Carolina gold rice is named for the magnificent golden color of the ripe plants in early autumn. However, so wealthy did it make the early planters of the lowcountry, it could also refer to its financial importance. By the early 1720s rice had become the major crop in the colony, with some 6 million pounds shipped to England annually. As early as 1710 British writers were declaring its superiority as the “weightiest, largest, cleanest, and whitest . . . in the Habitable World.” Botanists and historians are uncertain of its origins, but the plant flourished in the lowcountry for two hundred years.
By the middle of the nineteenth century, more than 75,000 acres of land were producing rice in the lowcountry, yielding 160 million pounds. By 1860 seventy percent of the 5 million bushels produced in America were being grown in South Carolina. Plantation owners demanded slaves from the West Coast of Africa, where wetland rice farming was common. The West Africans cleared the land, built the elaborate systems of sluices and dikes, planted the grain with the traditional African heel-and-toe technique, flooded the fields at proper intervals, chased destructive birds away, harvested the rice by hand, wove the winnowing or “fanner” basket from bulrushes and sweet grass, and carved the enormous wooden mortars and pestles for hulling. From seed to table, Carolina gold was the domain of the enslaved. South Carolina was renowned for its rice kitchens with elaborate Creole dishes prepared by accomplished African cooks.
After the Civil War, the demise of rice culture in South Carolina was gradual and complete. Rice was introduced into other states, where mechanical equipment that was too heavy for the marshy soil of the lowcountry replaced expensive hand labor. Floods, the silting caused by upstream cotton farming, and a series of destructive hurricanes between 1893 and 1911 put an end to commercial rice production in the state.
Doar, David. Rice and Rice Planting in the South Carolina Low Country. 1936. Reprint, Charleston, S.C.: Charleston Museum, 1970.
Hess, Karen. The Carolina Rice Kitchen: The African Connection. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1992.
Joyner, Charles W. Down by the Riverside: A South Carolina Slave Community. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984.
Littlefield, Daniel C. Rice and Slaves: Ethnicity and the Slave Trade in Colonial South Carolina. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1981.
Taylor, John Martin. Hoppin’ John’s Lowcountry Cooking: Recipes and Ruminations from Charleston and the Carolina Coastal Plain. New York: Bantam, 1992.