Patty Arnold

Rice and Labor–Coming to America

riceArcheologists have not been able to date the origin of rice plants, but there is evidence of Neolithic rice-gathers in southern China and North Vietnam and they have documented a 500-year history of rice in the human diet. The Arabic word for rice is aish, which means “life”. You can trace the origins of the national dish of Spain to the Moors and their influence on the Iberian cuisine and language. The Spanish word arroz is derived from the Arabic, aish. The word pilaf is Persian for boiled rice with meat and paella is derived from pilaf. In one account, rice came to America from Madagascar where, in 1685, rice was given to a colonist as a thank you for aiding in ship repairs in the Charleston Harbor of South Carolina. Judith Carney traces the history of this vital crop in America in her book Black Rice. The crop was brought over with slaves to America along with the knowledge of cultivation. These slaves were skilled labor and their knowledge, in some situations, negotiated their bondage as well as providing a familiar dietary staple. In her introduction, Carney states: "The development of rice culture marked not simply the movement of a crop across the Atlantic but also the transfer of an entire cultural system, from production to consumption." David Littlefield’s book, Rice and Slaves, looks specifically at the origins of Carolina rice and identified a specific area of West Africa as the geographic and ethnic origin of the Atlantic basin crops. Rice has a complex cultural identity, involving tradition and ritual. Carney states “Rice is a knowledge system that represents ingenuity as well as enormous toil.” Through the explorations of the colonial Portuguese in the 1400’s, the Canary Islands were to become stepping-stones for the Atlantic slave trade. By 1460 the Portuguese had established themselves on the Upper Guinea Coast and European sailors referred to this area as the “rice coast”. This area was important for European sailing as a source of slaves and a source of supplies. Surplus rice, millet and sorghum were sold as voyage staples. Since cereals are less perishable on long voyages, they became very important provisions. The arrival of African slaves in South Carolina has been established as early as 1670 and at that time, bondaged workers were raising rice as their own subsistence crop. The tidal rice system used during the settlement of South Carolina existed only in Asia and West Africa at that time suggesting the link to Africa. Three cultivation techniques are also identified with West Africa: the sowing of rice exclusively by women, the cultivation of freshwater flood plains and the milling and cooking of rice.

By the 18th century, rice became the leading export crop from South Carolina and Georgia and this rice was prized in Europe and became the paradigm by which quality was judged. (Thomas Jefferson actually smuggled rice seed out of Italy in 1787 to replace the depleted crop, seed and stock of rice destroyed by the revolution in South Carolina.) There are many types of rice, which thrive in Africa, and the slave traders were looking for people to work the fields and import new varieties of rice. The connection back to the early European slave traders had come full circle; rice was coming back to Europe via the slave labor that had taken it to America. The numbers reveal the impact of the demand for cereals and the Atlantic slave trade: the trade existed over a 350 year period and it is estimated that over 12 million people left Africa as slaves. Because the documentation was poor and mortality rates were high this figure could be double the estimate. Clearly, American rice is a gift paid for dearly by many broken lives of the African Diaspora.

Rice and Labor–A Woman’s Touch

Rice has a female mythology. The planting of rice was typically woman’s work, because of the delicacy and fragility of the plant. Rice is the girl-child and must be handled by women in the early stages. The planting can be done by broadcasting the seed in the water or planting the shoots in the mud. As early as the 1600’s Dutch traders were exploring Sierra Leone. In 1738 Francis Moore observed that rice was a “women’s crop”. Early legends tell that female slaves smuggled the seed grains of rice in their hair. While men tended to be most involved with corn, millet and sorghum, it was the women who carried the knowledge of rice cultivation. Women are not only crucial to the cultivation process but they are also key to the processing, preparation and cooking. The separation of the rice from the hull or bran is a highly skilled technique developed by women and disaster occurred when American slavers thought anyone could perform this task. Untrained users with the mortar damaged and broke the rice or were unable to successfully separate the bran with the winnowing baskets. Women designed and made their own baskets used for winnowing (fanning) the rice and carried this knowledge from generation to generation. The knowledge of milling was the critical piece for the Carolina exportation of rice and the economic development that followed. An interesting side-note on the baskets is that they were designed to hold exactly one pound of rice so the crops were prepared for export one pound at a time. Considering the tonnage required to fill the hold of ship the quantity of labor involved is staggering. The slave trade existed for 350 years and rice culture was a significant part of this history. In Senegal a woman is buried with her mortar and pestle in honor of her labor. Women worked the fields and were the keepers of the seed. They traditionally chose crops for their ability to repel predators (especially birds) and for their “cooking properties, taste, ease in milling and storage qualities”. Asian varieties are used for their high yield, while African varieties are used for their ability to grow in problem soil. The cooking style of African rice is designed for grain separation as opposed to the stickiness of Asian rice. No animal fats are used in the cooking, only water, as the oils create a gummy texture. Long grain rice is preferred over the short grain Asian style and African rice is noted for the red color of the bran, which can even be purple or black. African women carried sophisticated knowledge of soil fertility, learned through careful observation of plant indicators and women selected, sowed, hoed, processed and cooked the seed. This is a body of gendered knowledge, which requires an understanding of rice microenvironment, including salinity, flood levels and soil conditions. As the European demand rose for American rice, men and children were pressed into the milling of rice and met with the disastrous results of broken, unsaleable rice. The plantation owners placed a high demand for female slaves with knowledge of rice culture. In a passage from Black Rice Judith Carney writes: In the modern world of mechanized agriculture it is often difficult to remember that until recently agriculture represented repositories of cultural knowledge built from generation of observation, trial, and error. Agriculture has long provided the tissue linking culture to environment, cultural identity to food. Most traditional societies practice agriculture with a gender division of labor, which means that the knowledge underlying many practices constitutes a crucial aspect of male and female identities. Because African rice is a crop that always involves women, female knowledge in cultivation and processing would have helped establish the cereal across the Atlantic. Knowledge is typically regarded as power, however, in this case it became enslavement.

Local History: Yuba, Butte, Sutter and Colusa County

All Images © Patty Arnold 2004. All rights Reserved.