How African Rice Growers Enriched America!

By Neenah Payne

“The greatest service which can be rendered any country is to add a useful plant to its culture.” — Thomas Jefferson.

Beans and rice are a daily staple in all Caribbean as well as Central and South American countries – for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Where did that rice come from which is so central to the daily diets of millions of people in the Western hemisphere? Most people might assume that the rice came from Asia. However, Elijah Shabazz, a Black American researcher from South Carolina, explains that throwing rice at weddings is an African tradition! So, next time you go to a wedding and throw rice, remember that you are participating in an ancient African custom.

In the video “The Fulani Origins of The ‘Redbone’ People of America — Part 1”, Shabazz explains how he discovered that his roots in South Carolina linked his family to the Fulani of Guinea in Africa. He points out that the slave trade is usually presented as one of capturing a backwards people who were forced to do manual labor in America. However, he shows that slave traders prized the Fulani people of Guinea for their valuable knowledge including their rice-growing skills — skills Europeans didn’t have.

The Gullah (Fulani) people of South Carolina did not experience the brutal chattel slavery of the cotton plantations because their knowledge and skills in growing rice were so important to. They made South Carolina fabulously rich! So, the Gullah were able to maintain much of their African culture intact — and they still count in the Fulani language today.

The sophisticated knowledge and skills of the African rice-growers enriched the American economy, diet, and culture. However, they were not given credit for that powerful contribution until recently.

Sophisticated Knowledge of African Rice Growers

Black Rice: The African Origins of Rice Cultivation in the Americas shows that the Gulf of Guinea was called the “Rice Coast”. South Carolina was exporting rice to Europe and became so rich from those skilled African rice growers that it started the Civil War because it knew it could survive without the North. The book explains that Africans have been growing rice for 5,000 years using different strains of African rice in a wide variety of very challenging terrains and climates.

Nevertheless, until the 1970s, Portuguese traders were given credit for introducing Asian rice to Africa! As the book says, it was never explained how sailors would know anything about growing rice – especially under very challenging conditions in multiple environments. There was reluctance to admit that Africans were advanced agriculturalists. Yet, they were valued and sought for exactly those skills.

Amazon says of the book:

Few Americans identify slavery with the cultivation of rice, yet rice was a major plantation crop during the first three centuries of settlement in the Americas. Rice accompanied African slaves across the Middle Passage throughout the New World to Brazil, the Caribbean, and the southern United States.

By the middle of the eighteenth century, rice plantations in South Carolina and the black slaves who worked them had created one of the most profitable economies in the world. Black Rice tells the story of the true provenance of rice in the Americas. It establishes, through agricultural and historical evidence, the vital significance of rice in West African society for a millennium before Europeans arrived and the slave trade began.

The standard belief that Europeans introduced rice to West Africa and then brought the knowledge of its cultivation to the Americas is a fundamental fallacy, one which succeeds in effacing the origins of the crop and the role of Africans and African-American slaves in transferring the seed, the cultivation skills, and the cultural practices necessary for establishing it in the New World. In this vivid interpretation of rice and slaves in the Atlantic world, Judith Carney reveals how racism has shaped our historical memory and neglected this critical African contribution to the making of the Americas.

When Rice Was King: How South Carolina Became Rich

You may have heard of “King Cotton”. However, few people know that rice was king first!

“When Rice was King- South Carolina’s Rice Plantations” explains that by the Revolutionary War, the Carolina low country had been transformed to grow a crop that made Charleston, SC the richest town in America — with twice the wealth of New York or Philadelphia. “Carolina Gold” was considered the world’s best rice! Coveted worldwide including by the royalty of Europe and Asia for its superior flavor and texture, “Carolina Gold” was the crop that defined the South Carolina economy for two centuries.

The video “The History of Rice in the South Carolina Lowcountry with Anthony Bourdain – Mind of a Chef” provides a brief history but fails to give full credit to the rice, knowledge, and skills of Africans!

