Sunday, November 29, 2009
Responsibility in Business: Imperialism, Africans, and Rice in the South Carolina Trade
[The plaque in this photo contains some serious contradictions to actual history and represents the "manufactured" history of early Carolina plantationists. Rice was not the result of a ship from Madagascar nor was it introduced by West Africans. It was the deliberate intention of the Board of Trade to establish a lucrative cash crop in the newly-chartered colony of Carolina as of 1663. The following is a research paper that developed as an offshoot from my paper on Brunswick Town and Wilmington. I was curious about the rice agriculture connection with the Lower Cape Fear and the apparent re-structure of history to hide certain details. The historical record seemed disjoint and confused. I found some interesting details about early British Imperialism and how America simply learned its business habits from the British system. Quite the eye-opener! This information was found in the records, true. But, it still continues in current issues like a ghost that never goes away. Think about modern Imperialism as you read and see if you don't find some comparisons yourself...]
Barbados, an island nation founded by the British, has remained staunchly British throughout its entire history. Furthermore, it has also been the locus of intense anti-Parliamentary and Anglican immigration (later known as “Tories”) after the English Civil War, through the Glorious Revolution, and continually throughout the eighteenth century. A dark cloud of imperialism covered the island nation, a symptom of the massive storm that swept across the continent of Africa for centuries. Barbadian lands quickly became incapable of supporting English capitalistic fervor. Barbadians, for lack of a nice way to phrase it, “raped” their own island. However, this unsavory tendency covered more than mere real estate. In 1670, these unscrupulous businessmen brought those practices to Carolina, along with an increasing number of enslaved Africans, along with their “purchased” agricultural ability.
Duke of Albemarle to Lord Willoughby, August 31, 1663:
Presumes he is not a stranger to his Majesty's grant of the province of Carolina, which the Lords Proprietors have undertaken, to serve his Majesty and his people, and not for their own private interest. There are some persons in Barbadoes who have set forth their desires of beginning a settlement in those parts, which the Duke conceives will be rather advantageous to Willoughby's Government, for it will divert them from planting commodities with which his plantation abounds and put them upon such as the land of Barbados will not produce, and which the King has not yet in his territories, as wine, oil, raisins, currants, rice, silk, &c., as well as corn, meal, flour, beef, and pork, which will in a short time abound in that country.
The Duke of Albemarle, concerned about overproduction in his West Indies colony, enthusiastically recruited settlers for the Carolinas from Barbados. As one of the eight Lords Proprietors for the newly-chartered Carolina colony, Albemarle was most concerned for peopling his new colony with skilled plantation owners and laborers. These aristocratic Barbadians and their large plantations, reputed for large levels of sugar production, would be most inclined toward the quicker profit. As any corporate firm today, they conducted “R & D,” or extensive research to confirm the ideal solutions to their economic problems. From an early date, even before Barbadian settlers arrived, British officials and Proprietors planned for rice production in Carolina, a commodity that would become financially second only to maize, or corn in the Americas.
An ominous side-effect of the Barbadian immigration was the influx of immense numbers of slaves to Carolina. British historian, Mark Govier regards the Royal African Company (RAC) as “part of the social and economic order which chose slavery as the most viable means of generating wealth….” The second incarnation of the RAC, approved by King Charles II on April 22, 1663, historically paralleled the Carolina Charter of 1663. By 1708, only forty-five years later, historians generally agree that slaves outnumbered white colonists in Carolina. Moreover, these slaves came mostly from regions of West Africa where rice production had occurred for centuries. The timing and transplantation was intentional. Removal of skilled agricultural labor from West Africa may have proved beneficial to Carolina planters; however, the general practice eventually proved disastrous for the continent of Africa. Scholars have argued that the Atlantic Slave Trade “transformed Africa economically, politically, and socially.” Tories began this unique brand of highly profitable and destructive capitalism that fed the heavy slave/rice symbiosis but, economically capable Whigs refined it and proved more effective at it.
