Rice, Indigo, and Fever in Colonial South Carolina

Agriculture, disease, and slavery were three basic and interconnected aspects of life in Colonial South Carolina. Where one existed, the other two were sure to follow within a very short time. By the mid eighteenth century, rice culture, slavery, malaria and yellow fever were well established as a self-perpetuating cycle which had an adverse effect upon the life spans of the colonists. This study examines the establishment of the "rice-slavery-disease" cycle, speculates on how this cycle was broken by the introduction of indigo, and postulates how indigo effected the yellow fever/malaria mortality rates of Colonial South Carolina.

Recent scholarship has found an intricate connection between the beginnings of rice culture and slavery in South Carolina. The Carolina colony's long standing connections with England's Caribbean colonies easily facilitated the transfer of negro slavery to the New World. The Barbados planters realized that they could provide "seasoned settlers" to the Carolina colony. In order to promote the emigration of the slave holding Barbadians, the contracts written up in 1664 included a clause which guaranteed, "for every Negro Man or Slave brought...within the first year, 20 acres; and for every Woman-Negro or slave, 10 acres; For all Men Negroes, or slaves after that time, and within the first 5 years, 10 acres, and for every Woman Negro or slave,5 acres."1 Thus land incentives encouraged the quick establishment of slavery and fostered a brick transatlantic slave trade.

The early British and British-Caribbean colonists experimented with several crops including rice. Although, rice production did not take a permanent hold until about 1694 when Landgrave Thomas Smith successfully cultivated rice from Madagascar2, there is some debate over who actually introduced rice culture into South Carolina. The historian Peter Wood points out that in contrast to the European settlers, those slaves from the West Coast of Africa had been familiar for centuries with rice planting. Thus they, and not their owners, probably introduced the techniques which made rice take hold as a primary and lucrative source of income in the last decade of the seventeenth century.3 Furthermore, these were the very years when the African portion of the population began to surpass that of the white.4 Thus there would have been a ready population to implement rice culture technology.

The introduction of rice necessitated the import of more slaves for rice cultivation involved labor intense work best met by slavery. Many colonists believed this too. In 1735, Charlestonian Samuel Eveleigh wrote, "I am positive that the Commodity can't be produced by white people. Because the work is too laborious, the heat very intent, and the whites can't work in the wett at that season as Negrs do to weed rice."5 The rice seeds were sown in late spring and required several hoeings and hand weedings until the fall.6 In early September, slaves with sickles cut the stalks, bound them in sheaves, and stacked them for curing. The slaves then had to thresh the stalks by hand and winnow the chaff before barreling the rice for export.7

Because the rice was so heavy, many planters sought lands near navigable streams which in turn, led to the utilization, after 1758, of the tides to back the river water over the rice fields.8 Water cultivation not only promoted the growth of the rice, but it also killed the weeds and grass which formerly had to be laboriously cleared. In order to further facilitate water cultivation, a complex system of dykes and sluice gates admitted freshwater and excluded salt water which oftentimes dry weather or storms sent abnormally far upstream.9 Thus Carolina rice culture necessitated the presence of large amounts of standing water.

After its introduction in 1694, the production of rice advanced at an accelerating rate. By 1730, Parliament permitted the exportation of rice to any port south of Cape Finistere, which in turn saved the rice planter from British duties and allowed him to pocket the middleman's profit.10 With these restrictions dropped, the rice industry exploded. Between 1724 and 1736 alone, the export rate of rice jumped from 19,908 to 53,376 barrels.11 By mid century, Governor Glen reported that rice had increased in great proportions from 1720 to 1729 with a whole export of 264,755 barrels making 44,081 tons. From 1730 to 1739, the exports rose to 499,525 barrels or 99,905 tons.12

As the rice industry rose at an accelerating rate, so also did the slave population. The two seemed to perpetuate each other: the expansion of rice cultivation demanded more slave labor which in turn facilitated greater expansion. Between 1724 and 1765, the negro population rose from 32,000 to 90,000. In contrast, the white population, after an initial decline, increased much more slowly. In these forty years, the number of whites only grew from 14,000 to 40,000.13 Thus by mid century, there were over two times as many slaves as white colonists.

