Book Review 408: Rice and Slaves

RICE AND SLAVES: Ethnicity and the Slave Trade in Colonial South Carolina, by Daniel C. Littlefield. 199 pages, illustrated. Illinois paperback, $26

Daniel Littlefield’s “Rice and Slaves” is nearly half a century old now, an early entrant in the attempt to make history more scientific– or at lest, more sciency — by replacing narrative with pages and pages of statistics.

One problem is that while the questions are often of great interest, the numbers are often inadequate to answer them.

So with the question of whether traders and buyers of slaves 1) knew or thought they knew that some Africans were knowledgeable about rice; and 2) if so, did they act on that belief economically by preferring those slaves over others?

This is important because if the answer is no, all they wanted was muscle power, that reinforces the view of white Southern historians that black slaves contributed little or nothing to the development of American culture; while if it is yes, then Africans can claim agency in how the country came to be.

This is akin to the question of who built the transcontinental railroads — Irish and Chinese laborers or something beyond that. In California public schools, children are taught that the Chinese immigrants built the railroads, which misleads the pupils in two ways. First, there is more to building a railroad than laying track –like surveying, metallurgy, financing, accounting etc. — and second, by eliding the obvious follow-up question: if the Chinese were capable of building railroads, why didn’t they build any in China?

The question about agency in the Low Country rice districts of South Carolina, Georgia and part of North Carolina is less fraught. Yes, West Africans did impart a great deal of the skill that made rice America’s most profitable crop; and, yes, the planters did recognize their experience.

But, nevertheless, the planters did not buy only West Africans. In fact, Littlefield finds that slaves imported into Carolina from Congo and Angola (where rice was not grown) outnumbered slaves from West Africa.

But the numbers remaining to us do not say whether that was because the desire for rice experts was modest or whether it was strong but could to be met for various reasons (a very big one being that West Africa was not known as the White Man’s Grave for nothing).

In the end, Littlefield’s conclusions are not very different from, and no more persuasive than, the conclusions arrived at by old-fashioned narrative historians, and less pleasurable to read.

The special takeaway from this volume is not so much the question asked in the subtitle but the revelation of the fluidity of racial and power relations in a frontier colony short of skilled labor of all kinds. This, too, was known to the narrative historians, but Littlefield’s close reading of advertisements for runaway slaves throws new light on how that worked in practice, and how the condition of the slaves, bad to begin with, deteriorated as the economy of the colony, then the state ramified and grew.