Rice Culture and Trade

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RICE CULTURE AND TRADE. Rice culture defined the Lowcountry, a region including the coastal plains of Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina up to the Cape Fear River. Near present-day Charleston colonists experimented with rice along with other export products. Rice quickly emerged as a viable crop, with the first exports occurring during the 1690s. In the beginning, the West Indies and Europe provided the markets for Carolina rice. Once the profit-minded colonists recognized the value of rice as a staple they began forming plantations and importing slaves from West Africa to clear the land and cultivate the grain.

Rice cultivation

The earliest rice grown in Carolina was either Oryza sativa, originating in Asia, or Oryza glaberrima, native to Africa. It is clear that colonists in the Carolina colony preferred slaves from the rice-growing regions of West Africa. The enslaved Africans' knowledge of rice cultivation and technologies profoundly influenced the development of the plantations and resulted in a creolized African-European agriculture as well as a distinctive Low country culture.

Planters and slaves employed three different agricultural systems during the history of Atlantic rice cultivation. In the earliest, lasting from the 1690s to the 1720s, they grew upland rice, which was rain fed. This method worked nicely in conjunction with cattle production, because cattle could graze the fields after harvest and provide manure for fertilizer. Then from the 1720s to the 1770s, Carolinians gradually shifted the locus of rice cultivation to freshwater swamps. Under this regime laborers collected rainfall in man-made reservoirs and released the water through sluices in a process that produced higher yields than did upland cultivation. The relocation along rivers meant that the shipping of rice to Charleston for export was carried out exclusively by coastal schooners. The swamp system coincided with the disappearance of Indian communities in the Lowcountry following the Yamasee War of 1715. This opened up prime plantation lands between the Ashepoo and Savannah Rivers, which were deeded to colonists through royal grants. As Carolinians spread rice cultivation to the Savannah River, Georgia colonists took notice of the growing prosperity of their neighbors and, in 1751, Georgia ended its prohibition of slavery. As a result, Georgians (along with migrating South Carolinians) began to pursue slave-based rice culture in their colony.

Gradually, beginning before the American Revolution, planters adopted a third cultivation system, tidal rice culture. Rice plantations required fresh water and several feet in pitch of tide (that is, the waterline difference between high and low tide). These restrictions meant that plantations could only be on rivers with substantial watersheds and, even then, could be neither too near the sea for the river to be saltwater nor far enough inland to lose the diurnal tidal pulse. By 1800 tidal rice culture dominated production because of much higher yields, greater water control, and the labor savings involved. By Flooding rice fields at specific intervals during the growing season, rice planters negated the need for hoeing, freeing slaves for other work. However, the labor saved during the growing season went into the greater efforts required to create and maintain tidal rice plantations.

One rice planter famously captured the character of the Lowcountry plantation in describing it as "a huge hydraulic machine." Slaves created rice fields by clearing swamps made up of cypress and oak forest and building, over many years, plantations encompassing two hundred to a thousand acres of floodable land. Before rice could be planted, slaves had to build an elaborate system of canals, ditches, earthen banks, and flood gates to control the tides. Subsequent to construction, slaves had to maintain the entire system, which nature constantly eroded through freshets, storms, and river currents.

Plantation Slave Culture

Rice plantation slaves labored under a regimen unique to this region of the South: the task system, which grew out of a period of negotiation between slaves and planters over the customary patterns of work and reciprocity. Largely in place by the middle of the eighteenth century, the task system prescribed specific daily expectations for each type of labor. For example, a normal day's task was to hoe a quarter of an acre. Once a slave completed the day's task he or she could cultivate their own garden crops or perform plantation labor for which they were to be compensated in some way. This is not to say that the task system was a benign form of slavery, but it was distinctive, and it appears to have given rise to an underground market among slaves and to have been a contributing factor in the development and survival of the Gullah culture in the Lowcountry.

Demise of Lowcountry Rice Cultivation

Lowcountry rice culture ultimately perished in the early twentieth century. The Civil War certainly spurred the initial decline through war-related destruction, loss of plantation capital, emancipation, and the decay of plantations from neglect, but the rice economy was already stressed and would have faltered eventually in any case. European markets began to turn to competing sources of rice in Asia following the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. The U.S. rice market grew starting around the time of the Civil War, but prices declined. In the 1880s, as Lowcountry rice culture began to recover from the war and adjust to a free labor system, new competitors appeared in Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas. In these states rice production depended not on tides or rain but on pumped irrigation. Rice culture in the Gulf States differed from the Lowcountry in that it mechanized quickly and fully.

In the end, rice cultivation vanished due to a combination of economic factors, including the limited ability to mechanize and the losses inflicted by an intense period of hurricane activity that began in 1893. Planters and black laborers grew the final crops of Atlantic Coast rice in the 1920s along the Combahee River in South Carolina. Although it ultimately failed, rice culture shaped the economic, political, environmental, and cultural development of South Carolina and Georgia from an early date, and that history has ramifications in the region to the present day.


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

Chaplin, Joyce E. An Anxious Pursuit: Agricultural Innovation and Modernity in the Lower South, 1730–1815. Chapel Hill, N.C.: Institute of Early American History and Culture, 1993.

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

Joyner, Charles. Down By the Riverside: A South Carolina Slave Community. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984.

Schwalm, Leslie A. A Hard Fight For We: Women's Transition from Slavery to Freedom in South Carolina. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997.

Stewart, Mart A. "What Nature Suffers to Groe": Life, Labor, and Landscape on the Georgia Coast, 1680–1920. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1996.

James H.Tuten

See alsoAgriculture .

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