South Carolina’s first great agricultural staple, rice dominated the lowcountry’s economy for almost two hundred years, influencing almost every aspect of life in the region from the early eighteenth century to the early twentieth century. Rice was responsible for the area’s rise to prominence in the colonial era. But the commercial rice industry collapsed in the late nineteenth century, leaving much of the lowcountry with few viable economic options for a half-century or more. It was only in the second half of the twentieth century that the economic and social legacy of rice began to recede into history.
Domestication of rice began in Asia between seven thousand and ten thousand years ago and spread gradually to other parts of Eurasia and Africa. The cereal arrived in the Western Hemisphere along with Europeans and Africans as part of the “Columbian exchange” of plants, animals, and germs that began in the late fifteenth century. Although rice accompanied Europeans and Africans to the Western Hemisphere, the cereal did not become an important cash crop in the Americas until the South Carolina rice complex was developed in the eighteenth century. Carolinians, both Europeans and Africans, had likely grown small amounts of rice to eat, but not until the 1710s or 1720s were local capital, labor, and entrepreneurship sufficient to support significant commercial production.
The origin of the South Carolina rice industry is complex and controversial. Until relatively recently historians accorded Europeans primary credit for originating rice production in South Carolina. During the past few decades, however, some scholars have amassed evidence suggesting instead that Africans were the prime movers in the earliest days of rice cultivation in South Carolina. In a technical (and technological) sense, the “black rice” view of the origins of rice cultivation may be correct. It is important to note, however, that there were several other plausible routes of transmission, and that there is a big difference between rice production and a rice industry. Regardless of the origins of rice cultivation in the colony, the South Carolina rice industry was informed by European and Euro-American aspirations and entrepreneurship along with African technology and labor.
Despite considerable research, little is known about early rice production techniques or even sites. Some “wet” rice may have been grown from the start, but scholars generally agree that the first rice crops were produced “dry,” that is, without irrigation and on relatively “high” ground. Throughout its history in South Carolina, most rice cultivation took place in the lowcountry, but production was distributed quite unevenly within this region.
By the 1720s a rice industry had begun to develop. Production became better established and systematic, and cultivation relocated from “high” ground to inland, freshwater swamps, where rudimentary water-control mechanisms—such as impoundments—could be employed. After 1750 the locus of production shifted again, this time to drained swamps on or adjacent to South Carolina’s major tidal rivers. The so-called tidal rice zone, which was to constitute the heart of the lowcountry rice industry, developed within narrow geographical and hydrological limits. The idea behind tidal cultivation was to harness daily river tides to draw water onto and off the fields, which irrigated the crop and otherwise reduced labor requirements. The trick was to find places where tidal action was strong enough to raise and lower water sufficiently without being too brackish or salty. Over time such places were found, and tidal cultivation flourished from about ten to twenty miles inland along the tidewater rivers of the lowcountry: the Waccamaw, Santee, Cooper, Ashley, Combahee, and Savannah in particular.
Rice cultivation under any circumstances is arduous, but this is particularly true when it is cultivated under “wet” conditions, as was the norm by the early eighteenth century. Moreover, because populations working in the swamps of the lowcountry were also subject to mosquito-borne diseases, morbidity and mortality rates in rice areas were extremely high. As a result of the rigorous labor demands and unhealthy conditions of rice culture, it proved difficult to attract sufficient numbers of white laborers. Moreover, because many West Africans were already familiar with rice culture and had greater immunities to mosquito-borne diseases, it is not surprising that the rice industry in South Carolina quickly became—and remained— dominated by black labor.
It is difficult to appreciate how much labor was involved in building and maintaining the “wet rice” regime in the lowcountry. Although only about 80,000 to 120,000 acres were devoted to rice in South Carolina at its pre–Civil War peak, the amount of engineering and construction needed to render this land suitable for commercial rice cultivation was staggering. Before planting could begin, swamps had to be drained, cleared of trees, and leveled. Next, the elaborate irrigation system needed to regulate the tidal flow was constructed. For the rice plantations of the lowcountry, this meant miles of levees, ditches, and culverts, interspersed with assorted floodgates, trunks, and drains.
Furthermore, rice was a row crop that needed considerable attention during the growing season. Thus, rice workers endured a rigorous year-long labor regimen: repairing irrigation facilities, readying the fields for cultivation, planting, flooding, draining, hoeing, harvesting, processing, and transporting it for further milling or marketing. Africans and African Americans provided the vast majority of this labor, although draft animals sometimes supplemented human labor, and inanimate power sources—water, wind, and steam—were employed as well.
Unlike in most areas of the slave South, the labor system in the South Carolina lowcountry—in rice and other activities—was dominated by the task system rather than the gang system. Under the latter, slaves worked in groups, were subject to close supervision, and worked for set periods of time (“sunup to sundown”). The task system was quite different. In this scheme a slave was responsible for a set amount of work: a daily “task” or “tasks.” Once complete, the slave was relieved of any further labor responsibilities to the master for the rest of the day and could do as he or she chose. Further, the close supervision associated with the gang system was generally absent from the task system. Therefore, slaves in the lowcountry enjoyed somewhat greater independence and autonomy within the context of slavery. The persistence of the task system was evident in the lowcountry even after emancipation, as free black workers often contracted with landowners not for a calendar year or a growing season, but for specific tasks such as sowing, hoeing, or harvesting.
Rice cultivation in the South Carolina lowcountry is often associated with large plantations worked by many slaves in specialized tasks. Such units of production were often highly capitalized, marked by economies of scale, and owned (if not directly operated) by white men and women of great wealth. This image is not so much wrong as incomplete. To be sure, rice planters were often wealthy, and many planter families were more or less stereotypical grandees. It is important to note, however, that rice plantations, even large ones, were not always extremely profitable (particularly by the late antebellum period), and that many small lowcountry farmers grew some rice. It is also worth remembering that rice cultivation was concentrated in certain parts of the lowcountry and that only a minority of lowcountry farmers grew rice. For example, according to the Census of Agriculture of 1859, less than forty percent of lowcountry farms grew any rice at all.
