Thinking About Rice in America: The Black Rice Theory – Mysteries, Myths, and Misconceptions

Note: My point here, and elsewhere, on my blog and in my work, is to present information in as truthful a manner as I can, in order to raise questions and, hence, awareness. The truth is that there are more than ways than one to look at issues. Blindly accepting points of view only serves to further create differences and divisions between already factitious groups, because rigid adherence to some views serves to make you feel good, happy, secure, or even superior in your beliefs, ensconced safely in your clan, tribe, or club. One thing that seems to be happening in so much of culinary history these days is the acceptance of assumptions and the rush to putting one unalienable spin on theory and stating emphatically that that’s the only way to look at certain aspects of culinary history. And if you disagree, or point out fallacies and weaknesses and lack of documentation, that somehow you’re on the wrong side of the equation.

Rice cultivation played an astonishingly important role in the wealth and prosperity of South Carolina. You may have seen pictures of those many mansions strung like shining jewels along Charleston’s water front. They arose because of the profits of rice planters, their wealth made in part by the sweaty backs of their numerous slaves, as well as the planters’ business acumen. And you’ve probably heard about Carolina Gold Rice, sold principally by Anson Mills and other producers in South Carolina. It was this rice that sustained those planters economically, mostly English settlers who first made their way into South Carolina around 1670. By 1680, a number of French Huguenots joined them, followed by Sephardic Jews in the early- to mid-1700s. However, in spite of this influx of other population groups, the flavor of South Carolina basically remained English, for it was indeed one of Britain’s American colonies.

As with so much culinary history, legends surround the real story of the origins of rice in America. But there seems to be some truth to the story that a sea captain named John Thurber brought some seed rice from Madagascar in 1685, given to a Dr. Henry Woodward. Karen Hess gives credence to this story in her classic work, The Carolina Rice Kitchen (1992). Whatever the story of the beginnings, rice took off as a cash crop, so much so that by 1860, planter Robert F. W. Allston’s plantations produced 1.5 MILLION pounds of rice per year, with help from the labor of his slaves, over 630 of them.

Verandah Charleston
Mansion in Charleston, South Carolina (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

But there’s a very tumultuous story behind this rice, its production, and its legacy, one that continues today, especially in the groves of academe and on the street. It’s impossible here to cover the entire story that’s been unfolding, but I feel that it’s important to point out the revisionist work that’s occurring, to give you a taste of evolving thought and new theories.

A book recently appeared – Rice: Global Networks and New Histories, edited by Francesca Bray and others (Cambridge University Press, 2015) – with an article by Walter Hawthorne, “The cultural meaning of work: the ‘Black Rice Debate.'” Hawthorne has gone on record more or less supporting the work of Dr. Judith A. Carney, a geographer who’s a reigning theorist on rice cultivation and its origins in the American South and Brazil. Over 760 libraries own her book – Black Rice; the African Origins of Rice Cultivation in the Americas (2001) – and she’s cited often. Carney insisted that “rice cultivation in the Americas depended upon the diffusion of an entire cultural system, from production to consumption.” (Black Rice, p. 165) Yet, in the last several years, some scholars of the Atlantic World have begun to question her conclusions, particularly the idea that Africans exclusively contributed to the growing of rice in the New World. A summary of their comments appeared in an abstract in 2010, in the American Historical Review, the journal of the American Historical Association. The authors quote S. Max Edelson, who says, “Two critical technologies used to irrigate rice in the Lowcountry, freshwater swamp reservoirs and tidal floodgates, have European, not African, origins.” They hold that it was entirely “possible for rice-exporting economies to have existed in the Americas without input from the rice-growing cultures of Africa.” (AHR 115: 171, 2010) There’s more, all tremendously thought-provoking, not 100% definitive, but enough to raise a lot of questions about the assumptions that have been made about “black rice” and are still being made.

As you know at heart, and as the authors of this sober commentary say, “In challenging the ‘black rice’ thesis, however, we sought to place transatlantic slavery in the Atlantic context and to remind readers how imbalances in power between the enslaved and their owners molded the history of emergent American plantation societies under the influence of changing market conditions.” (AHR 115: 171, 2010)

That imbalance of power also reigned in the kitchen of the Big Houses on plantations.


Carney, Judith A. Black Rice: The African Origins of Rice Cultivation in the Americas (Harvard Univ. press, 2001)

Joyce Chaplin, An Anxious Pursuit: Agricultural Innovation and Modernity in the Lower South, 1730 -1815 (UNC Press, 1993)

Edelson, S. Max. “Beyond ‘Black Rice’: Reconstructing Material and Cultural Contexts for Early Plantation Agriculture,” American Historical Review, 115 (1): 125-135, 2010.

Eltis, David, Morgan, Philip, and Richardson, David. “Black, Brown, or White? Color-Coding American Commercial Rice Cultivation with Slave Labor.” American Historical Review 115 (1): 164 – 171, 2010.

Karen Hess, The Carolina Rice Kitchen: The African Connection (Univ. of South Carolina Press, 1992)

David C. Littlefield, Rice and Slaves (Univ. of Illinois Press, 1981)


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© 2016 C. Bertelsen

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