African slaves not only brought the experience for rice culture with them to the new world. They also brought malaria. Malaria is caused by the introduction into the blood of Plasmodium vivax or P. vivax which is a eukaryotic (meaning having a cell nucleus) micro-organism. The parasites take hold first in the liver where they assexually multiply into meryzytes. These meryzytes, along with toxins, are discharged into the bloodstream. This release and the subsequent response by the white blood cells, causes the typical fever and chills which are characteristics of Malaria.14

The disease itself rarely causes death on its own. Instead, malaria weakens the individual's resistance to other diseases which he or she otherwise would have warded off. Anemia, loss of energy, susceptibility to infection, and chronic invalidism are common characteristics of victims of malarial fever.15 Although the majority of the colonists probably did not die directly of malaria, their weakened condition from periodic malarial attacks would have made them especially non-resistant to other diseases.

Malaria preys on those most vulnerable. In the colonial period, infant mortality rates were very high due to their early exposure to the disease.. Furthermore, young women also frequent victims for weakness induced by malaria often resulted in miscarriages and premature labor.16 Malarial fever is today named by historians as a culprit in the low survival rate of colonial southern women and infants through childbirth.17

Malaria's seasonal and endemic nature was not lost upon the colonists for the disease would flare up annually in almost epidemic proportions.18 In 1723, a missionary wrote that the malarial illnesses held "one from the beginning of August to the latter end of December.19 By the middle of the century, those wealthy enough to afford it began to travel during the fever months to places such as Newport, Rhode Island.20 However, medical historian Jill Dubisch maintains that this probably, in the long run, was more hazardous because it did not give the planters an opportunity to acquire any immunity.21

August to December were earmarked as deadly, for it was during these months that those infected with the malarial parasite exhibited the chills and fever typical of malaria. Most parish records indicate that a high percentage of deaths occurred during these months. Although the colonists were granted an abatement of malarial fever for two thirds of the year, the inhabitants lacked resistance which might have been provided by year round exposure.22

Malaria is commonly spread by a vector of the Anopheles order of mosquito. The mosquito gets infected by drawing blood from an individual whose bloodstream is already infected by the P. vivax. The plasmodium then invades the body cavity of the mosquito, especially the salivary glands. After eight to fourteen days of development, the mosquito is capable of transmitting malaria for the rest of its natural life.23

Two kinds of Anopheles mosquito, Anopheles quadrimaculatus and Anopheles crucians, are important vectors of malaria. A. quadrimaculatus occurs largely in the south-eastern United States. The female feeds upon men and wild animals before laying her eggs in freshwater streams, ponds, or lakes with surface vegetation. Many A. quadrimaculatus Mosquitoes caught in the wild have malarial gland infections.24 The A. crucians is highly active in the South Carolina Santee Swamps. Although it was not thought to be an important vector of malaria, specimens caught in the wild in the 1940's had a gland infection rate of 3.28 percent which was much higher than those of A. quadrimaculatus taken in that area.25

Before the arrival of Columbus, these Anopheles mosquitoes were well established in the New World. However, many historians doubt that the malarial parasite was indigenous to the native population.26 In contrast, malaria had long existed both on the European continent and in the South eastern part of England where it was known as the "Kentish disorder."27 Such routine exposure to the European P. vivax would have probably rendered most of the early colonists immune. But they would have been highly susceptible to any other strains of P. vivax for the immunity for malaria is strain specific.28 Thus the malaria from which the colonists suffered was probably imported from elsewhere.

The sudden rise of profitability in rice planting encouraged further importation of slavery. This might have caused the introduction of the more deadly African strain of P. vivax and the more deadly P. falciparum, a type of malaria which was endemic in tropical Africa.29 Indeed, worsening health conditions coincided with the increased arrival of slaves. In the last decades of the seventeenth century, the white population actually experienced a decline in population. This, coupled with the fact that the majority of black slaves, due to a genetic defect, seemed to not be effected as often by the disease, brought about a justification for slavery in Carolina.

