Two hundred years ago a group of southern slaves took up arms against their masters, joining the British Royal Marines in the War of 1812 when promised freedom and land if they enlisted. In 1815 and 1816, the British fulfilled that promise, resettling the black veterans in the hills of southern Trinidad. Each Marine received a grant of 16 acres to improve as he saw fit. They were also granted liberty within the British empire. Deploying themselves across the countryside by Companies, these proud men (and some women) took to calling themselves the Merikins. They took up farming, growing the crops they had cultivated in the American South, particularly those common to the sea islands of Georgia where the Fourth Company had been recruited: rice, maize, benne (low oil landrace sesame), sweet potato, okra, cowpeas, sugar cane, and tanya (Colocasia esculante).
Now — 200 years later—the descendants of these settlers still call themselves Merikins, still grow these staple field and garden crops, indeed, still maintain those seed stocks they brought from the South two centuries ago. The fields around Prince’s Town in southern Trinidad are a remarkable time capsule of Lowcountry culinary plants of two centuries ago, supplemented by African yam, pigeon pea, Toopie Tomboo, and a host of tropical fruits.
Some of things that the Merikins grow survive in the South as well: the green Home sugarcane, benne, white fleshed sweet potatoes, yellow dent corn, red flint corn, cowpeas, and okra. They also grow things once common on the southern landscape that are now gone. Two were greatly important in the 19th century: the tanya (also called provision plant in Trinidad) and upland bearded rice.
It is the story of the latter than concerns us here, for upland rices — rice varieties developed for dry cultivation in plantings at elevation instead of water impoundments — were extremely rare in the West in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Indeed, only two were known to be in the western hemisphere at the time of the Merikan settlement of Trinidad: one was a short season white rice that came from Cochin China, or Viet Nam, conveyed to South Carolina, Georgia, and the islands of Jamaica and Dominica in the 1770s. The other was a red bearded rice brought out of West Africa in 1789 by Captain Nathaniel Cutting and planted in Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Kentucky in the first decades of the 19th century. Thomas Jefferson was the initial distributor of this seed.
If we are to credit the 1904 report of Rev. Dr. H. H. Morton (Imperial Department of Agriculture of the West Indies), both varieties of upland rice were being grown in the hills settled by the Merikins at the outset of the 20th century. In a survey of rice cultivation he noted, besides the East Indian water grown sorts, “Two varieties large upland rice: twelve weeks rice, and red bearded. This last has a long awn, somewhat like bearded barley, which is very useful in protecting the grain from the attacks of birds.”
In 2016 only the latter rice — the red bearded upland rice with its spiked awn — remains in cultivation on Merikan hill farms. Ethnobotanist Dr. Francis Morean of Arima, Trinidad, has spent the last several years documenting the remaining farmers of “Hill Rice” in Trinidad. Indeed, Dr. Morean has undertaken the cultivation of the rice himself to learn its distinctive growth patterns and its milling and culinary qualities.
In December 2016 Dr. Morean invited Queen Quet, head of the Gullah Geechee, ethnobotanist Dr. Anthony Pamaplele Richards (University of the West Indies), historians Dr. Jim Tuten (Juniata College), and myself (University of South Carolina & Chair of the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation) to Trinidad for a Hill Rice Symposium. Attendees traveled to the Merikan settlement region in south Trinidad, viewed a field of fully grown Hill Rice in situ, and interviewed John Elliot, a Merikan farmer descended (Dr. Morean believes) from one of the Marines recruited from the Georgia Sea Islands, who demonstrated the steps in processing the rice. In the exchange of information at the Symposium, Dr. Morean indicated that the Merikins introduced rice cultivation to the island; none predated the fields that the settlers planted in 1816-1817. I communicated the backstory of upland rice cultivation in the western hemisphere and surmised that the Hill Rice growing in Trinidad is a variety of Oryza glaberrima originally deriving from the hill country of West Africa, conveyed to America, and grown in the upcountry South from the 1790s until the early 20th century. It vanished from the fields around the time of World War I, but apparently was conveyed to Trinidad in 1816.
West African Bearded Upland Rice in the American South
The story begins with a confusion. Thomas Jefferson hears that upland rice grows in places along the West Coast of Africa. He concludes, on the basis of a third hand report, that rice from Cochin China had been conveyed to Africa and planted there:
“I first became informed of the existence of a Rice which would grow in uplands without any more water than the common rains, by reading a book of M. de Poyore, who had been Governor of the Isle of France, who mentions it as growing there, and all along the coast of Africa, successively, and having been introduced from Cochin China. I was at the time (1784-85) in France ... When at Havre, on my return from France, I found there Captain Nathaniel Cutting, who was on the ensuing spring to go on a voyage to the coast of Africa. I engaged him to enquire for this. He was there just after the harvest, procured and sent me a 30 gallon cask of it.”
