From Wasteland to Carolina Gold

Posted by on May 1, 2018
From Wasteland to Carolina Gold

“A New Description of Carolina,” 1676. Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University.

When Europeans colonized the Americas, one major challenge they faced was new environmental contexts. But in addition to the lack of knowledge Europeans had with respect to flora, fauna, and climate, they also faced a major environmental obstacle in how to imagine a colonized landscape. Colonizers had ideas about what economic activities—at first extractive through undertakings like mining, but also agricultural produce for Eurasian markets—they would commence when on the ground in what they thought of as a “New World.” Often, the environmental reality of colonial spaces gave colonists fits over instituting a colonial ecological regime because of the way Europeans conceived of land-use and agriculture. The case of early South Carolina shows how Europeans’ ideas of colonial agro-economic regimes could shift toward something unthinkable only a few years earlier. By the time of the American Revolution, a century after the colony’s founding, South Carolina was one of the most important economic centers in British North America. The bulk of these riches came through the violence of colonialism, enslaved labor, and the production of rice for export. “Carolina Gold,” a famous type of lowcountry rice, was grown in water-controlled swamps and sold by merchants to feed people in other colonies as well as Europe, but the eventual rice regime took colonists many years to conceive of, much less perfect.

Colonists’ perception of swampland was central to the early history of South Carolina. The landscape is, even today, covered with swamps. The early-modern English thought of swamps as a type of “wasteland,” or a place scholar Vittoria Di Palma defines as a “landscape that resists notions of proper or appropriate use.”[1] Swampland therefore had no purpose to early colonists. Instead, swamps were spaces colonization could take place around. We can see this idea clearly in one surviving document from initial attempt at colonization in the Carolina project (which was near the Cape Fear River in today’s North Carolina during the 1660s but was abandoned before the eventual permanent colonization along the Ashley and Cooper Rivers in 1670), wherein colonists argued that they should not have to pay taxes on “pine swamp and marsh” which was worthless and “so wholly unprofitable,” yet made up the bulk of their land. Instead, these petitioners argued, they should pay a higher rent for higher land, which they thought of as useable. [2] In fact, in 1670, colonists wrote back to one of the proprietors of the colony that they had decided on a site for their first town, Charles Town, and it was attractive because it was “on a point defended by the main river” and made more-easily defensible because the location had an “inaccessible marsh” on the back “which at high tides is ever overflowing.”[3] Instead of a location to find riches, this swamp was serving as a barrier between the new colony and any attackers.

Although making use of swamps was out of the question for early colonists, the production of agricultural commodities was always one of the central goals of the project. Europeans, expecting Carolina’s latitude to determine what crops would grow, thought they could expect similar agricultural output to that of peoples living around the Mediterranean Sea. Mercantilist economic theory also led colonists and boosters to attempt to grow crops not already available in the English empire. Some of the products colonists sought to produce in the early years were therefore olives, grapes, almonds, rice, and silk. In fact, one major plantation in the lowcountry, founded in the 1690s, retains the name “Silk Hope” to this day. Colonists learned in short order that agricultural solutions to their problems would not be easily found. Instead, the colony’s economy in the early decades was based primarily on raising livestock on an open range and trading with Native Americans in the region for deerskins and especially for captive Native Americans to sell as slaves. It was not until the early eighteenth century that colonists shifted toward more intense rice production.

Rice did not seem to most colonists to be the answer to their economic woes for many years after it was first grown near Charles Town. Colonists wanted more exotic commodities, such as with growing mulberry trees for silk or vineyards for wine production, but rice was also an experimental crop. Historians have had a running debate over the origins of rice production in South Carolina, whether it was something Europeans learned from enslaved people originating in the rice-growing regions of West Africa who grew the crop before their enslavement or from Europeans experimenting with different crops in the colony.[4] For this discussion, what matters was that even if colonists learned that they could grow rice from enslaved African people, they did not at first use the energy of flowing water into and out of rice fields to aid in production. Instead, the methods employed by colonists—most often through their enslaved and indentured peoples—to grow rice were to broadcast it in fields on high ground, like they would have with other cereals like wheat or barley.