Another disease prevalent in the English colonies was Yellow fever. Like malaria, yellow fever is caused by a parasite which is transferred from human to human by a mosquito vector.30 In the case of yellow fever, the Aedes (Stegiomyia) aegypti is the principle vector.31 Though other Mosquitoes are known to carry the disease.32 The name "yellow fever" is derived from the jaundiced color of the skin which becomes apparent after three or four days of infection. The victim experiences a severe headache, backache,and fever with frequent bloody vomiting. In fatal cases, death usually occurs between the fifth and eighth day. Although the death rate in the twentieth century runs over fifty percent, once ill, the survivor achieves lifelong immunity.33 Malaria and yellow fever were often confused in colonial times. But yellow fever was more readily observed, for in epidemic form it brought a high mortality in a brief time span.34

Studies in medical history have indicated that yellow fever also came from West Africa. However, unlike malaria which remains indefinitely in the bloodstream of the individual, yellow fever would have run its course before the slave vessels could have reached America. Therefore, instead of arriving within the slaves themselves, yellow fever was probably bred by mosquitoes in the water buckets aboard ship.35

The mosquito vector must transfer the yellow fever virus within three to five days of its first appearance in the victim for the virus is only present a short time in the blood stream. Once the mosquito is infected, the virus develops for some nine to fourteen days. Thereafter, the mosquito is capable of transmitting the disease for the rest of its life. In one laboratory case, this was for 118 days.36

Colonial medical practitioners were at a disagreement over the disease. The eminent Dr. Benjamin Rush, a friend a colleague of Benjamin Franklin, thought yellow fever to be a "high and malignant form of the common bilious remittent [fever]."37 He believed that yellow fever required sedation by means of massive doses of drugs such as opium and laudanum and heavy bleedings. These treatments were actually unlikely to bring about any relief to the patient, let alone a cure.38 Dr. Mitchell, a physician who practiced in the 1730's and '40's defined yellow fever as "...a pestilential fever, proceeding from a contagious miasma sui generis which inflames the stomach and adjacent viscera...to which generally succeeds an effusion of a bilious or other yellow humor upon the...surface of the body."39

Malaria and yellow fever were understood to be the endemic and epidemic forms of the same disease.40 Thus, treatments for the two tended to be similar. The administering of opiates, crude quinine, and bleeding were utilized in both malaria and yellow fever cases. Bleeding and purging practices tended to vary from doctor. Some, such as Dr. Rush, experimented with extracts of peruvian or chinchona bark which, when dissolved in water, became a mild quinine. However, this was not always perceived as a successful remedy for he wrote, "in every case in which I prescribed the bark, it was offensive to the stomach... [it produced] a proxysm of the fever so violent as to require the loss of 10 ounces of blood to moderate it.41 In his history of Carolina medicine, David Ramsay spoke of the administering of mercury as an important means of reducing fever.42 In some cases, the treatments were almost worse than the disease.

Devastating yellow fever epidemics were common to South Carolina throughout the first half of the eighteenth century. In 1703 and again in 1706, "epidemical distempers swept off vast numbers of inhabitants."43 Newly arrived immigrants fell most quickly to the disease. This was not lost on Charleston missionary Gideon Johnston who wrote in 1706, "...we found [Charleston] visited with a Pestilential fever very mortal especially to fresh Europeans."44

Noah Webster in his book on the history of epidemics linked the Charleston epidemics to abnormally inclement weather. Subsequent epidemics, notably in 1728 and 1732, were preceded by "uncommonly hot" summers.45 In 1732 the fever appeared as early as May and continued until September or October. Before the epidemic reached its height, as many as twelve white people and a "lesser number" of blacks were buried per day. So devastating was the fever to Charleston that business came almost to a complete stand still. Furthermore, in order to keep up the spirits of the inhabitants, the tolling of funeral bells was forbidden.46

The 1739 yellow fever epidemic was observed by contemporaries to be "most fatal to those recently emigrated from Europe, "47 and less deadly to the negroes from the African West Coast.48 Most of South Carolina's Assembly, freshly arrived from England for their colonial appointments, died. Lieutenant Governor Bull was forced to prorogue the Assembly.49 Thus,David Ramsay's comment, "fevers are the proper endemic of Carolina" was a truism for most of the colonists."50

