The Merikins of Trinidad Preserve Upland Bearded Rice

By David S. Shields

 John Elliott amid a field of Hill Rice

John Elliott amid a field of Hill Rice

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:

I find the bearded rice heavier and more productive than the white or gold seed.  Many have supposed that it would not do well in tide land, but experience furnishes ample proof that the reverse of this is the fact. Others say it is tasteless and insipid.  I have never been able to discover any difference; nor do I believe there is any.  Another objection is, it will not stand the pestle well. This (if fact) may result from a late harvest, when the rice is too ripe, and would injure any rice in the same way. Another objection is, that there is a spot in the grain which has a chalky appearance, and will injure the sale.  The eye of every grain of rice (so termed,) has the same appearance, and the same objection would apply.  [“Observations on the Bearded Rice,” Southern Agriculturist (Nov., 1830), 578.]

Indeed, the Black River Planter (Dr. Francis Parker) found the only liability with the rice lay in its being more laborious to harvest, and consequently resisted by some African slaves. In its favor, this cultivator cited its taller growth, early maturation, resistance to bird depredation, and greater productivity. Only this last point seems fanciful, perhaps a function of the freakish fertility of the soil along the Black River.

Multiple attestations from growers who cultivated it as a dry culture upland rice indicated that its productivity did not approach that of gold seed rice, or even the old Madagascar white rice that had dominated Lowcountry fields from 1690 to 1790. Nevertheless, it spread throughout the South. It was introduced into cultivation in Louisiana in 1842 [Appleton’s Annual Cyclopedia and Register of Important Events 10 (1871), 458.] When described, it was named variously, either as white bearded rice, referencing the light cream color of the husks on the grain, or red bearded rice, referencing the reddish pericarp coating the rice seed body. Commentators epitomized it thusly, “The grain of this kind is rather larger, and is furnished in its unhulled state with a very long awn of beard — grows well on high land.” [“Rice — History and Statistics,” in J. D. B. DeBow’s The Southern States (1856), 396.] 

There were parts of the South where the bearded rice’s ability to grow in marginal soil became a cause for hope.  An 1824 letter to the American Farmer suggests the excitement it caused in Alabama: “A few years since an impression prevailed, even here, that rice could only be cultivated, to advantage, on that that could be flooded at pleasure. But now rice is fast superceding corn in the poor piny wood lands of this country, and will soon become the provision crop on such lands” [“Mobile, January 20, 1824,” American Farmer 6 (1824), 47.] This farmer’s words were prophetic, for bearded rice would remain a fixture on the landscape of the Alabama uplands until the Civil War.  

Why did it not remain until the present day as a provision crop?  The causes are readily adduced: white Honduran rice after the Civil War became so common and cheap that it did not pay to grow one’s own. Removing the red pericarp (chaff) proved difficult, and if one wanted pure white grains on the plate much of the outer surface of the grain had to be milled off. The spikes that inhibited birds from eating the grain proved inconvenient, indeed hurtful, to harvesters. There were more convenient rices to cultivate, including the other upland rice that came into the South— the short season Cochin rice. 

In sum, bearded upland rice was present in the South throughout the 19th century. While it could have been conveyed to the Lowcountry by the slaves themselves early in the 18th century, it comes to widespread notice after a West African shipment to Jefferson is distributed throughout the Lowcountry by the South Carolina Agricultural Society in 1789 and to the upland South by Abraham Baldwin. After 1802 It is registered by multiple observers as a patch grown provision crop maintained by African slaves working the tidal rice plantations of the coastal Southeast —including those areas from which the 4th company of the British Royal Marines were recruited in 1814. Since rice cultivation in Trinidad began in 1816 by the Merikan settlers, including former inhabitants of the sea islands, the most likely scenario for transmission is that upland bearded rice was taken from the Lowcountry to the Merikan settlement area in the south of Trinidad. The rice no longer survives in the South; it has been preserved and cherished by the Merikan community.

 

Cochin Short Season White Upland Rice

 

One variety of upland rice noted by Dr. H. H. Morton a century ago in Trinidad is no longer grown: twelve week rice, a short season upland white rice. This was probably the other upland rice known to have been brought into cultivation in the Lowcountry prior to the departure of the Merikins — Cochin short-seasoned upland rice.  

Reports from Asia spoke of rice culture using specially adapted varieties of rice, planted at spaced intervals in fields, in elevated parts of Indonesia, Cochin China, and Thailand. 

Accounts of Asian upland rice had stimulated a demand throughout the British America for seed that might be planted. The first upland seed to arrive in North America came through the efforts of a supercargo and plant collector for the East India Company at Canton China in the 1770s —John Brodly Blake.  

