ContactSite MapSearchNews
Inside Sea GrantResearchExtensionEducationFundingProductsEvents

SC Sea Grant Consortium
287 Meeting Street
Charleston, SC 29401
p: 843.953.2078
f: 843.953.2080
Second Story – Winter 2014
heritage logo
Carolina's Gold Coast: The Culture of Rice and Slavery
VOLUME 28, NUMBER 1, WINTER 2014             

Carolina's Gold Coast: The Culture of Rice and Slavery
By John H. Tibbetts                                                                       back to main story

Gullah Geechee culture, against odds, survives

Beginning in the mid-18th century, lowcountry rice plantations changed in three important ways that allowed the Gullah Geechee culture 
to develop and survive.

As the most successful rice planters became extraordinarily wealthy, they fled from their swampy estates in “fever season” from June to November. The elite traveled north by sea to Rhode Island, and later in the year to southern mountains or coastal sites where ocean breezes limited the presence of mosquitoes. Whites who could afford to leave, did so, allowing some slaves a degree of breathing room from planters’ control.

By the mid-18th century, many rice planters provided monthly rations of rice, which eased slaves’ desperate search for food. Africans stretched these rations by growing subsistence crops in their private garden plots after their daily tasks were completed.

To supplement rice dishes, Africans would add field peas, greens, fish, or wild game or use leftovers from the planters’ hog killings such as pig’s feet, ears, heads, and entrails. Out of such recipes emerged famous lowcountry dishes such as Hoppin’ John, a blend of field peas and rice.

For planters, it was probably a rational business decision to offer slave rations of “broken” rice, the discarded parts of the harvest that couldn’t be sold for a profit.

“Broken rice might even have been preferred,” says Jessica B. Harris, a food historian. “In Senegal, people want it because it soaks up the sauce better.”

Rice was different from other major slave-produced commodities in the New World. It was food—good food. Cotton, indigo, and tobacco are not edible, of course. Sugar, coffee, and carob are delicious but not healthy as a diet centerpiece.

Slaves were attentive to subtleties of cultivating and processing rice, and they often grew it successfully in their own provision gardens.

Also by the mid-18th century, slaves and rice planters were negotiating a new form of labor—called the “task system”—unlike any other in American history. A slave would work a given task in a day, and once that task was completed, he or she would grow food in subsistence gardens, hunt or fish, and often trade their goods along riverbanks. This task system was later transferred to other coastal plantations that cultivated Sea Island cotton and other crops.

The task system, in short, gave the most productive workers more time away from plantation labor to produce goods on their own. Some slaves became part-time entrepreneurs.

After the Civil War, the Carolina rice economy struggled and then died out. For the Gullah Geechee people, however, rice sustained its central place through generations.

Living on isolated sea islands and in mainland pockets, Gullah Geechee folk continued to grow rice in their gardens and in some cases in freshwater swamps until the 1950s 
and ’60s.

Many think of Gullah Geechee culture thriving only on sea islands. But it first emerged on plantations along tidal rivers and creeks for dozens of miles inland.

The “rice coast,” celebrated today as the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, stretching across 27 counties from Wilmington, North Carolina, in the north to Jacksonville, Florida, in the south.

back to main story

Last updated: 5/28/2014 11:18:12 AM
Second Story – Winter 2014


Page Tools Print this page
E-mail this page
Bookmark this page

Coastal Science Serving South Carolina
Copyright © 2001-2018 South Carolina Sea Grant Consortium
Turbulent Flow Image Courtesy of Prof. Haris J. Catrakis, University of California, Irvine
Privacy & Accessibility