The causes of yellow fever were unknown in colonial times. However, many contemporaries had their theories. In his booklet Medical Inquiries, Dr. Benjamin Rush told of a health officer named Huchinson who believed that "damaged coffee, putrid hides, and other putrid animal and vegetable substances [were] the supposed causes of the fever."51 Although the colonists did not link malaria or yellow fever to the mosquito, a few people considered standing water to aggravate unhealthful conditions. Some in Charleston agitated for the filling in of little used ponds within the city's boundaries.52 One colonial medical practitioner advocated abandoning rice cultivation altogether and adopting other forms of agriculture as the only means of bringing about healthier living conditions.53

Physicians were not the only people who favored the slowing down of rice culture. By the late 1730's, the colonial government began to realize that too much rice was being planted. Rice was subject to drastic fluctuations in both the climate and the world market.54 Thus, pressure began to be brought to bear upon the planters to diversify the South Carolinian economy.55 Ironically, it took the talents of a young girl to introduce a new staple cash crop.


In the late 1730's, Lt. Col. George Lucas bought a plantation on Wappo creek and brought his family there from Antigua. Soon afterwards he was called back to be governor of that island so he left the running of the plantation to his capable seventeen year old daughter, Eliza.56 Because the Lucas lands were too close to the sea, rice culture was not an option. Thus she had to quickly find a cash crop. She later wrote, "...in those years I was very early fond of the vegetable world...accordingly when he [Col. Lucas] went to the West Indies, he sent me a variety of seeds, among them, indigo."57 After two failures, she finally produced a successful crop in 1742.58

Because the processing of indigo involves carefully timed fermenting and agitating stages, Eliza's father sent a man from Montserrat who was an expert in the processing of indigo to assist her.59 The overseer gave instructions for the building of the equipment necessary but he would not cooperate further for he did not wish his own indigo producing country to be ruined.60 Undaunted, Eliza dismissed him and, along with his brother, figured out through trial and error the processing methods for indigo.61 When she married the wealthy Mr. Charles Pinckney in 1744, the whole crop was saved for seed and distributed to a great number of people.62 Thus, indigo gained a foothold and South Carolina acquired a new crop.

The American colonies were not isolated completely from Europe for British involvement in the imperial wars of the eighteenth century gave American dye a near monopoly on the English market. Originally, the Carolina colony had placed a bounty on several goods including indigo. But fear of its expense and the ensuing War of the Austrian Succession caused the indigo bounty to be revoked.63 Because the British feared competition from the French after the 1748 Peace of Aix-La-Chapelle, by 1749 they had placed a Parliamentary bounty of 6p per pound-weight upon Carolina indigo.64 By the mid 1750's, indigo was a booming industry. Between 1756 and 1757, indigo exports from South Carolina rose from 232,100 to 894,500 pounds per annum.65 This sudden rise, initiated by British bounties, has been called by more than one historian an "Indigo Bonanza."66

Indigo production, like rice culture, involved concentrated manual labor. Thus indigo easily fit into the Southern slave holding methods of agriculture. However, indigo processing was exacting and required a high degree of technical skill. This plus the inevitable risks of agriculture meant that not all farmers could produce indigo on a commercial scale.67 Yet, the fact that indigo became widespread indicates that many plantation owners were willing to take the necessary risks. An advantage indigo had over rice was that indigo did not require the standing water of rice cultivation.68 Thus it quickly spread to the middle country of South Carolina and on the sea islands which were not adapted to rice culture.69

Indigo processing was very precise and remained a precarious aspect of indigo culture for it determined the quality of the dye. The indigo plants were placed in three successive fermentation vats for the dye did not exist in the plant per se. A liquid called indican was formed chemically in an oxidation process which the colonial planters did not fully understand.70 Contemporary accounts simply said that the plants rotted.71 The fermented indigo/indican was then agitated by slaves with paddles which aerated the liquid. After the addition of limewater, the clear alkaline solution changed to blue.72 After the liquid was drained, the residue was strained, bagged, and left to dry. The resulting fine stiff paste was cut into cubes and placed into barrels for shipment to England.73 An average harvest for a planter usually resulted in thirty to eighty processed pounds of indigo per acre.74

