Rice Plantations

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Rice Plantations

Rice cultivation was common in the Caribbean and in Africa before it spread along the rivers of South Carolina, North Carolina, and Georgia, as well as the Gulf coast of the United States. Rice cultivation was first developed in what became the United States in South Carolina during the early eighteenth century, by Europeans who brought African slave labor with them from the West Indies. Africans were far more familiar with the product than Europeans, and slaves from West Africa were instrumental in teaching the Europeans about the farming of rice. Rice could be cultivated in swamps or creeks that were diverted to form standing bodies of fresh water. Most rice planters, however, used the waxing and waning tides of rivers for rice farming. The rising tides tended to eliminate other vegetation while giving rice the nourishment it needed, removing the need for slaves to clear the area under cultivation. This reliance on tides severely limited where rice could be grown, however.

Slave labor prepared the growing area. Slaves built the levees and dikes necessary to keep rivers and creeks from overflowing the growing area. They also built irrigation systems, with sluice gates to let the waters in and out. In addition, slaves dug ditches through which the water could flow. The levees required frequent repairs, forcing slaves to work year round. Well-managed rice plantations had redundancies built in such that if one levee failed, the entire crop would not be destroyed. Silt would build up in sluices and ditches, which required the slaves to perform constant maintenance. Thus, whereas during the flood periods slaves could not reach the crop, there was often still a great deal of work for them to do. In addition, the slaves built the residences for their masters and themselves and the buildings for the processing of the rice.

In the spring, slaves would plant the rice seeds. Then the fields would be flooded, allowing the rice to sprout. After this, the growing area would be drained and then hoed. This process of flooding and then hoeing would take place repeatedly, usually four or five times. The slave Charles Ball described the condition of the rice fields: "I saw for the first time, fields of rice, growing in swamps, covered with water. Causeways were raised throug [sic] the low-lands in which the rice grew and on which the road was formed on which we traveled. These rice fields, or rather swamps, had, in my eyes, a beautiful appearance" (1859, pp. 49-50). In late summer or early autumn the rice was harvested. Over the course of the autumn and winter slaves prepared the rice for sale. Slaves threshed the rice on hard floors with flails. In 1787 Jonathan Lucas invented a rice mill that could be powered by water. By the nineteenth century the best-financed rice plantations purchased expensive threshing and pounding mills. The rice was polished and then sold. There were few good roads during the early national period, and because rice fields had to be near water in any case, the product was delivered to market, generally Charleston, by boat.

Planters and experts in rice cultivation oversaw the entire production process, but the work was done almost entirely by a slave labor force. The use of fuel and of steam-powered mills to some extent made rice cultivation an industrial process, and illustrates the adaptability of the institution of slavery to processes that were non-agrarian in nature: "The number of hands employed in this threshing-mill is very considerable, and the whole establishment, comprising the fires and boilers and machinery of a powerful steam engine, are all under negro superintendence and direction" (Kemble 1863, p. 100). Those slaves who knew how to use the machinery often received slightly better treatment than field hands.

Rice was a labor-intensive product, though there were periods of less work for the slave labor force when the planting area was flooded. Slaves on rice plantations, therefore, often also tended to corn, potatoes, and other crops, which were their primary food sources, with most rice plantations largely self-sufficient. Rice was produced in an extremely unhealthy environment of swamps, full of mosquitoes carrying malaria and other diseases. Slaves of African ancestry had already developed immunities to many of the dangers present in the swamps, immunities a white labor force would have failed to possess. Even so, slaves were well aware of the comparative dangers of the climate and work associated with rice plantations. Josephine Brown, in speculating over the potential fate of the brothers of a slave, William, wrote: "If still living, they are lingering out a miserable existence on a cotton, sugar, or rice plantation, in a part of the country where the life of the slave has no parallel in deeds of atrocity. Nothing can be worse than slavery in Louisiana and Mississippi, on the banks of the noblest river in the world" (1856, p. 17).


Jonathan Lucas was born in Cumberland, England, in 1754, and trained as a millwright. He found himself in South Carolina along the Santee River after a shipwreck. There were a number of rice planters along the Santee, and Lucas in his time there ascertained that the manner in which rice was detached from its outer hull was inefficient. Slaves used wooden tools to separate the rice. Lucas invented a waterpowered mill in 1787, saving the planters manpower and making the product far more profitable. Lucas continued to build mills in the area for a number of planters, continuously improving on his original design to create mills that could be powered by the tide, and much later steam. Lucas eventually settled in the area and became a planter himself, though he continued to build mills for others. His son and grandson continued his mill design work in South Carolina.

Lucas's inventions were essential to the spread of rice cultivation in the region; previous to his invention, indigo was the predominant cash crop for South Carolina. Lucas allowed South Carolina to diversify its agricultural economy and spread rice plantations throughout much of the South.

SOURCE: Dethloff, Henry C. A History of the American Rice Industry, 1685–1985. College Station: Texas A & M University Press, 1988.

Rice plantations tended to be quite large, and there were few small independent operators—in part due to the absence of available land, in part due to economic trends that encouraged consolidation. In addition, rice cultivation required large slaveholdings. As a consequence, rice plantations had far larger slave concentrations than plantations raising other products such as hemp and tobacco, though this is also due in part to the fact that large rice plantations were the rule. John George Clinkscales noted the detachment between the owners and the slaves of rice plantations in South Carolina that was one of the hallmarks of rice production: "On many of these slaves were numbered by the hundred; on a few there were more than a thousand. Some of the 'large slave-owners,' that is to say, the owners of more than a thousand did not know their own negroes. In such cases, master and slave came in touch with each other only through the overseer, or driver" (1916, p. 8). Thus, rice plantations were unlikely to have the evils of the institution of slavery moderated by the paternalism of a personal relationship between master and slave.

Despite the labor-intensive nature of the crop and the dangers of the growing environment, slaves on rice plantations had a far greater degree of freedom than slaves involved in the production of other products. Planters were often absentee owners from spring to late autumn, when tropical diseases were a danger. Plantations were left to an overseer with less authority; as a consequence, rice plantations utilized a task system. Rather than utilizing gang labor, slaves would be assigned a minimum amount of work to do each day. Most slaves would meet their task well before eight or nine hours, leaving them with time of their own for use in hunting, fishing, or garnering their own crops. Young, old, or disabled slaves would be given a fraction of the task that a healthy slave would have to complete. Thus, the work on rice plantations was highly standardized and far more individually oriented than was the case with the gang labor systems used for other products like sugar.

Rice plantations required a large slave labor force and significant capital investment in land and equipment in order to be successful. Given the geographical conditions and the number of slaves involved, rice plantations were an extremely harsh labor environment. At the same time, though, the nature of the product and the absence of owners led to a task system that in many ways gave slaves a far greater degree of agency than was found on plantations that produced other products.


Ball, Charles. Fifty Years in Chains, or, The Life of an American Slave. New York, 1859.

Brown, Josephine. Biography of an American Bondman. Boston, 1856.

Clinkscales, John George. On the Old Plantation: Reminiscences of His Childhood. Spartanburg, SC, 1916.

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

Heyward, Duncan Clinch. Seed from Madagascar [1937]. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1993.

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

Kemble, Fanny. Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838–1839. London, 1863.

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

Smith, Julia Floyd. Slavery and Rice Culture in Low Country Georgia, 1750–1860. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1985.

                                   M. K. Beauchamp