Africans from the west coast of Africa quickly became the enslavers’ choice for rice planters because Africans of the “Grain Coast” were rice farmers themselves as they still are today. So, enslavers recruited skilled agronomists – rice scientists – to transfer their knowledge to America. Although Americans prized that experience and were greatly enriched by it, they weren’t willing to pay rice growers for their skills.

“Rice Plantations in SC” points out that slavery in South Carolina was the most industrial form because the scale was so great. It says that by 1720, enslaved Black people outnumbered Whites by more than two to one in the Carolina low country. From the late 1600s until the 1830s, millions of pounds of rice were grown and milled by hand in South Carolina.

While rice was creating a planter aristocracy, the enslaved Africans kept much of their culture alive. They continued to speak Gullah right up to the 21th century – a language that connects them to Africa. They even continue today to weave baskets exactly like some of those woven now in Africa!

Rice-Producing Regions of Africa

The 1989 documentary Family Across The Sea shows that Gullah-speaking descendants of slaves from South Carolina and Georgia from South Carolina visited the area of Sierra Leone known as the “Rice and Grain Coast”. There, they found the roots of their culture still intact.

“Gullah Homecoming – Sierra Leone & Gullah People Reunite” points out that the lands in South Carolina and Georgia are mirrors of the lands in West Africa.  The video shows the people of Sierra Leone seeing a basket woven by the Gullah people – one that looks just like the baskets woven in Sierra Leone today! Sierra Leone is in the midst of what was called the “Rice Coast” or the “Grain Coast”.

There were hundreds of rice plantations in South Carolina and Georgia for 200 years. It was African knowledge that made the plantations successful. Only Africans arrived in America with centuries of experience growing rice. It was African technology that created the intricate dykes and waterways all along the southeast coast of America. It was perhaps the greatest lands-forming in human history.

The video explains that the slave trade in Sierra Leone was very specialized because it was focused on sending people to the rice-growing plantations in South Carolina and Georgia. The slave trade corrupted the whole fabric of African life. Interestingly, one of the enslavers was ship captain John Newcombe who later renounced slavery and wrote the famous song “Amazing Grace”.

Columbian Exchange Brings Rice to the Americas

Black Rice: The African Origins of Rice Cultivation in the Americas explains that the transfer of seeds and animals between Africa, the Americas, and Europe starting in the 15th century proved so important that it became known as “The Columbian Exchange”. The initial crops were from Africa. Rice is prominent in the daily diet of all Caribbean, Central American, and South American countries today for that reason.

The first groups of slaves arriving in the New World were from the region from Senegal to Sierra Leone. In Peru between 1548-1560, 75% of the slaves came from the rice-growing region of Senegambia and Guinea-Bissau. In Mexico in 1549, 88% of the slaves originated from the same region. The book says:

The geographic pattern of the Atlantic slave trade for the sixteenth century in Latin America means that there were abundant numbers of slaves with the knowledge and skills to pioneer the cultivation of their principal food staple.

The book explains that in 1843, Bernardo Pereira de Vasconcelos said in the Brazilian Chamber of Deputies “It is Africa that has civilized Brazil.” A whole material civilization, including nutritional practices, was implanted in tropical America in the African populations and among those of European origin. It was an imported African material civilization.

The Palmares settlement in the Brazilian state of Alagoas, the largest community of runaway slaves in the Americas, included 20,000 escaped slaves. For most of the 17th century, it was an African nation in Brazil with a well-organized system of agriculture where Blacks planted extensive, well-irrigated fields of cereal. Rice figured prominently in the communities of runaway slaves throughout Brazil.

The book adds:

Nowhere in the Americas did rice play such an important economic role as in South Carolina where rice became the first cereal to be globally traded. Charleston, SC became one of the greatest concentrations of wealth in the world and rice delivered princely fortunes for 150 years. Rice relied exclusively on slave labor to plant, harvest, and mill the crop for overseas markets.

