Although Bending Oaks is a fictional plantation, the depiction of life there—especially the enslavement of the men, women, and children who worked in the rice fields—is based on fact.
In the early eighteenth century, rice became a major cash crop in the Lowcountry of South Carolina, dominating the state’s coastal economy well into the nineteenth century, and making Charleston one of the richest cities in the world. The city’s wealth, however, was mostly built on the labor of the enslaved.
Although early colonists experimented with rice cultivation, they were largely unsuccessful until they adopted a system of cultivation that drew on the skills and technical knowledge of enslaved people from the rice-growing region of West Africa. So valued were their skills, that South Carolina rice planters were willing to pay higher prices for those captured from the “Rice Coast” of the Gambia and Sierra-Leone.
Because rice is a labor-intensive crop, it required large numbers of enslaved people. In fields carved out of tidal swamp lands, they worked under the blazing South Carolina sun, ankle deep in mud, hoeing long rows of rice plants. At harvest time, they walked between the rows, cutting the crop. Women worked from dawn to dusk milling the rice using large wooden pestles to pound it in a carved-out mortar. They then “fanned” the milled rice in large, flat sweetgrass winnowing baskets to separate the chaff from the grains of rice. Once the harvest was complete, the back-breaking work of preparing the fields for the next season’s crop began. From December to March, they burned the left-over plant stubble, removed excess mud, repaired old ditches, dug new ditches, and prepared the land to ready it for seeding and cultivation.
With an enslaved labor force, rice crops flourished and the planters grew wealthy.