Jefferson, conscious that growing rice in watery impoundments was attended with disease, (malaria was rife in the Lowcountry), immediately grasped that upland rice would be a healthier alternative to the swamp rices being grown in the United States. Jefferson experimented in France and New York with dry culture rices from Sumatra with modest success. But in 1789 Captain Nathaniel Cutting procured “heavy” red upland rice from "River Denby, about the Latt. 9.° 30' North" near present Conakry in Guinea.” [https://www.monticello.org/site/house-and-gardens/rice]
Upland landraces of rice remain in cultivation in middle Guinea and Sierra Leone. In recent surveys of genetic resources in West Africa, the upland varieties collected have invariably been belonged to the Oryza glaberrima family indigenous to Africa. [Kayode Abiola Sanni, Daniel D. Tia, David K. Ojo, Ayoni S. Agunbayo, Mouritala Sikirou and N. Ruaraidh Sackville Hamilton, “Diversity of Rice and Related Wild Species in Africa,” African Rice]. Thirty years ago, upland cultivation of rice remains 60 percent of current rice production in Guinea, but it was less productive that water cultivated Oryza sativa varieties, and is most cultivated by subsistence farmers in the hilly interior of the country. [P. C. Gupta, J. C. O’Toole, “Upland Rice Distribution,” Upland Rice: a Global Perspective (International Rice Research Institute, 1986), 7.] Since that assay, the percentage of upland rice has diminished as more productive Asian rice varieties have come to dominate the fields of West Africa.
So, in all likelihood, Cutting forwarded 30 gallons of O. glaberrima upland rice seed collected in the markets of Conakry. Jefferson grew out some experimentally for three years, but dispatched most southward to persons interested in rice culture: to Ralph Izard of the South Carolina Agricultural Society and to Abraham Baldwin in north Georgia. “I divided it between he Agricultural Society of Charleston, and some private gentlemen in Georgia, recommending it to their care, in the hope which had induced me to obtain it, that if it answered as well as the swamp Rice, it might rid them of that source of their summer disease. Nothing came of the trials in South Carolina, but being carried into the upper hilly parts of Georgia, it succeeded there perfectly, has spread over the country, and is now commonly cultivated.”
The indifference toward the rice by planters of South Carolina can best be explained by the fact that it arrived in the wake of the first cultivation of “Gold Seed Rice” (Carolina Gold), during the moment when everyone engaged in planting rice was smitten by that productive and elegant gold-husked grain with remarkable starch quality.
The development of tidal water culture of rice had taken place in South Carolina by 1784. In 1786 Hezekiah Mayham planted the first field of Carolina Gold in Pineville, Berkeley County, South Carolina. By 1790 every planter was desperately seeking Gold Seed. The appearance of another rice — one that could be grown upland — did not excite the big agriculturists who had seen how water culture caused productivity to explode. So Cutting’s germplasm distributed to planters found its was into provision gardens of African slaves, not into the banked fields lining the tidal rivers of the Lowcountry.
In the area of Georgia around present day Athens the story was different. There were no tidal rivers, no swampy inland bays. Abraham Baldwin welcomed the prospect of growing rice using just the rain for irrigation, arrayed on hill sides, spaced at foot intervals as a garden plant. Even in 1800 is was clear that this was not a commodity rice, for it was not productive enough to compete with tidal grown Carolina Gold; but as a home resource it was more than welcome, and its cultivation spread into North Alabama, North Mississippi, and as far north as Kentucky.
As Judith Carney has argued, the provision garden is where slaves supplied themselves with nourishment beyond the ration of corn meal and bacon. [Judith Carney, Black Rice: The African Origins of Rice Cultivation in the Americas, 156] Gold Seed rice was not part of the food allotment, and being a variety that flourished when wet, did not suit dryland patch cultivation.
Nineteenth-century historians of Lowcountry rice culture noted that African slaves had taken to growing several varieties of rice for their consumption: “Guinea rice, bearded rice, a short grained rice somewhat like barley, and a species of highland rice.” [John Drayton, View of South Carolina (1802), p. 125]. My surmise is that Guinea rice is the red weedy rice that still plagues rice fields in South Carolina, the bearded rice is the sort that circulated in the upland South and also among Lowcountry planters who devalued the seed. The upland variety mentioned I believe is the Cochin short season rice introduced in 1770 to the South and the West Indies.
In regards to the bearded rice, it is probable that Africans recognized the seed, familiar from the markets of Guinea and Sierra Leone. The barley-like configuration of the pannicles, and the spiked awn of single grains were sufficiently distinctive to make it immediately recognizable to any who had seen it before. As John Drayton attests, upland bearded rice grew in Lowcountry huck patches for provision after 1800, as well as the farms of the southern hills as farm family food.
Descriptions abound from the agricultural press of the antebellum South of the bearded upland rice. Periodically it would become the focus of cultivation experiments by planters. In 1830, for instance, the Southern Agriculturist featured a number of articles treating the variety. “A Georgian” made a report from a plantation in Savannah of dry cultivating a half bushel of seed on a “low place.” Despite drought conditions, it “grew luxuriantly ... and ... realized sixty bushels of excellent rice, quite equal to the common rice for the table, and if ground fine which can very easily be done, it makes a delicious cake for breakfast” (July 1830, 356-57).
A stronger recommendation was made by the “Black River Planter.” He wrote: