demand on slaves and their labor increased. Modern economists have noted that, unlike virtually every other slave-produced commodity, the output per slave in the rice industry grew from 2,250 pounds around 1750 to over 3,000 pounds by 1800. In human terms, this represented an enormous amount of physical hardship and arduous labor.

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 15 ($975). 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 a Charles Manigault invested $49,500 in Gowrie Plantation in 1833, and, by 1861, the plantation was worth $266,000.

Table 3: Rice Prices, 1772-1809*

Time Period

Rice Price (cent/lb)



















*Sources: Arthur Cole (1938, p. 152) and Peter Coclanis (1989, p. 107), as cited by Mancall, Rosenbloom, and Rice (1999)

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. Today, "Carolina Gold" is cultivated in Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, and, interestingly enough, Sierra Leone (where it was brought by former slaves or missionaries from America).

The largest percentage of slaves in the Southeast originated in Angola. Their descendants along the Atlantic coast on the Sea Islands are known as the Gullah people. The word "Gullah" is believed to have come from the old pronunciation of Angola, "N'Gulla." African customs and words from the region of modern Sierra Leone have survived in these previously isolated communities. Some historians credit the absenteeism of landowners during the malaria season (August-December) and the "task system," which enabled slaves to raise gardens and barter with each other, for the survival of so many African cultural remnants among the Gullah. Some Gullah words have migrated into standard American English, including "yam," "okra," and "tote."

Time, hurricanes, and the tide have filled the canals, eroded the levees, and leveled the slave huts of the rice plantations. Yet, the magnificent if tragic accomplishment of the slaves who labored in the fields is not diminished by their disappearance.

This essay was written by Jean M. West, a social studies education consultant in Port Orange, Florida.



Carney, Judith A. Black Rice: the African Origins of Rice Cultivation in the Americas. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001.

Coclanis, Peter A. The Shadow of a Dream: Economic Life and Death in the South Carolina Low Country, 1670-1920. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Cole, Arthur Harrison. Wholesale Commodity Prices in the United States, 1700-1861. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1938.

Crosby, Alfred W. The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1972.

Dusinberre, William. Them Dark Days: Slavery in the American Rice Swamps. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Hall, Robert L. "Savoring Africa in the New World." In Seeds of Change, ed. Herman J. Viola and Carolyn Margolis, 160-169. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991.

Littlefield, Daniel C. Rice and Slavery: Ethnicity and the Slave Trade in Colonial South Carolina. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1981.

Morgan, Philip D. Slave Counterpoint: Black Culture in the Eighteenth-Century Chesapeake and Low Country. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.

Wood, Peter H. Black Majority: Negroes in Colonial South Carolina from 1670 through the Stono Rebellion. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1975.

Internet Resources

"African rice (Oryza glaberrima): History and future potential" by Olga F. Linares.

"Golden Grains of Rice: Rice Planting on the Lower Cape Fear" by James M. Clifton.

"The Life and Adventures of Zamba, an African Negro King; and his Experience of Slavery in South Carolina" Written by Himself.

"Rice Cultivation, Processing and Marketing in the Eighteenth Century" by Michael Trinkley and Sarah Fick.

"Rice, Indigo, and Fever in Colonial South Carolina" by Jennifer Payne.

"Rise of the Georgetown Rice Culture" by Christopher C. Boyle.

"Slave Prices and the Economy of the Lower South, 1722-1809" by Peter C. Mancall, Joshua L. Rosenbloom, and Thomas Weiss.

"Slavery in the United States: A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Charles Ball"

"Teaching with Historic Places: When Rice Was King"