A London merchant commented in 1666 that Carolina "Meadows are very proper for Rice, Rapeseed, Linseed, etc., and may many of them be made to overflow at pleasure with a small charge." Charles Town on the Ashley River received from the Lords Proprietors a barrel of rice on 23 April 1672. In a 1677 letter to the council of Carolina, the Proprietors stated that they were "Layinge out in Severall places" [seeking] proper seeds and plants, including rice, for the colony. Any exploration of the debate must begin with establishing the highly contested fact that the business acumen of British officials was ultimately responsible for the development of rice culture in Carolina. Carolinians sought the proper crops and rice culture was well known to them by 1677. The South Carolina Historical Commission’s report in 1919 details the primary sources that prove this. Plantation processes had been in development for years, practiced in Africa and on various islands, like Sao Tome. English businessmen knew of the similarity of the West African climate to Carolina and observed Africans and their rice culture techniques for more than a century. All that remained for the Carolina decision in the late seventeenth century was what crops to use.
Obviously, the Lords Proprietors knew a great deal about the possibilities of rice production to turn a profit. Even the traditionally “South Carolinian” tidal culture myth that still persists today can easily be dispelled by observing the South Carolina Historical Commission’s investigations in 1919. Carolinian pride continually holds onto their myth while eager Africanists argue for great levels of Carolina slave negotiation and withholding technical knowledge of rice agriculture to achieve their ends. Neither point of view turns out to be correct. As indicated earlier, the truth is a compromise between them.
Lord Albemarle became aware of rice production through the long-term study of Africans in their native setting as well as relatively minor observations of Italian rice production. John Stewart, aware of this knowledge, experimented with rice cultivation in Virginia prior to the Barbadian migration to Carolina. His experiments involved rice planted “as barley,” or sown by broadcast methods on higher ground than tidal marshes, the more common method from coastal Africa. A difficulty in the debate is that Africans themselves grew rice in and out of these tidal marshes. The inland “red” husked variety of the Baga was often sought by slave ship captains as a cheap way to feed their “cargo.” However, this variety may not have proven very productive in Carolina. Experimentation occurred for many years in Carolina and by many different planters on an individual basis, often repeating similar trials. As a result, the lucrative methods of tidal marsh techniques, utilizing normally worthless lands, evaded “discovery” for quite some time in Carolina. One must not mistake putting aside certain knowledge temporarily to experiment with new methods for the complete absence of that knowledge. Even so, that knowledge came from extensive observations in Africa.
Rice was not new to the Guinea Coast. Native to sub-Saharan Africa, Ozyra glaberrima, or African rice may have been domesticated in the floodplains at the bend of the Niger River some 2,000–3,000 years ago. The Portuguese first witnessed rice growing in the floodplains and marshes of the Upper Guinea Coast in 1446. Gomes Eanes de Azurara described his voyage along the coast sixty leagues south of Cape Verde, where a handful of men navigated a river, probably the Gambia. On its shores, “they found much of the land sown, and many cotton trees and many fields sown with rice, and also other trees of different kinds. And he said that all that land seemed to him like marshes.” Alvise da Cadamosto, in 1455, confirmed Azurara’s observations commenting on the many varieties of rice that were grown in the Gambian area. The Muslim scholar, al-Bakri gives the first indication of deliberate cultivation along the Niger River in 1068, indicating that Islamic agriculturalists probably experimented with the grain prior to Portuguese contact. Eustache de la Fosse in 1479–1480 observed that rice growth was not confined to the valley of the Gambia River. Rather, it was spread out among many populations living along the West African coast known as the “Southern Rivers.”
Portuguese explorers also found rice among the Jola, living in the area between Casamance and Guinea Bissau, as well as the Landuma, and the Biafadas, both of whom still grow the crop in Guinea Bissau and Guinea Conakry. Valentim Fernandes, a secondhand contemporary account (1506–1510) of the Gambian Mandinka, remarks that ‘‘this land [Gambia] is rich in food, to wit rice, millet and beans, cows and oats, chickens and capons and numerous wines and other food products.’’ He remarked especially on their food, “… like that of the Wolof [of Senegal] except that they eat more rice and they have so much that they take it to sell and exchange…”
European scholarship presumed that the observed irrigation techniques of the Mandinka resulted from earlier Portuguese contact when, in fact, the “Portuguese were attempting to understand this form of rice cultivation.” Along the coast from the Gambia River to Sierra Leone, rice proved so abundant that Portuguese ships routinely provisioned their ships with it, often purchasing it from ethnic groups like the Baga, with whom they also began a trade in Indigo. The early trade relationship with the Baga seems relevant since both of these crops are later grown in the Carolinas. The predilection for “red” rice to feed slaves in transport also hints at a strong trade connection with the Baga. Expanding commerce with Portugal included rice from Cape Verde, then intentionally grown on the island. “In 1514 rice appears on cargo lists departing the Cape Verde Islands, and one record from 1530 mentions the deliberate export of rice seed to Brazil.” Certainly, English merchants and slave traders in West African waters gained knowledge of rice agriculture through the investigations conducted by their Portuguese counterparts. Indeed, trade secrets lived a relatively short life during these intrepid times.
