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South Carolina – African-Americans – Rice Culture


Also see: African-Americans - 1525-1865 Main Page



Written by Michael Trinkley of the Chicora Foundation

Rice production in South Carolina increased dramatically after 1705. In the late Colonial period, rice profitability also increased. One historian, Edwin Perkins, in The Economy of Colonial America, observed that
yields were from 2 to 4 barrels per acre, and most plantations had an average of 2 to 3 acres under cultivation for each field hand. Based on an average price of 2.3 ($150) per barrel from 1768 to 1772, slaves generated revenues annually of from 9.2 up to 27.6 ($600 - $1,800), with around 15 ($975) probably the average figure.
Another historian, Converse Clowse, points out the relationship between rice and slavery in economic terms:
It is fairly safe to assert that the increase in rice culture was mainly responsible for the rapid growth of the slave population up to the year 1715. A "common computation" in the eighteenth century was that each field hand should produce about a ton of marketable rice annually. If this rule of thumb was applicable to the 1715 situation, every five or six barrels of rice exported represented the labor of one field hand. On this basis, a minimum of 3,500 slaves was engaged full-time in rice growing, as opposed to perhaps 500 in 1700. While such figuring must be used cautiously, the demand for slaves for the rice fields had to be sharp since many slaves in this period must have worked primarily to clear and ready new rice lands for cultivation.
Rice was a labor-intensive crop – at least for the slaves – as this 1775 account explains:
The first business is to drain the swamp, in which work they have no particular methods deserving notice, or which are unknown in England. The moment they have got the water off they attack the trees, which in some swamps are very numerous; these they cut down at the root, leaving the stumps in the earth. ... However they do not wait for the ground being cleared of them, but proceed to plant their rice among the stumps. In March, April, and May they plant; the negroes draw furrows eighteen inches asunder, and about three inches deep, in which the seeds are sown; a peck is sufficient for an acre of land: as soon as planted they let in the water to a certain depth, which is, during the season of its growth, repeated, and drawn off several times; but most of the growth is while the water is eight, nine, or ten inches deep on the land. The great object of the culture is to keep the land clean from weeds, which is absolutely necessary, and the worst weed is grass . ... This is the only object till it is reaped, which is usually about the latter end of August or beginning of September. Like wheat in England, they prefer cutting it while the straw is a little green, leaving it on the stubble to dry and wither two or three days in case the weather is favorable: after which they lay it up in barns or stacks . ... The next operation ... is the threshing of it, after which it is winnowed, which was formerly a very tedious operation, but now much accelerated by the use of a windfan. When winnowed it is ground, to free the rice from the husk; this is winnowed again, and put into a mortar large enough to hold half a bushel, in which it is beat with a pestle by negroes, to free it from its thick skin; this is a very laborious work. In order to free it from the flour and dust made by the pounding, it is sifted; and again through another sieve, called a market sieve, which separates the broken and small rice, after which it is put up in barrels, and is ready for market. ... The reader must observe upon this account that the cultivation of it is dreadful: for if a work could be imagined peculiarly unwholesome and even fatal to health, it must be that of standing like the negroes, angle and mid-leg deep in water which floats an ouzy mud, and exposed all the while to a burning sun which makes the air they breathe hotter than the human blood; these poor wretches are then in a furness of stinking putrid effluvia.
Through time there were "improvements" such as the introduction of tidal or steam threshing mills, but the slaves' work in the fields was always the same.

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