One example of the beginnings of a shift in the environmental mentality of Europeans survives in the 1690 letters by John Stewart, who was writing back to Scotland about how he was managing the “Wadboo” plantation belonging to the governor of the colony, James Colleton.  While Stewart was still experimenting with different crops—and thought cotton, grapes, and silk were promising crops—he argued that swamps could be useful landscapes for rice cultivation. Rice, for Stewart, remained a crop to be broadcast in fields “like barley” but the soils in the inland swamps were attractive, so long as a planter could plant the crop think enough to “choke” the weeds. Stewart’s methods of sowing rice so thick nothing else would grow among it is not as useful as he made it out to be. Even though Stewart’s planting technique aimed at drastically reducing the labor required to produce the grain did not work as he argued, planting rice in the temporarily dried out swamps (floodplains for small waterways) proved to be an indicator in a shift in the colonial imagination toward swamps. Before long, colonists had begun demanding their enslaved people construct ever-more-complex systems for storing water and using it to inundate the fields when advantageous. [5]

By the early eighteenth century, swamplands, which had been deemed worthless in the early years of colonization, quickly became the place where lucky and ruthless colonists would make their fortunes by coercing enslaved peoples of African and indigenous American descent to grow rice and other commodities. As rice culture in South Carolina became more developed, it also became noticeably more similar to West African rice agricultural practices in terms of the technologies used and in techniques such as enslaved peoples planting seeds with the heel of their foot. The structures of labor and social control were drastically different in West Africa and North America, but colonists had learned much from enslaved people when it came to growing rice. Central to the development of rice culture was the realization by colonists to shift their sites of production from the high ground to the low ground. In this way, colonists could benefit from the power of gravity acting upon water in ways they could not grasp in the early years. A significant proportion of the work enslaved people were forced to do, especially for the men, became infrastructure projects for the control of water. Later in the eighteenth century, some colonists shifted again after realizing tidal swamps could provide even better access to water. Only Herculean efforts by enslaved people, violently coerced in appalling conditions, could have remade the lowcountry landscape to produce the vast amount of rice (and money) undergirding the lowcountry gentry by the American Revolution. But even before slaving victims and their children could be forced to labor in swamps indefinitely, Europeans had to decide that swamps were landscapes worth transforming. Had colonists come to such a realization earlier, the history of southeastern North America would be different.

[1] Vittoria Di Palma, Wasteland: A History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014), 3. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term “swamp” only came into common usage in English after the colonization of Virginia, although it probably was part of an English vernacular earlier. Before “swamp” became popular, English-speakers used terms like “marsh.” OED Online,

[2] “The Clarendon Address,” 1666, Anthony Ashley Cooper Shaftesbury, The Shaftesbury Papers, ed. Langdon Cheves (Charleston: Home House Press in association with the South Carolina Historical Society, 1897), 84.

[3] William Owen to Lord Ashley, 1670, Ibid., 196.

[4] Peter H. Wood, Black Majority: Negroes in Colonial South Carolina from 1670 through the Stono Rebellion (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1974); Judith A. Carney, Black Rice: The African Origins of Rice Cultivation in the Americas (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002); S. Max Edelson, Plantation Enterprise in Colonial South Carolina (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006); and “The Question of ‘Black Rice'” forum in  American Historical Review 115, no. 1 (February 2010): 123–71. The area of West Africa where some people grew rice spanned from the Senegambia River to Sierra Leone. See Edda L. Fields-Black, Deep Roots: Rice Farmers in West Africa and the African Diaspora (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2014).

[5] John Stewart and J. G. Dunlop, “Letters from John Stewart to William Dunlop (Continued),” The South Carolina Historical and Genealogical Magazine 32, no. 2 (1931): 85–86; Richard Dwight Porcher and William Robert Judd, The Market Preparation of Carolina Rice: An Illustrated History of Innovations in the Lowcountry Rice Kingdom (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2014), 3; Hayden Ros Smith, “Rich Swamps and Rice Grounds: The Specialization of Inland Rice Culture in the South Carolina Lowcountry, 1670–1861” (PhD Diss, University of Georgia, 2012), chapter 1.