English privateer and slave trader, John Hawkins raided the coast of Sierra Leone in 1562 and 1564, taking slaves and their caches of grain, including rice. Ship captains routinely bartered for shipments of the red-husked rice grown by the Baga in interior regions of Africa because it lasted longer on sea voyages. About the time of the Lords Proprietor’s 1677 letter to the Carolina council, the British had become acutely aware of the African source. Of course, they pondered the African agricultural aptitude in its cultivation, especially considering the use of Africans, already proven valuable in the Atlantic Slave Trade. A 1675 notation in British records shows “Description of rivers, capes, places, and towns in Africa, ‘in 6 deg. 50 m., N. lat.,’ also the trade and advantages of each place, being elephants' teeth, rice, gold, slaves, corn, &c.” This reference indicates renewed English interest in products like African rice, indigo, and slaves by the latter half of the seventeenth century.
Another factor that would become important in the future African Slave Trade with Carolina and other American colonies during the 1670s was the rise to power of Osei Tutu, the first king of the Asante. Tutu and his successor, Opoku Ware increased the power of the Asante and solidified their control over the trade routes from the African Gold Coast. São Jorge da Mina (St. George of the Mine) Castle in Elmina, first established by the Portuguese as a local trade hub in 1482, later became one of the most important stops on the Atlantic Slave Trade. Consequently, between slaves and gold, the Asante Empire became the most lucrative trade center on the West African coast. “If you have no master, someone will catch you and sell you for what you are worth,” goes the Asante proverb, indicating a cultural evolutionary trend. Business for the Africans was brisk. And many European nations found a rapacious profit in the African trade, for “African demand and competition between Europeans made it impossible to regulate…”
At Comenda the Dutch and we [British] have factories in negroes' houses. Castle S. George de Mina, the Dutch chief castle, with commonly 180 to 200 white soldiers and about 46 guns mounted; a horse pistol shot from it they have a castle on top of a hill called St. Agoe, of 24 guns, which commands the Mine Castle. Cape Corso, where is our castle… At Anathan, 7 miles from Morea, we had a fort there formerly of 12 or 14 guns, which for want of repair is fallen down, but the guns remain except Agent. Mellish hath fetched them away. Annamabo, where was a small fort built by the Swedes, but in possession of the Dutch when we took it from them, was blown up, and a small charge will rebuild it. May land or go aboard if wars, in spite of Natives. Agga, where was formerly a Dutch castle, but blown up by the English, who have had a factory there ever since.
This note in the journals of the Board of Trade and Plantations demonstrates that the British trade network through the Asante had been well established on the West African coast by 1675, even amidst the vagaries of “official” Dutch occupation. Competition proved the greatest trade factor, not political sovereignty. In fact, European vessels vied for African trade goods and slaves, their ships becoming virtual floating “supermarkets.” This enthusiasm for trade arguably survives today, although back-handed politics have largely outmoded the guns.
More than 95% of the American slave influx went to sugar plantations in Brazil and the West Indies. Rice production, symbiotically linked to the slave trade, though a smaller economic singularity became as specifically important to the eighteenth-century Carolina economy as sugar related to Brazil or Barbados. The Board of Trade offered a variety of crop choices to maximize each colony, well aware that not all of them had identical climatic conditions. “As to the Africa trade, that depends on them [Northern colonies] as well as the Sugar Islands, tobacco and rice plantations requiring negroes as well as they.”
A further detail of African rice cultivation attracted the Lords Proprietor’s attention long before the preliminary development of the colony of Carolina in 1670. Valentim Fernandes (c. 1506-1510) recorded the first description of tidal rice cultivation along the floodplains of Senegambia where rice was submerged by tidal flow, a technique that proved immensely valuable in Carolina. Important to coastal regions of Africa even today, flood-recession agriculture, or décrue, an enhancement of the tidal technique, employs a system of planting on the floodplains after the beginning of the dry season. Reduced volumes of river water in the dry season causes available fresh water to retreat, so planting within the recently water-filled floodplain takes advantage of stored moisture in the soil. A second crop could be produced in a single season. English trader and explorer, Richard Jobson also described flood-recession tidal agriculture on the Gambia River in 1620-21.