Historian Daniel C. Littlefield, author of Rice and Slaves: Ethnicity and the Slave Trade in Colonial South Carolina (Blacks in the New World), noted that during the crucial period of rice development in South Carolina, more than 40% of the slaves there came from West African rice-farming areas. Planters requested people from ethnic groups that possessed the crucial knowledge and skills for rice cultivation.

Highly Skilled African Rice Growers Recruited For America

Black Rice: The African Origins of Rice Cultivation in the Americas discusses the enormous range of skills of the rice growers on the west coast of Africa. The book has a map similar to the one below but which shows just the flow of rice and enslaved skilled African rice growers from the rice-producing nations of West Africa to the plantations in South Carolina and throughout the Americas.

Joseph Opala is an American anthropologist/historian noted for establishing the “Gullah Connection,” the links between the people of the West African nation of Sierra Leone and the Gullah people of the Low Country region of South Carolina and Georgia in the United States. Along the coast of the Carolinas, they are known as Gullah, but in Georgia and northern Florida they are called Geechee.

Opala’s interest in Sierra Leone began with his service in the U.S. Peace Corps from 1974 to 1977. He found that Carolinian Henry Laurens was the slave trader enslaving Africans on Bunce Island off the coast of Sierra Leone. He enslaved skilled rice growers at the request of Richard Oswald, a wealthy British merchant and the owner of a South Carolina plantation. Oswald asked Laurens to enslave people  who had rice-growing expertise.  Other planters in South Carolina did likewise. The transfer of that unmatched knowledge and skills made the planters in that state extremely wealthy.

Sierra Leone and South Carolina Connection

Opala drew on history, archaeology, and oral traditions and found historical evidence that British slave traders had controlled Bunce Island off the coast of Sierra Leone. Opala was the first scholar to identify the slave yards for enslaved African men and women held on the island pending shipment to America.

After Opala left Sierra Leone in 1979, he did archival research in the US and UK. He discovered that many of the slaves who passed through Bunce Island were shipped to South Carolina and Georgia. The rice planters in those colonies were eager to purchase captive peoples from Sierra Leone and other parts of West Africa who were skilled in growing rice. He also found that there were strong linguistic connections between the Gullah people, the descendants of the rice-growing slaves still living in coastal South Carolina and Georgia today, and Sierra Leone. Linguists had been pointing to those connections for years without having the historical data to explain them.

Wikipedia says:

Opala’s historical research began with a study of Bunce Island, the British slave castle in Sierra Leone that was a departure point for many African slaves shipped to South Carolina and Georgia in the mid- and late 18th century Middle Passage. He was the first scholar to recognize that Bunce Island has greater importance for the Gullah than any other West African slave castle. He ranks it as “the most important historic site in Africa for the United States… In 2010, Opala announced the start of a $5 million project to preserve Bunce Island”.

Opala has traveled between Sierra Leone and the South Carolina and Georgia Low Country for 25 years, producing documentary films, museum exhibits, and popular publications on this historical connection. He is best known for a series of “Gullah Homecomings” in which Gullah people traveled to Sierra Leone to explore their historical and family ties to that country.

Opala’s research and public history events generated a national dialog in Sierra Leone on the subject of family lost in the Atlantic slave trade. These discussions have continued for almost three decades. The Sierra Leone media first coined the phrase “Gullah Connection” for the family ties which Opala has brought to light. He helped generate a similar dialog in the South Carolina and Georgia Low Country.

His work has helped Gullahs recognize their links to African traditions.

The Gullahs live in the Low Country region of South Carolina and Georgia on the coastal plain and the long chain of Sea Islands that runs parallel to the coast. They have preserved more of their African cultural heritage than any other black community in the US, including a creole language that contains strong African influences. They also have a cuisine, storytelling, music, religious beliefs, spiritual practices, herbal medicines, handicrafts, etc. that exhibit strong African influences.

African Roots of Carolina Gold

African Roots, Carolina Gold discusses the African contribution to the immensely lucrative South Carolina rice industry. Joseph Opala, who teaches African-American history at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, has examined the similarities between lowcountry Gullah culture and that of the “Rice Coast” of West Africa, a 700-mile, six-nation region.

