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Rice & indigo production in colonial South Carolina

January 18, 2012

As the Southern colonies of British North America matured and grew in population, new products were produced and shipped back to Britain and Europe. Two of the early agricultural products were rice and indigo. The excerpt below comes from page 595 of Murray Rothbard’s Conceived in Liberty and describes the impact of these new products on the development of the Low Country’s plantation system and demographic composition:

Rice fields at Caw Caw Nature & History Interpretive Center, Ravenel, SC

South Carolina distinguished itself in the eighteenth century for being the first Southern colony to develop a great agricultural staple other than tobacco. First grown in South Carolina in 1694, rice very rapidly became the staple of the colony, with the port of Charleston the center of the rice trade. So successful was the expansion of rice grown on large plantations in the coastal swamps, that Britain added it to the “enumerated list” of commodities as early as the Navigation Act of 1704. By 1722, South Carolina was exporting nine million pounds of rice per year, and by 1750, the total had increased to twenty-seven million.

By midcentury, South Carolina had begun to grow another staple crop, which rose swiftly to second rank beneath rice. This was indigo dye, introduced successfully into the colony in 1744 by Elizah Lukas, who later married Chief Justice Charles Pinckney. Also grown on lowland swamps, indigo proved a natural seasonal complement to rice; and large plantations intensively staffed with Negro slaves proved to be ideal for combing the two products. By the mid-1750s indigo production in the colony was in high gear and 500,000 pounds were being exported annually.

The rice and indigo plantations differed significantly from the tobacco plantations of Virginia and the Chesapeake Bay area. The former were smaller, more concentrated, and more intensively cultivated, that is, they required considerably more slaves per acre. Hence, the proportion of Negro slaves to whites became considerably higher in South Carolina. In 1750, the Southern colonies had the following ratio of Negroes to whites:

                                   (in thousands)

                                   Negroes          Whites

Maryland                    49                    115

Virginia                      141                   199

North Carolina          34                     76

South Carolina          39                     25

Victoria Proctor provides a great deal more information on this subject in her piece “Rice and Indigo in South Carolina“:

Rice was grown successfully in South Carolina as early as 1680. By the early 18th century, with the slave system established on a large scale, rice became a major export crop of the region. Rice planting was extremely profitable — Charleston rice exports rose from 10,000 pounds in 1698 to over 20 million pounds by 1730 — and South Carolina’s tidal swamps were well-suited for it. Because of the seasonal nature of rice and indigo, both crops could be grown using the same labor force.

 Click here for the full article

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