Africans had developed an expertise in these methods, a definite advantage to the Low-country planter of Carolina in search of skilled slave labor. English colonists in Carolina had the daunting task of applying that knowledge to their specific situation. That involved experimentation with technique, discarding some information and developing variations to accommodate African techniques to Carolina. This caused some confusion. An excerpt from James Clifton’s “Golden Grains of White” tells of the misunderstandings of tidal culture in South Carolina:
"The exact date of the beginning of tidal culture [in South Carolina] will probably never be known. U. B. Phillips, borrowing from William A. Courtenay, the history-minded mayor of Charleston at the end of the nineteenth century, wrote that the first use of tidal flows was by McKewn Johnstone at Estherville Plantation on Winyah Bay in 1758. David Ray, on the other hand, maintained that it occurred much later, in 1783, on Gideon Dupont's Goose Creek plantation. However, advertisements in the South Carolina Gazette in the 1730s would seem to indicate that tidal flowing was used that early For example, the second Landgrave Smith offered land on Black River near Winyah Bay in 1737 "part of which," he declared, "is good Rice Swamp that the Spring Tide flows on." Another notice in 1738 offered two tracts of land of which "each contains as much River Swamp, as will make two Fields for 20 Negroes, which is over flow'd with fresh water, every high tide, and of consequence not subject to the Droughts." Also, Hugh Meredith, a traveling reporter for Benjamin Franklin's Pennsylvania Gazette, described the Cape Fear River ricefields in North Carolina in 1731 (rice culture had spread there in the 1720s) as: "Some are by Rivers or Runs where the Tide comes, these are overflow'd every high Tide."
The various references to plantations and advancements are indicative of the high degree of experimentation that developed in the early eighteenth-century colony of Carolina, specifically Southern Carolina and the Cape Fear region, disputed territory between both Carolina colonies before 1733. Often writers have attributed tidal culture in South Carolina to Gideon Dupont in 1783, supposedly a newly-derived technique. As shown previously, this date is rather late, compared to centuries of European observation of African tidal techniques in Gambia. As Clifton’s article points out, no consensus has been reached on the actual timing of the development of this technique in the Carolinas. In regard to the investigation of Gideon Dupont’s supposed discovery, James L. Pettigrew remarked to Robert F. W. Allston in 1843, “The water culture of Rice must have been more or less understood from the beginning…[of the Carolina colony].” He elaborates further upon the gained knowledge, proprietary as well as colonial, and…“the gradual results of experience, rather than the sudden accession of discovery.”
Early experiments with rice culture in Virginia faded with the prominence there of tobacco. However, the early seventeenth-century experiments there and brief attempts in northern Carolina, largely led to the southward diffusion to southern Carolina. Experimentation with various techniques sought the best method for the American climate. Scottish plantation manager, John Stewart claimed in 1690 to have successfully grown rice in twenty-two different locations of Virginia. Furthermore, the rice grown in Virginia appeared to be of the upland, or dryer-grown variety, yet the South Carolina crop clearly grew in tidal marshes. This indicated two varieties in the two locales. Since Ozyra Sativa and Ozyra Glabberima, the African variety, remain the two distinctive types grown in the early experiments, indeed, throughout historical time, glabberima had to have come to the American shores at some early point. Considering the level of experimentation that took place in America, and the fact that slaves enduring the “middle passage” ate the red variety of un-husked rice en route, some of that rice certainly had to land in the New World. Whether experimented with in Brazil, Virginia, or Carolina, O. glaberrima, was undoubtedly employed in those experiments. O. sativa simply proved more valuable and sturdy (important with the advent of mechanical husking techniques) in the mass-production employment in America.
Tidal rice cultivation on Carolina rice plantations settled upon the “mangrove system” of irrigation, probably first observed in West Africa as well. This technique required the construction of huge embankments to prevent intrusion of the marine waters, ridging for soil aeration, as well as an intricate system of canals and dikes to control water flow. This required heavy slave labor, first clearing the marshy fields of brush, then building “bunts,” or levees around the intended field to capture rainwater and hold it for future use. Planters constructed locks to release the water reserves at the proper time. Fields had to be kept clean of grass and weeds, periodically drained and then re-flooded, using tidal flows. Planting usually occurred in late April or May and harvested by late fall. The winter months would be spent threshing the rice and polishing it.
