Published by EH.NET (May 2002)


Judith A. Carney, Black Rice: The African Origins of Rice Cultivation in the Americas. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001. xiv + 240 pp. $37.50 (cloth), ISBN: 0-674-00452-3; $15.95 (paperback), ISBN: 0-674-00834-0.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Russell R. Menard, Department of History, University of Minnesota.

In this well-executed book, Judith Carney, a historical geographer at UCLA, builds on and extends the work of Peter Wood (Black Majority: Negroes in Colonial South Carolina from 1670 through the Stono Rebellion, New York, Knopf, 1974) and Daniel Littlefield (Rice and Slaves: Ethnicity and the Slave Trade in Colonial South Carolina, Baton Rouge, LSU Press, 1981) to demonstrate that the rice industry of the colonial lowcountry was built by slaves using technologies developed in West Africa. Carney is persuasive, and her book should put to rest forever the notion that the only thing Africans contributed to the early American economy was unskilled labor. In response to the question of why Africans would supply such valuable knowledge to their oppressors, Carney responds that slaves used that knowledge as a bargaining chip in negotiations over the conditions of their enslavement. She even suggests, although here the evidence is a bit thin, that it was out of such negotiations, that the lowcountry tasking system — which granted slaves much more freedom than did gang labor — emerged.

Economic historians who turn to Carney for a comprehensive account of the origins of the South Carolina rice industry will be disappointed, for in her enthusiasm to demonstrate her main point — that without the knowledge provided by their slaves, the planters and merchants of South Carolina would have been unable to supply European consumers with so much rice — she focuses almost exclusively on issues of supply and ignores the demand side of the industry. Thus, we are told nothing about the prices rice commanded, or about the marketing process, although an understanding of these is critical to sorting out the rise of the lowcountry rice industry.

Carney’s enthusiasms get her into other difficulties as well. She is particularly concerned to demonstrate the contribution of slave women to the colonial rice industry. So concerned that she asserts that planter demand for slave women led to shipments in which women outnumbered men, even though the bulk of the evidence indicates that sex ratios — men per hundred women — were unusually high in the lowcountry slave trade. She also asserts that the importance of women in the rice industry led to a situation in which women commanded higher prices than men. Although I am less confident about this point than I am about the sex ratios, my work in probate inventories suggests that the opposite was the case. Despite these disagreements, Carney has written a fine book that makes an important point regarding the role of African technologies in early American economic growth. Her book deserves the attention of all students of slavery and early American economic history.

Russell R. Menard is the author (with John McCusker) of The Economy of British America, 1607-1789 (Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 1985). His most recent book is Migrants, Servants, and Slaves: Unfree Labor in Colonial British America (London, Ashgate, 2001). He is currently completing a book on the Barbadian sugar boom of the 1640s.