Opala worked for 17 years in Sierra Leone where rice is not only the nation’s staple crop but it is also central to the people’s identity. “They’d say, ‘Joe, we’re Sierra Leoneans, we’re rice eaters. We eat rice three times a day, morning, noon, and night. Other foods are fine, but if we ever go to bed with our bellies empty of rice, we’re just miserable.’” When Opala later visited the South Carolina sea islands, people explained, “We’re Gullah, we’re rice eaters. If we don’t have rice, we’re miserable.” How could two peoples separated by the Atlantic Ocean describe themselves in such similar ways?

Since Africans of the Rice Coast and many lowcountry Blacks have a shared ancestry split by slavery, centuries and human bondage didn’t destroy their many cultural links, particularly those of traditional foodways. Opala says,

The dishes prepared in Sierra Leone are very similar to ones that are traditionally prepared in South Carolina, and in some cases have exactly the same names. When I told Sierra Leoneans that the Gullah eat okra soup, red rice, and rice and greens, they became convinced that lowcountry people were family.

In the video “Gullah Traditions of the South Carolina Coast”, Anita Singleton-Pratner points out that you cannot have the complete story of American history without South Carolina history and you cannot have South Caroline history without Gullah history.

Over the past few decades, scholars have unearthed evidence that many cultivation techniques used on early rice plantations in North America originated on the Rice Coast of West Africa. West Africans had been growing rice for thousands of years.  By the 1720s, Carolina rice growers were telling slave traders that they wanted Africans from the Rice Coast above all others. Africans had expertise growing rice and Europeans did not. Certain African ethnic groups were sought because they had an ancient tradition of rice cultivation. These were learned people from West Africa who had discovered thousands of years ago how to grow rice in a wide variety of terrains under multiple climate conditions.

Planters who had African rice growers who used the tidal method grew fabulously wealthy. By 1700, Carolina was cultivating more rice than there were ships available to carry it across the Atlantic. By 1720, rice was the low country’s most valuable export commodity. Yet, for generations, Europeans were given exclusive credit for introducing rice into the Americas. Now, the credit due Africans is finally being given for their deep knowledge and extensive skills that so enriched South Carolina and America. Carolina Gold Rice grown with African knowledge and skill was the world’s first globally-traded food commodity!

Riches to Ruin: Pharaohs of the New World

In 1860, South Carolina was the third wealthiest state — after Connecticut and Louisiana. The South Carolina ruling elite were among the oldest and wealthiest class in America. South Carolina opposed emancipation to protect its wealth created by skilled rice-growing enslaved Africans. Its rice wealth led South Carolina to be the first state to secede from the union to oppose freedom for Blacks. Secession led to the Civil War that threatened to tear the nation apart and killed 620,000 to 750,000 people — more than the number of US military deaths in all other wars combined until the Vietnam War.

Riches to Ruin: Pharaohs of the New World reports:

On the eve of the American Revolution, a close-knit group of super-wealthy planters had come of age along the southern Atlantic seaboard. Their extraordinary affluence derived from rice estates in North Carolina. The heart of this rice empire was South Carolina; its capital was Charleston…. As hard-eyed capitalists, determined to protect their wealth, they held an avid devotion to slavery.

Indeed, these estates were the first commercial farming operations on the continent, growing crops for global markets… Slave drivers, who supervised fellow blacks, often knew more about rice cultivation than slaveholders… Only 50 years after the colony’s founding, rice cultivation and slavery already dominated South Carolina’s economy.

The quickest way for a prosperous white man to get extremely rich in British North America was to buy slaves and Lowcountry swampland—called “the Golden Mines of Carolina” by a 1770 observer—and start a rice farm. On the eve of the American Revolution, Carolina gold rice made the Lowcountry the wealthiest area in North America, and perhaps the richest in the world, noted historian Coclanis.