Henry Dethloff gives a good description of the colonial method:
The tidal system utilized the ocean tides, which when rising forced the fresh water in the coastal rivers to back up-river, and raised the water levels. The incoming tide pushed open a series of water-gates or locks and when the tides changed the gates or lock automatically closed, capturing the fresh water for irrigation until the next high tide. By the late eighteenth century this remarkable system would be used to provide "tidal power" for rice mills.
These advanced methods of rice production had been conducted in the Niger River Valley and as far east as Lake Chad in Africa for centuries. In 1594, almost a century before colonization of Carolina, Andre Alvares de Almada, a Luso-African trader based in Santiago, Cape Verde, described such a system in great detail among the estuaries from the Gambia River to Guinea Conakry. “The residents were growing their crops on the riverain deposits, and by a system of dikes had harnessed the tides to their own advantage.” Carolina also had similar climatic patterns to those regions of West Africa and the same harvesting times as African rice growers. As might be expected, similar levees and locks were employed in both Carolinas.
Altogether, British ships brought just fewer than 400,000 Africans to the Americas between 1662 and 1713, and carried just over 500,000 from the African continent. In 1999, researcher David Eltis created a CD-ROM database based on W.E.B. Dubois data at Harvard University, including data from over 26,000 voyages specifically made for slaves. This data estimates an 11 million total number of slaves involved in the Atlantic Slave Trade. Some estimates go higher, to 15 million.
David Eltis’ figures for American slave imports show an alarming increase from the period 1701-1707 to 1708-1713, in which the number of slaves from the Gold Coast more than doubled. Other areas do not show this activity. Ironically, the Dutch owned the Gold Coast since 1642. As previously demonstrated, coastal trade often operated independent of sovereign control (barely within legalities as well), contributing greatly to many European systems of trade, the British colonial trade as well. The Asante also sold their brethren to the highest bidder. Specifically concerning the British trade, English historian, Paul Monod, points out that “eighteenth-century crime and commerce were often interdependent.” Remarkably, the “closed” trade loop of the British-American mercantile system gathered most of its slaves from a Dutch-controlled region on the West African coast. The Asante became middlemen, dealing in African slaves, trading for European goods, and maintaining British influence on the coast. Historian Ronald Bailey indicated “stiff competition from other slave-trading vessels in the ‘Road,’ as the coast of Africa was called.” According to Littlefield, “Whether a slaving captain went ashore at one point or another had a direct bearing upon matters of profit or loss.”
Certainly a glaring example of modern monopoly, British authorities declared a “hands-off” approach to the American side of the demand, while garnering the maximum supply from another nation’s resources. The British Navigation Acts of 1660 and the succeeding amendments of 1661 and 1663 effectively halted Dutch competition to America and attempted to monopolize the profit. “The 1661 amendment added the ‘enumerated articles clause’ which required that certain goods and commodities including sugar, tobacco, indigo, and cotton must be exported from the colonies only to England.” Rice and molasses were added to the lists in 1704 and naval stores in 1705.
A peculiar American expression colloquially holds that rules were meant to be broken. “British law became essentially supportive of the colonial rice trade, and when the law seemed to conflict with the necessities of commerce, the law was changed or its enforcement ignored.” Dethloff’s statement, like Monod’s, agrees with the early British capitalist tendency to ignore the rules where profit was concerned. Moreover, rice agriculture in Carolina appears to be the reason for the enormous increase of the Atlantic Slave Trade to mainland America, specifically at the turn of the eighteenth century.
A direct African exchange on the American mainland developed about the same time as the Barbadian immigration to Carolina. Indeed, Barbadian capital influence extended beyond Carolina. Recent studies for the importation of slaves to Virginia show that direct African contact began in the 1670s, not long after the Royal African Company, apparently responsible for the initial connection, was founded. As rice productivity increased, Carolinian thirst for the slave trade could only be quenched through imports directly from Africa, specifically from rice-producing regions of West Africa. Daniel C. Littlefield gives significant figures in this regard:
It is immediately clear that slave cargoes derived from Africa were much larger than those originating in the New World. The average cargo from Africa for the years 1717-19 was seventy-two whereas West Indian cargoes averaged fourteen. In the 1720s, the average was 172 for Africa and six for the West Indies… under 20 percent, and perhaps as little as 15 percent, of black South Carolinians were imported from the West Indies over the course of the eighteenth century, and no more than 1 percent came from its continental neighbors in the same era.
