Edward Eggleston: Husbandry in Colony Times. IV. Rice and Indigo.

The Century 3, JAN 1884

The destiny of South Carolina was changed by a single lucky experiment. In 1696, when the colony was more than thirty years old, the pioneers were still engaged in buying furs from the Indians, extracting rosin, tar, and turpentine from the pines, cutting timber for shipment, and growing slender harvests of grain on the light soil along the coast. Attempts had already been made to grow indigo, ginger, and cotton; but these had not answered expectation. A small and unprofitable kind of rice had also been tried in 1688. But one Thomas Smith thought that a patch of wet land at the back of his garden in Charleston resembled the soil he had seen bearing rice in Madagascar. It chanced in 1696, that a brigantine from that island anchored in distress near Sullivan's Island, and the captain, an old friend of this enterprising Thomas Smith, was able to furnish him a bag of Madagascar rice suitable for seed. It grew luxuriantly in the wet corner of the garden, and the seed from this little harvest was widely distributed. In three or four years the art of husking the rice was learned. African slaves were easily procured in the West Indies, and the face of society in the young State was presently changed: South Carolina became a land of great planters and of a multitude of toiling n[...]s. Smith was raised to the rank of landgrave, and made governor of the colony three years after the success of his rice-patch. The new grain was at first grown on uplands; but the planters afterward discovered that the neglected swamps were more congenial and less exhaustible. The cruelly hard labor of separating the grains from the adhering husks crippled the strength and even checked the increase of the n[...]s; but in the years just preceding the Revolution this task came to be performed with mills driven by the force of the incoming and outgoing tides, or turned by horses or oxen. A hundred and forty thou-sand barrels of Carolina rice, of four or five hundred weight apiece, were annually exported before the war of independence. Through the example of a governor of Georgia, the culture of rice spread into that colony, and co-pleted the ruin of the silk business.

Nearly half a century before the bag of seed-rice fell into Thomas Smith's hands, this grain had been tried in Virginia by Goventor Sir William Berkeley, and had yielded thirty-fold. It seems to have had a humble place as one of the products of south-eastern Virginia many years afterward. Rice was also grown as far northward as New Jersey; there was a considerable exportation of it from Salem as early as 1698, while the culture of it was yet in its beginnings in Carolina.

We may reckon among Virginia commodities indigo. which awakened in 1649 almost as much interest as the experiments with silk and vines. "All men begin to get some of the seeds," says a writer of the time, "and know it will be of ten times the gaine to them as tobacco." He adds that "gaine now carries the Bell." During this indigo fever some of the more sanguine Virginians modestly hoped to wrest the indigo trade "from the Mogull's country, and to supply all Christendome. This will be many thousands of pounds in the year." More than a hundred years after the experiment of 1649, indigo is again mentioned along with bar iron and ginseng as one of the less important exports from the colony to Great Britain, but its culture was in a feeble and failing condition.

In South Carolina, where indigo became a leading staple, rivaling rice and only yielding to cotton after the Revolution, its introduction was due to the enterprise and intelligence of a young lady. Miss Eliza Lucas, who after-ward, as Mrs. Pinckney, made gowns from home-grown silk, not daunted by the failure of early experiments with indigo, procured seed from Antigua about 1741 or 1742. Her first planting, made in March, was destroyed by a frost; the second attempt in April was cut down by a worm; but the third succeeded. An expert, brought to show the manner of making the dye, proved treacherous; but the perseverance of the lady won the victory at length, and by 1745 the possibility of growing indigo in Carolina was proven. Two years later two hundred thousand pounds were sent to England, and the annual exportation reached more than a million pounds in the last years of the colonial period.

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