Sunday, January 13, 2013

South Carolina 6: Rice’s Origin Tale

When South Carolina congressmen became more vociferous about the supposedly false theories of modern science, I began to wonder how Charleston had ever produced the important innovations in botany that underlay its lifestyle: the selection of new types of rice and roses. Periodically, I’ll be publishing the result of my inquiries into the lives of two innovative growers, Hezekiah Maham (rice) and John Champneys (roses). Previous entries can be found under “South Carolina” in the index at the right.

Maham is not given credit for his discovery. This posting gives the conventional history of the introduction of rice. I treat it as a legend.

Weather: Last snow 12/31/12; 10:03 hours of daylight today.

Afternoon temperatures have not risen much above freezing, but the sun has been bright and the snow has disappeared from open areas. Whatever moisture has remained in the air no longer has not been enough to provide cloud cover at night. Morning temperatures are getting lower and lower.

Clouds appear in late afternoon, but there are none showing on the weather maps. The moisture is not coming from an ocean. It’s been sucked out of the unprotected soil.

I begin to understand, the brutal winter climate is a much a reason only grasses grow here, as the lack of rain in summer. What else has adapted to zero air temperatures and a desiccating sun?

What’s still green: Few rose stems; juniper, pine, and other evergreens; yucca.

What’s red: Cholla; apple, apricot branches. Sandbar willow gotten redder.

What’s grey or blue: Snow-in-summer, winterfat, golden hairy aster leaves.

What’s yellow: Globe and weeping willow branches.

What’s blooming inside: Zonal geraniums, aptenia, petunias.

Animal sightings: Small brown birds.

Weekly update: Rice was introduced at least three times into South Carolina: first in the early years of the colony, again after the revolution when planters needed to replace their lost seed grain, and then again when Joshua John Ward made his improved selection available.

The first occurred before there were many written records and has become the subject of folk history; the second is remembered in family tradition, and the third, a commercial transaction, was recorded for all to know by the participants.

Alexander Salley found the only public record of what became the folk tradition was a 1715 entry in the journal of the House of Commons noting the body had agreed to pay a gratuity of one hundred pounds to John Thurber for “bringing the first Madagascar Rice into this province.”

He found the first narrative explanation appeared sixteen years later in a pamphlet he attributed to Fayrer Hall, who had served in expeditions against pirates in 1718. Hall wrote the introduction of rice

“was owing to the following Accident. A Brigantine from the Island Madagascar happened to put in there; they had a little Seed Rice left, not exceeding a Peck or Quarter of a bushel, which the Captain offered and gave to a Gentlemen of the Name of Woodward. From Part of this he had a very good Crop, but was ignorant for some Years how to clean it. It was soon dispensed over the Province; and by frequent Experiments and Observations they found out Ways of producing and manufacturing it to so great Perfection, that it is thought it exceeds any other in Value. The Writer of this hath seen the Captain in Carolina, where he received a handsome gratuity from the Gentlemen of that Country.”

The basic motifs of the folk narrative, told in several variants, are that:

1. Someone, usually unnamed
2. From Madagascar
3. Through some accident, usually a shipwreck
4. Gave, usually as a sign of gratitude
5. To Woodward, or some other prominent person
6. A peck or some other small amount of rice
7. Which was distributed free to the other planters
8. Who proved rice could grow in the colony

In the first retelling, the identity of Thurber was reduced to a sea captain, who was now the one from Madagascar.

Between the time Charles II granted the land to eight proprietors in 1663 and Thurber’s petition, Madagascar was not controlled by any western power. Attempts by the British had ended in 1649, while the French were massacred in 1673.

The only westerners who visited the island after that were pirates, who exploited the slave trade after they’d been driven from the Caribbean. The British finally removed them from the island about the time Thurber made his petition. By then, the Sakalava had consolidated power, and the French had established their base on the nearby island of Bourbon, now La Réunion.

Hall used the word “accident” to suggest the introduction was a chance, not deliberate act. From the first the proprietors wanted to develop a colony and listed rice as one of the crops that was both suitable to the climate and congruent with the throne’s desire to establish a completely self-sufficient mercantile economy. In 1672, William Jeffereys sent a barrel of rice “for the prop. acct of the Lords Proprs of Carolina” which was received by the governor.

Many of the early settlers never accepted the legitimacy of the proprietors and had thrown off their power in 1720. The use of the word “accident,” like the hidden reference to pirates, may have been an attempt to suggest the proprietors had nothing to do with the introduction of rice as a crop and, by extension, the success of the colony.

The double reference to rice as a gift may have been another attempt to contrast proper behavior with that of the proprietors. The third governor of the colony, John Yeamans, shipped his surplus food to Barbados where he could make a profit rather than sell it to the settlers he’d brought with him who didn’t have enough to eat.

Woodward is assumed to have been Henry Woodward, who died sometime between 1685 and 1690. He had come to the area on the exploratory voyage of 1666 and stayed with the Cusabo on Port Royale sound. He was captured by the Spanish the next year. He escaped when Robert Searle raided Saint Augustine in 1668, and stayed with the pirates until shipwrecked on Nevis in 1669.

He returned to the area with the expedition that founded Charles Town in 1670, and explored the interior. His friendly relations with the Westbo opened trade with the Indians in 1674, an arrangement rejected by later settlers who precipitated a war that exterminated the tribe and replaced them with the Shawnee.

Disgraced, he went to London in 1682 to seek rehabilitation and returned as the official Indian agent for the proprietors with rights to a 20% commission on trade. He was in trouble again in 1685 for supporting the Yamasee and Scots settlers at Stuart Town against the proprietors.

His ambiguous loyalties to pirates, proprietors, rebellious settlers and native Americans made him a figure suspect to all. He’s the element in Hall’s narrative that became the least stable.

The quantity of rice usually struck the narrator as too small to explain the spread or variations in the crop, and so a second introduction was often mentioned, much like the story of Seth resolves problems of ancestry introduced by the fight between Cain and Abel. Hall suggested that

“Mr. Du Bois, Treasurer of the East-India Company, did send to that Country a small Bag of Seed-Rice some short Time after, from whence it is reasonable enough to suppose might come these two Sorts of that Commodity, one called Red Rice in Contradistinction to the White.”

This addendum introduces the remaining motifs in the origin tale:

9. A second introduction
10. Is responsible for the spread of the crop
11. And the visible variations in the rice

Edgar, Walter. South Carolina: A History, 1998, on Yeamans.

Hall, Fayrer. The Importance of the British Plantations in America to this Kingdom, 1731, quoted by Salley.

Salley, A. S. Jr “The Introduction of Rice Culture into South Carolina,” Bulletin of the Historical Commission of South Carolina, no 6, 1919.

Photographs: The light on New Year’s Day was extraordinary. The sun was hidden behind clouds. Most came from reflections from the snow, which also provided a backdrop that made photographs unusually clear. All taken 1 January 2013.

1. Leather-leaf globemallow, empty flower holders; composite family.

2. Tomatillo seeds rattle in the unopened cases; nightshade family.

3. Black-eyed Susan cone, with no seeds remaining; composite family.

4. Áñil del muerto head, with a few seeds remaining; composite family.

5. Golden spur columbine, empty flower holders; buttercup family.

6. Alfalfa seeds; legume family.

7. Illinois bundle flower, empty flower holders; legume family.

8. Perennial four o’clock seed capsules, with black tongues exposed; four o’clock family.

9. Large-leaf soapwort, with black tongues exposed; pink family.

10. Yellow evening primrose, empty seed holders; evening primrose family.

11. Winterfat seed heads, some still full, some empty; composite family.

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