Rice and the Black Majority | Folkstreams

Rice and the Black Majority

Rice and the Black Majority

Called "Carolina Golden Rice" for its color, silky texture and delicate taste, Sea Island rice was prized throughout the world, quickly becoming almost as profitable as gold itself.

How rice was introduced into the Carolinas is still under debate by historians. What is known is that, by the 1690s, experiments in rice fanning near Charleston were producing successful yields. By 1700, rice was a regular export.

The Lowcountry's tidally influenced, freshwater rivers and lowlands were ideal for rice farming. During the growing cycle, there are times when rice fields are dry and when they need to be flooded. An ingenious system of dykes with flood gates (called "trunks") harnessed the natural tidal flow, allowing fields to be flooded or drained as necessary. Nature could not have provided any better geography for rice farming than the Lowcountry.

What was not readily available, however, was the manpower required for this labor-intensive crop. As more and more people saw the potential profit in rice, more and more workers were needed to clear the swamps and woodlands and to create and work the rice fields. Thus, the legal importation of African slaves began in earnest. Especially prized were peoples from the West African Grain Coast. Rice had been cultivated there for centuries, and people with such direct knowledge were highly valued. In truth, they knew more about the process of rice farming than any of the Carolina plantation owners.

The Lowcountry Rice Plantation

Remote and almost entirely self-sufficient, the Lowcountry rice plantation was much like an independent kingdom. Whether a plantation was 50 acres or five thousand, it was self-sustaining, growing its own crops and livestock for food, providing housing for owners and slaves, with all the necessary support systems such as blacksmith, cooper, lumber milling and commissary. The physical layout of most plantations included a main house for the owners, with an attached kitchen house, and a "street" lined with cabins housing the slaves. The main mode of transportation from plantation to plantation or to the nearest town was the river.

Most slaves never left the plantation. They lived their entire lives solely within its confines—an isolation marked further by the physical barriers of dense swamp, marshlands, thick woodlands and rivers which bordered most plantations. This separation created a cultural peculiarity that even today marks the speech and day-to-day activities of both black and white descendants of plantation society.

Once established, the rice plantation basically ran itself; the actual physical presence of a large number of white people was unnecessary to its day-to-day operation. Usually, the owner, or on larger plantations, over­seers and work "bosses" (both black and white), managed the daily workload. On most plantations, black slaves far outnumbered whites, creating a black majority common throughout the Lowcountry. The 1830 census for the Georgetown, South Carolina district, for instance, shows a population of 1,940 whites to 18,000 blacks.

This black majority became even more pronounced with the advent of a new, killing disease which began to afflict the plantation owners and their families each summer.

Malaria and the Black Majority

Medicine was rudimentary in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Doctors were unable to adequately name or cure many recurring "plagues." They knew smallpox; but the new disease which occurred near swamps and rivers in warmer months was a mystery to them. They blamed it on "bad air," or as it is written in French, malaria.

Malaria had been in the Carolinas since the 1680s. Medical historians believe the Anopheles quadramaculatus, a breed of mosquito that carries plasmodium vivax, a parasite that produces a mild form of malaria, was present in the Lowcountry when the first settlers arrived. By the early 1700s, however, a more dangerous strain, plasmodium falciparum, was probably imported by an English sailor or West Indian slave who had previously been in West Africa.

As the rice culture expanded, man re­placed dryer woodlands with rice fields and retaining ponds. He also created a more hospitable environment for mosquitos. Despite infection, the African slaves were less susceptible to the ravages of this disease.

(Doctors now believe the sickle cell trait, a genetic hemoglobin characteristic found in many Africans, provides a natural immunity to malaria.) Whites had little or no immunity. Thus began an annual exodus each April and May of almost all whites from the plantations to towns and beaches on the coast where fresh air from the sea made the infection less likely to occur.

From April to October, during the peak planting and growing season, the plantation was inhabited and run almost entirely by slaves. This black majority is found even now in rural areas of the Carolinas and Georgia, particularly on the Sea Islands where geographic remoteness continues to preserve a cultural solidarity. This physical isolation of a majority of people has nurtured and protected the language and customs brought from Africa, thereby keeping the "connection" alive.