Significantly, the first three decades of the eighteenth century witnessed a 400% growth in the overall slave trade. Still, at the turn of the eighteenth century, Carolina remained a relatively minor importer of African slaves compared with Jamaica, Barbados,and Virginia. Historian Marcus Rediker remarks that 70% of all slaves purchased by British American merchants were purchased in the “British sugar islands.” Between 1710 and 1719, Jamaica imported an average of 2,896 slaves yearly and Barbados 4,152. Still, the earliest available naval office records for Charleston, which begin in the eighteenth century, show that most slaves arriving in Carolina came directly from Africa, not the West Indies. “Fifty-six ships which entered Charleston between February 1717 and September 1719 brought 1,519 slaves, of which 931 or almost two-thirds (61 percent) were transported from Africa by thirteen carriers.”
English ships exclusively carried African slaves to the American colonies while Carolina, Georgia, and the Cape Fear of northern Carolina produced and sold increasingly large quantities of rice. Rice became “king” before the invention of the cotton gin in 1790 altered the agricultural picture to favor cotton. Carolina exports increased dramatically from 10,000 pounds of rice in 1698, 131,000 pounds in 1699, and 394,000 in 1700. Increasing world demand, probably encouraged by British advertisements, and lucrative rice prices continued the growth with exports doubling each year between 1726 and 1730.
However, capitalistic enthusiasm often meets the constraints of supply and demand, which often demonstrates a noticeable response lag. Barbadians, having left Barbados because they impoverished the soil with overzealous agricultural practices, should have been aware of the consequences. However, the wide-open territory of mainland America arguably gave these “supreme” imperialists a carte blanche. Carolinian zeal for the rice/slave trade and its high levels of production economically threatened itself during the decade of 1721 to1731, after which the Board of Trade complained of a “mere” £46,71l [roughly an average of about £110,700,000 in income value today, or $177 million] profit:
Account of rice shipped to Great Britain from S. Carolina in 1721 and 1731. In 1721, 22,000 barrels of 4 cwt. each, sold at a medium of 18/per cwt. 10,000 negros computed in the Province at £20 sterl. per head. In 1731, 50,000 barrels at 14/6 per cwt. 20,000 negroes. The fall in price is so great that the 50,000 barrels of 1731 yielded clear of all expenses in Great Britain only £4671l. 13s. 4d. more than the 22,000 of 1721 …
Rice productivity began as South Carolina emerged from the phase of a "trading post" stage of economic development into a phase of near anarchy. Unanticipated factors like the disruption of colonial authority and the flourishing of piracy characterized and catalyzed economic instability in the beginning of the eighteenth century. A third phase developed, infused with economic stability and order, with “… authority vested largely in the colonial government.” The emergence of a profitable rice industry brought an end to the "frontier stage" of economic development and a transition of control from royal to colonial in the Carolinas. This set the stage for further conflict between political forces in England and America and resulted in the Lords Proprietors losing control of, first, the southern half of Carolina in 1719 and second, both Carolinas by 1729. Royal control consolidated itself.
Whig or more controlled capitalistic evidence looms significant. England’s Glorious Revolution brought an end to the Tory power of the monarchy in favor of Parliament. The introduction of the Bank of England in 1694, the union of England and Scotland in 1707, and the accession of the German House of Hanover to the British throne in 1714, all opened the door to capitalistic control. Robert Walpole, Henry Pelham, and the Duke of Newcastle consolidated Whig victories over Tory leaders. The Atlantic Slave Trade paralleled the Whig domination of Parliament, which became a positive capital mechanism, resulting in greater economic demand and higher levels of slave importation in the early eighteenth century.