South Carolina was unquestionably the leading North American rice producer for almost two centuries, from the late 1600s until the 1880s, when Louisiana surpassed the Palmetto State in rice production. Although data on total rice output are lacking until 1839, good data on rice exports existed from the start, and the broad parameters of the early rice period can be spoken of with confidence. Rice exports from “Carolina”—South Carolina and North Carolina combined—averaged 268,602 pounds annually between 1698 and 1702, growing to more than 30 million pounds annually between 1738 and1742 and more than 66 million pounds annually between 1768 and 1772. The vast majority of these “Carolina” exports originated in South Carolina, but a small amount of “Carolina” rice exports during the late colonial period originated in the Cape Fear region of North Carolina.
Except for small quantities grown in Louisiana and Florida, almost all North American rice came from “Carolina” and Georgia in the eighteenth century, and these two areas constituted the two largest producing regions until the Civil War. American rice production grew substantially during the eighty-five years between the Revolution and the Civil War, although rice exports stagnated after about 1800. Throughout this period South Carolina dominated production and exports, constituting roughly three-quarters of total U.S. rice production in both 1839 and 1849, and about sixty-four percent of a much higher total in 1859.
While the American rice industry continued to expand in the nineteenth century, its position in world markets became increasingly untenable. In the eighteenth century virtually all American rice was exported. Most exports went to northern Europe, where rice was welcomed as a cheap and versatile food source. Before American rice entered European markets, Italy supplied most of Europe’s demand for rice. By the mid–eighteenth century, however, rice from South Carolina (and, to a lesser extent, Georgia) had supplanted Italian rice, and it would dominate European markets for the rest of the century.
The expansion of European trade with Asia changed things. As early as the 1790s European merchants were importing large quantities of cheaper Asian rice, and thus making inroads into South Carolina’s markets. This development intensified throughout the nineteenth century. Between 1800 and 1860 cheap Burmese, Javanese, and Indian rice came to dominate European markets, and South Carolina rice was gradually forced out of Europe and into the Caribbean (especially Cuba) or into the domestic market of the United States. Despite increasing European demand for rice, U.S. rice exports to Europe were far lower in the 1850s than they had been in the 1790s, demonstrating that American rice was becoming uncompetitive as global market integration proceeded.
With the coming of the Civil War, the competitive decline in the South Carolina rice industry became precipitous. Indeed, the United States as a whole actually became a net importer of rice from the time of the Civil War until well into the twentieth century. There are several reasons for this. Asian rice continued to undermine the position of American rice—including that produced in South Carolina— in global markets, as improving transportation and communications facilities increasingly linked low-cost producers in Asia to consumers in Europe and elsewhere. As a high-cost producer of a basic commodity, South Carolina’s rice industry was probably doomed even without the Civil War. Even so, the war-time destruction of infrastructure, emancipation of the labor force, and the postbellum transformation of agriculture doubtless hastened its demise.
International competition cost the rice industry in South Carolina and Georgia not only its export markets, but ultimately its domestic customers as well. In the 1880s and 1890s American rice production shifted to Louisiana, Arkansas, and Texas. In these states, and later in the Sacramento Valley of California, rice producers attempted to meet low-cost Asian competition by replacing labor with machinery. In so doing, growers in these areas—aided by tariff protection—rebuilt the U.S. rice industry.
These solutions were unavailable to South Carolina rice producers. The swampy lowcountry could not bear the weight of the new equipment, and investor interest and capital were short in any case. With the loss of its export markets and the establishment of more efficient domestic competitors, the southern Atlantic rice industry simply collapsed in the 1870s and 1880s. South Carolina, which produced almost 120 million pounds in 1859, saw its rice output fall to about 30 million pounds in 1889, a decline of seventy-five percent. Nature had a hand in things as well. Between 1893 and 1906 a series of hurricanes struck the rice coast, further damaging the decaying infrastructure. By 1919 the state’s rice production had dropped to about 4 million pounds, about three percent of its annual antebellum output. As a commercial activity, South Carolina rice was dead and gone.
The rice legacy lived on for a long time, however. Throughout its long history, rice production was synonymous with the lowcountry. Although other crops were grown there—Sea Island cotton, indigo, naval stores—this ecologically fragile and economically limited region was built by and for rice, with the building done largely by blacks and largely for whites. Without rice, the heavily black population of the lowcountry had few viable options, and the once-wealthy region withered into one of the poorest in the nation. Only with the onset of World War II did the region begin to rise again. The lowcountry’s economy in the early twenty-first century was based largely on tourism, forest products, military installations, and service-sector employment in Charleston. See plate 28.
Carney, Judith A. Black Rice: The African Origins of Rice Cultivation in the Americas. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001.
Chaplin, Joyce E. An Anxious Pursuit: Agricultural Innovation and Modernity in the Lower South, 1730–1815. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993.
Coclanis, Peter A. “Distant Thunder: The Creation of a World Market in Rice and the Transformations It Wrought.” American Historical Review 98 (October 1993): 1050–78.
———. The Shadow of a Dream: Economic Life and Death in the South Carolina Low Country, 1670–1920. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.
Littlefield, Daniel C. Rice and Slaves: Ethnicity and the Slave Trade in Colonial South Carolina. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1981.
Morgan, Philip D. Slave Counterpoint: Black Culture in the Eighteenth-Century Chesapeake and Lowcountry. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.