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Papers – Responsibility in Business, 2009– Part 1

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Imperialism, Africans, and Rice in the South Carolina Trade


Barbados, an island nation founded by the British, has remained staunchly British throughout its entire history.  Furthermore, it has also been the focus of intense anti-Parliamentary and Anglican immigration (essentially staunch “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….”  By the 1640s, Irish indentured labor had proven badly acclimated to the climate and only available for seven years during their term of indenture. Their use increased the cost of labor and lowered the potential profits. Chattel slaves from Africa proved heartier and as personal possessions, could be worked indefinitely, or even until death and replaced. They required less upkeep than paid labor. 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 profitable 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 Muslim 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 Carolinas.  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.” 


Continue to Part 2