A long-running persistent debate concerns the amount of direct African contribution that has been made to the success of Carolina’s rice plantations, conceivably a subtle nuance in the argument. Still, it has been a difficult question to answer for lack of written records from the African slave perspective. Circumstantial evidence derived from the needs of plantation owners and the physical outcome of events must suffice. Consequently, the historiographical debate has proven quite the contest. While some historians believe that African slaves transported to Carolina (some by way of Barbados) may have exercised more control over their own living conditions, some disagree. Some argue for a greater contribution of technical knowledge. Some do not. The truth will find itself somewhere in the middle.Historian Daniel C. Littlefield stated, “Carolinians may well have gone to Gambia as students and brought Africans back as teachers, making the African influence on the development of rice cultivation in Carolina a decisive one.” Geographer Judith A. Carney, in her book Black Rice, argues from a geographical perspective that “the origin of rice cultivation in South Carolina is indeed African, and that slaves from West Africa’s rice region tutored planters in growing the crop.” While Carney and Littlefield argue for a stronger, more direct influence, Historian S. Max Edelson does not. “Planters did not need African knowledge to initiate commercial rice planting in South Carolina… They did so, however, with an established labor force of experienced African-American farmers.” Evidence certainly exists to show that these techniques, this African knowledge, already became available to the English long before planting the Carolina colony. However, nothing really suggests that Africans taught them how to grow rice once they were in America or that planters purchased them as “educators” in their techniques. They most certainly relied on skilled labor from Africa and sought it fervently. After all, this pattern resembled the Barbados sugar plantation labor model they brought with them to Carolina. Still, Carolinians skillfully disguised their slaves’ abilities, taking maximum credit for the successful implementation of rice agriculture.
South Carolinians recognized and cultivated this African talent before the profitability of rice in the mid-1700’s and began purchasing higher levels of slave labor from the rice-producing regions of West Africa. Another suggestion by Carney, is that these slaves, being more valuable to the plantation owners in South Carolina, might have enjoyed more allowances than most slaves in America. “In South Carolina where slaves’ endeavors succeeded, knowledge of rice cultivation likely afforded them some leverage to negotiate the conditions of their labor.” Gullah, or Geechee, an ethnic group of slaves known for preserving more of their African linguistic and cultural heritage than any other African American community, speak a unique language. Thought to have originated in the Sea Islands of Georgia and South Carolina, the “Gullah” dialect resulted from African demographic superiority and relative isolation in that location. As Karen Hess, author of The Carolina Rice Kitchen, observes, “… slaves in South Carolina Low Country remained more African than elsewhere in the colonies; the very existence of Gullah bears testimony to that fact.”
Carney states “slaves would attempt to renegotiate” the terms of their enslavement. Again, Edelson disagrees with Carney. While he allows that the South Carolinian slaves did have a greater amount of autonomy, he attributes this fact to something other than an exclusive knowledge withheld for negotiation purposes. “This quid pro quo exchange would have been unlikely for three reasons.” First, rice culture technology was neither exclusive nor proprietary. Second, while a few slaves may have become the Low-country’s first drivers and helped to choose land and direct cultivation, it does not mean that all slaves gained privilege as a result. Third, since negotiations between slaves and planters took place on individual plantations, under isolated conditions, no collective bargaining process could have developed.
“The Barbados experience was somewhat different… [slaves] were fed from their masters’ stocks… imported salt meat and plantation-grown grain were allocated to slaves by their overseers…” Why, then, would a “task labor system” (also of African origins says Carney) develop in South Carolina when it had not done so in Barbados? As rice cultivation grew in importance in South Carolina, the distinction between a trade product and a subsistence profit became greatly defined, according to Edelson. The extended “freedom” of the slaves, in so far as producing their own subsistence crops, was exploited by the planters. It became an excuse to avoid providing them with provisions. Therefore, slaves lived further from their masters, closer to the fields, where they grew their own food, and where their labor was maximized; in many cases, exploited even more harshly. “After producing their own food for more than half a century, the custom of independent provisioning endured as the material foundation for a distinctive and autonomous African-American culture.”
Although Carolina, before 1700, encouraged innovations in techniques of “husking” rice (removing the grain’s outer hull) and in “polishing” (scouring its inner cuticle) it, the problem persisted. Specifically African techniques, admits Edelson, were instrumental in surmounting this difficulty. African techniques of using a hollowed out log and a pole as a mortar and pestle to pound the husk from the grain as well as separating the chaff from the grain by tossing the rice in the air from wide mouth baskets were both employed. These techniques, Edelson claims, were “African technology.” Moreover, a practiced touch (African women being more adept at this technique) proved essential to prevent damage to the rice. However, the labor involved became nearly unbearable, causing great resentment and “lying out,” or feigning illness to avoid the work. Edelson attributes the slave revolt on the Stono River in 1739 to the harsh labor practices of the Low-country planters. As Edelson sees it, slaves in South Carolina did not have the social power that Carney alludes to.