Peter Coclanis is the author of The Shadow of a Dream: Economic Life and Death in the South Carolina Low Country, 1670-1920.

Joseph Opala says:

From the 1720s to 1860, no other commodity was remotely as important to the region as rice. Indigo, cotton, forest products, and manufacturing never came close to matching the riches that planters drew from slave-based rice production.

Suddenly, the rice planters’ economic strategy emerged as the model for South Carolina and the entire South. Now upland planters were also using slave labor to grow staple crops for the global marketplace. “The rice planters created the culture and institution of slavery in North America, and the cotton planters wanted to imitate them,” says Rowland. Lawrence Rowland is the author of The History of Beaufort County, South Carolina 1514-1861.

In the summer and fall of 1860, South Carolina leaders declared they were prepared to leave the Union if Republican presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln, who opposed Western expansion of slavery, was elected. After Lincoln’s election, South Carolina representatives gathered in Charleston in December 1860 and voted to withdraw from the Union.

David Dwyer, president of the Historic Ricefields Association, Inc. said “The rice planters created the only aristocracy we’d had in this country.” Viewing the beautiful antebellum homes in Charleston or Beaufort, few tourists know the source of this wealth. “A lot of people don’t realize that the great houses of Charleston existed because of the rice plantations,” says Julie Hensley, project director of the new Caw Caw Interpretive Center.

Giving Credit Where Credit Is Due Now

Black Rice: The African Origins of Rice Cultivation in the Americas points out:

Long before millions were transported across the Middle Passage, West Africans had refined an elaborate food production system that displayed acute knowledge of landscape gradient, soil principles, moisture regimes, farming by submersion, hydrology, and tidal dynamics, and the mechanism to impound water and to control its flow. The result was an array of rice production zones with a management portfolio more diverse than those occurring in Asia and more finely nuanced by micro-environmental soil and water parameters…..

But African ingenuity in Carolina rice cultivation….would over time be attributed to Europeans. To the Portuguese who enslaved them in Africa and to the English and French slaveholders who relied on them to create Carolina’s rice landscapes would go the credit for the inventive irrigated rice system Africans had developed under diverse wetland circumstances. Planter memoirs would celebrate the brilliant cultivation system invented by their forebears, while reducing the “savages” from the Guinea Coast to mere lackeys in their glorious schemes.

The book quotes from one memoir:

Rice culture reached a development and a degree of perfection in the Carolina lowlands which had not been attained in any other rice-growing country in two thousand years…Nothing but an ocular inspection…can give an adequate idea of the skilful [sic] engineering and patient, intelligent supervision that went to the successful result. The only labor at the disposal of the settlers who accomplished the feat was of the most unskilled character, African savages fresh from the Guinea coast. It was an achievement no less skilful than that which excites our wonder in viewing the works of the ancient Egyptians…The Southern planter who accomplished this result was a man who worked with his brains on an extended scale.

However, as the book explains, the only “work” the planters did was to request that the slave traders recruit the skilled African rice growers from the West Coast of Africa where they had been growing rice in very sophisticated systems over multiple terrains and climates since 3,000 BC! It says:

In South Carolina … slaves from Gambia headed the list of planter preferences in the formative period of rice development….the records do demonstrate a demand by Carolina planers for bondsmen from specific regions where rice was grown. ‘Gold Coast or Gambias are best, next to them the Windward Coast are prefer’d to Angolas,’ wrote Henry Laurens, one of the leading slave importers in South Carolina in 1755….planters sought the specific skills of slaves originating in the rice region.

Newspapers advertised impending sales of slaves skilled in rice; one ad in Charleston boasted of 250 slaves ‘from the Windward and Rice Coast, valued for their knowledge of rice culture’….Such prior awareness explains the stated preferences of planters for slaves from Gambia and the Windward Coast (Sierra Leone) during the crucial period of the eighteenth-century tidal rice development. Also evident is the pattern of direct imports to South Carolina of slaves from outposts of English slaving along the Gambia River and Bunce Island in Sierra Leone where this knowledge was especially concentrated.