The Cochin Upland Rice was one of five landraces traditionally cultivated in the hills of Vietnam: Tangi, Bo-lo, Lirnam-bang, Lirandi, and Le-muyo. The last is an early short season rice, ripening in four and a half months and was exclusively dry raised on the uplands. Nineteenth-century observers of rice cultivation in Cochin China observed that upland rice cultivation required more labor and care than aquatic growing. 

“The land must be ploughed three or four times, and all the tuft and lumps well broken up by the harrow. During its growth, it must be weeded two or three times to save the crop from being choked. The seed is sown by hand in the month of May and is harvest in November. It is never reaped, in consequence of the grain not adhering to the ear, but is pulled up by the roots.” [Edward Brown, Cochin China and My Experience of It (London: Charleston Westerton, 1861), 211].

The South Carolina and American General Gazette on Dec. 28, 1771 published the “Travels of a Philosophers” containing a notice that Blake had conveyed to John Ellis of Gray’s Inn in London Cochin upland rice and the tallow tree for distribution in Carolina and the West Indies. “We have the pleasure to inform the public, that by the indefatigable industry of a very curious gentleman at Canton, a sufficient quantity for experiment of the upland rice from Cochin China, so long wished for, has been sent by the Thames Indiaman to his friend in Gray’s Inn, who will take proper care that it is distributed to such persons in our southern colonies as will make a fair trial of this most useful grain.”  

John Ellis held the office of royal agent for West Florida, an administrative post in London superintending the colony’s develop. He communicated the rice to several colonial planter botanists: to his brother Henry Ellis in Jamaica, General Robert Melvill in Dominica, and Dr. Alexander Garden of South Carolina. A botanist himself, Ellis had published an instruction Directions For Bringing Over Seeds and Plants, from the East-Indies and other Distant Countries in a State of Vegetation (London: L. Davis, 1770), so whatever he communicated had a fair potential for being viable. Despite this, of the parcel shipped to Alexander Garden, a sole grain tillered and grew at his garden at Otranto in Goose Creek, South Carolina.  

Perhaps a word should be said about recipient Robert Melvill. For the period 1765 to 1771 he served as governor of several islands ceded by the French in the West Indies at the close of the Seven Years War. These included the Grenadines, Dominica, St. Vincent, and Tobago. A botanist, he typically spread seed he received around those places he governed. Trinidad was still under Spanish rule during the period of Melvill’s governorship, so it is unlikely that he introduced Cochin rice to Trinidad. It, like bearded rice, probably came from the Lowcountry with the Merikins.  

John Ellis sent seed to botanist Alexander Garden in South Carolina, the foremost natural historian of the 1750s-1770s. Garden had difficulty growing the plant, and a single rice plant germinated. From this solitary survivor, he extracted seed and distributed it to at least three other planters of his network in South Carolina. He also dispensed the Chinese Tallow tree (now an invasive species), the Camphor tree, and two varieties of Indigo, one sky blue, the other deep blue, to supplement the West Indian sourced dye plants that Eliza Lucas Pinckney had brought to the Lowcountry.  But the short-season upland rice that the Merikins brought to Trinidad may not have derived from these Carolina seeds

Cochin rice came into coastal Georgia via another route. John Ellis conveyed seed to Benjamin Franklin when he was in London. Franklin shipped them to horticulturist John Bartram in Pennsylvania on October 17, 1772. Other rice was sent to Noble Jones, proprietor of Some of Wormsloe Plantation outside of Savannah Georgia during the 1780s. Wormsloe was a certain of experiment and seed dispersal in colonial Georgia. Cochin rice made its way through Jones’ network to growers throughout Lowcountry Georgia before the end of the 18th century. 

Conclusion: The Merikins counted two upland rices in their seed stocks at the outset of the 20th century, a short season white and a “red bearded” upland rice. Here I have suggested that the former was the Cochin short season upland rice that John Bordly Blake sent through British America in the 1770s. The latter was the bearded upland rice of West Africa that was once commonly grown in the American South, but vanished there early in the 20th century. Thomas Jefferson prided himself at the time of his death for his part in making upland rice a resource in North America, and the documents cited here show that it was grown both in the southern Piedmont and in the Lowcountry by African Slaves. Indeed, both varieties were shown to be cultivated in Tidewater Georgia, the homeland of the 4th company Merikins who settled southern Trinidad. In the 21st century, the Merikins are the sole preservators of the most historically significant African diaspora grain in the Western Hemisphere.