Capitalism’s affects on the slave trade cannot be denied. The debate over “African contribution” in the slave trade continues, however. Recent historians have become acutely aware that the influx of slaves from rice-producing regions of West Africa coincided with the period that rice became an important export crop for Carolinians. It created a flurry of controversy from many camps. Trinidadian historian, Eric Williams proposed the idea that British capitalism and the Atlantic Slave Trade created the industrial revolution that, in turn, reduced the economic tendencies to perpetuate the slave trade. In effect, the slave trade had a negative feedback response. Although the “Williams thesis” had many opponents (note that he wrote in the late 1950s, following Brown v Board in 1954), his argument was based primarily on data from the Caribbean and England, an Anglo-centric perspective that included the trade to Carolina. Williams stated in Capitalism and Slavery that as early as 1663, a mere twenty years after the rise of the sugar industry (presumably, in America), Barbados was decaying fast, due to soil exhaustion. Barbados was not the first island, nor would it be the last, to suffer from the same abusive economic practices that may have destroyed the African economy. African historian, Walter Rodney contends that the loss of skilled labor, cheap imports traded for that labor, and African economic adaptation to European capitalistic endeavors, set Africa on a downward spiral from which it could not recover. These gentlemen have many critics and the argument will not be settled soon. Still, rice culture had as much a part in Carolina economics as sugar did for the rest of the New World and it had as much a part in those abusive tactics. Most likely, the development of rice culture in Carolina evolved from the business endeavors of British authorities and adapted by Carolina colonists in the first few decades of the colony’s development, after 1670. Barbadian immigrants left Barbados, a wealthy island sugar “factory” due to encouragement by far away British owners no longer able to extort their capitalistic abuses from the agriculturally depleted island. They came to America, bringing with them African slaves trained on sugar plantations on Barbados. Half the population of the island was African by 1660, according to one researcher. The area constraint problem in Barbados disappeared in the vast, seemingly endless lands of mainland America. Soon, vast numbers of slaves poured into Carolina directly from African destinations.
Slaves from the African interior regions came well-prepared for their experiences in South Carolina. The rice fields of Goose Creek, South Carolina reminded them of agricultural life on the West Coast of Africa where an estimated three-fourths of the population endured indigenous servitude. Many slaves brought from these interior regions of Africa found themselves employed on coastal “training plantations” before being sold to European traders. It must be remembered, however, that slavery in Africa did not have the racial overtones that developed in the American colonies. Still, the similarities for the slaves themselves arguably eased the transition. This fact was not lost on British and colonial factors.
While scholars remain at each other's literary throats over the “African contribution” debate, it seems likely that the British did, indeed, learn much of their agriculture from observations on the African coast. This fact may lend ammunition to more fervent scholarship. However, it must be remembered that the truth is often pulled from both sides with equal force. Carolinian historians have been just as guilty of adapting “legends” to fit the observed scenarios as modern historians may have overstated African involvement in America’s enterprises. Africans, certainly capable of that influence, simply had few chances to offer it to the New World. They were brought from rice-producing regions of Africa where their agricultural talents would prove useful in Carolina. The English had sufficient research and development skills to drive the trade.
Certain techniques, like milling of rice with the mortar and pestle and winnowing the rice in broad grass baskets, accomplished the task better than European methods, to which the English made good use. This African technology was most definitely utilized by Carolina plantation owners; at least, until Carolinians found other methods that reduced their dependence on the “distasteful” African abilities. After all, advocates of forceful British capitalism would accept no substitutes.
The Atlantic Slave Trade proved devastating in so many ways as a result; not the least, perhaps, in the African economy for all future generations. English and West African descendants in America are still fighting to learn the lessons from that history. Paul Monod and Henry Dethloff spoke of the eighteenth century in their unbecoming remarks on British capitalism. Not as popular as historical reflection on this recent past, African and American citizens today continually avoid any comparison of eighteenth-century capitalism to business today. However, the unscrupulous and overzealous Barbadian businessman may still exist. Africans and Americans alike have a responsibility to learn from this past. Throughout all the adversity, both have proven quite resilient and, no doubt, will accomplish this task as well.
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