Carolina-born, English-educated Henry Laurens, for example, had a special trading relationship with a wealthy British merchant Richard Oswald, who owned the British slave factory on Bunce Island located on the Sierra Leone River. From 1750 to 1787 Laurens and Oswald organized the slave trade from Sierra Leone, with Laurens importing Oswald’s human cargoes directly to Charleston.

Joseph Opala discovered the connection between Oswald and Laurens as well as Oswald’s use of Bunce Island to hold enslaved Africans before their transport over the Middle Passage to Laurens in South Carolina.

America Received Massive Intellectual Aid From Africa

We hear about financial “aid” America  gives Africa, but hear nothing about the massive intellectual aid Africa provided America which was the basis of much of America’s initial prosperity. Black Rice: The African Origins of Rice Cultivation in the Americas points out that colonists in Virginia grew rice — but only as a rain-fed crop in keeping with the tradition of farming they brought with them from Europe.

It says,

Virginian colonists possessed no prior experience with growing crops under submersion in wetlands. Even though rice can be cultivated with rainfall, the yields are much lower than from planting the crop in wetlands. The feasibility of rice as an export crop would depend upon obtaining and mastering this knowledge.

The book adds:

The cultivation of rice in wetlands….depended upon the presence of ethnic groups skilled in growing the cereal in water. By the end of the seventeenth century, a new way of growing rice had appeared in South Carolina, cultivation in swamps….This manner of growing rice depended….on the presence of representatives of a farming system practiced in germinating seeds for growth in standing water. Such an agricultural system developed in just two areas of the world, Asia and West Africa.

So, without the knowledge and aid of Africans skilled in growing rice in wetlands, South Carolina would have been limited to growing rain-fed rice which is less lucrative. However, to prepare rice not just for local consumption, but for export to overseas markets, it would have to be milled before shipment. The consumption of rice depends upon removing the indigestible hull and bran without damaging the grain they enclose. This was not so easily accomplished at the end of the 17th century with available forms of European milling.

However, African women used a mortar and pestle to mill rice. The book explains:

A report from 1700 suggests the transfer of this knowledge had already taken place by the late 1600s. Edward Randolph, who visited the colony twice in 1697 and 1698, implied the African method of processing rice with mortar and pestle was being used in South Carolina in his report to the Board of Trade, writing, ‘They have now found out the true way of raising and husking Rice….’ The shift of rice from a subsistence crop to an export crop over the decades from 1690s to 1720s was indicative of the cereal’s increasing economic importance in the colony. Exports reached 330 tons in 1699, and by the 1720s, rice emerged as the colony’s leading item of trade.

So, South Carolina’s sudden explosive prosperity depended not just on the hard work of African slaves. It depended primarily on the unmatched knowledge and skills of Africa rice growers in both how to grow rice in optimal conditions and how to prepare rice for export. It’s time now to acknowledge this key aid intellectual America received from Africa which fueled its early prosperity.

Rice Museum Video

In “The Rice Museum” video, James Fitch, Director of The Rice Museum in Georgetown, South Carolina explains how important rice is to the history of South Carolina. He says that it was the West Africans’ technology that made rice growing a success in South Carolina.  Fitch says that the amount of labor involved in preparing the land for cultivation has been compared to the building of the pyramids!

Fitch explains that the “Trunk Dock” was the big West African invention that made tidal flow agriculture successful. Black Rice: The African Origins of Rice Cultivation in the Americas explains that it was called a “trunk” because the technology was derived from the West African technology in which tree trunks were used to make the wet lands suitable for rice growing. The Trunk Dock functioned as a flood gate that could be opened and closed as needed. It was a key adaptation that made growing rice in tidal areas possible. Fitch points out that the rice was also milled in the West African style.

The Rice Museum website is at: http://www.ricemuseum.org/

The staggering success of the African innovations in rice production are shown in the fact that while South Carolina exported only half a million pounds in 1770, by 1776, it exported 60 million pounds!

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