Although for the first two decades of its culture, many planters studied the methods of processing, the quality of Carolina indigo never really improved.75 Fortunately, cheap indigo was in the highest demand thus the pressure for quality was not too strong.76 Whereas French West Indian indigo sold from 9s to 9s 9d per pound and Guatemalan indigo sold for for 13s 9d, first quality Carolina indigo in 1773 sold per pound at only 5s 9d.77

As the second half of the eighteenth century wore on, indigo continued to be grown in ever larger numbers. In the year 1775, some 1,122,200 pounds were exported from South Carolina.78 Yet, South Carolina's dependence upon governmental bounties in order to preserve indigo's prosperity proved to be dangerous.79 Although indigo continued to be produced during the Revolution, after the Treaty of Paris in 1783, the bounties and protective tariffs were no longer valid. Thus, Carolina indigo had to compete on the open market.80 Until the mid 1790's, indigo continued to sell well because Britian needed it for its textile industry. However, the loss of the bounty, indigo competition from India, and the 1793 invention of the cotton gin caused indigo to be almost completely phased out of South Carolina by 1798.81 When British legislation no longer effected the indigo grown in America, the "Bonanza" went bust.


During the very same fifty years in which indigo took hold in South Carolina, an interesting phenomenon occurred. Persons in Berkeley County near Charleston began to live longer; the number of persons dying during the malarial months began to drop. Furthermore, the frequent outbreaks of yellow fever in Charleston began to slow down and eventually, for a time, discontinue entirely.

An article entitled "Dying in Paradise: Malaria, Mortality, and the Perceptual Environment" by H.Roy Merrens and George D. Terry published in The Journal of Southern History recounts a study of church records in two Berkeley Co. parishes during the eighteenth century. Because most of the people living in St. Johns and Christchurch parishes would have been within range of disease carrying mosquitoes, Merrens and Terry were especially interested in those people who died during the malarial months of August to November.

The mortality rates among children were very high for the first half of the eighteenth century for Merrens and Terry discovered that 86% of those people recorded in the parish registers died before age 20. 77% of these deaths occurred between August and November. Malaria was particularly fatal to children under one year for 95% of those infants who died did so during the malarial months.82 However, Merrens and Terry concentrated most of their study on those individuals who survived past their twentieth year.

For the purposes of the study, they divided the eighteenth century into three periods; 1680 to 1720, 1721 to 1760, and 1760 to 1800. They found that in the first period, 21% those men who lived to be twenty died before thirty, 40% died before fifty, and only 21% lived to be sixty or more.83 For women, the mortality rates were higher. 55% of adult women died before fifty. Only 6% lived past sixty.84

In the second period, people began surviving to older ages. Only 9% of the men died before thirty, 37% died before fifty, and 26% lived to be sixty or more.85 Women also began to live longer. Although 45% died before fifty, 32% lived to be sixty and some 13% lived to be eighty or more.86

The most dramatic change occurred between 1760 and 1800 during the years in which indigo gained its height. Only 20% of the males died before forty and some 45% lived to be sixty or more. Moreover, only 18% of adult women died before fifty and some 70% survived beyond seventy.87 Those statistics involving women are especially revealing for women tended to become victims to malaria during their childbearing years. The fact that a greater percentage of the female population survived past fifty is significant. Thus, according to this evidence, something was enabling the people of Christchurch and St. Johns parishes in Berkeley county to survive malaria and malarial complications during the last forty years of the eighteenth century.

Curiously, at the same time that the effects of malarial fever began to diminish, there were fewer yellow fever epidemics. In fact, for forty-five years after 1748, although there were occasional sporadic outbreaks, there were no epidemical attacks of the disease. Noah Webster's book A Brief History of Epidemics and Pestilential Diseases lists every yellow fever outbreak in Charleston during the eighteenth century. Although they sometimes occurred as often as every two to three years, after the mid 1740's, they began to wane. The last verified incidences of yellow fever effecting a large number of people occurred in the summer of 1748.88 Scattered outbreaks in 1752 and a fever in 1761 which most historians do not believe to be yellow fever were the only suspect entries until July 1792 when a "malignant fever began to rage in Charleston...carrying of the patient in three days, and occasioning a considerable mortality."89

After a nearly forty year hiatus, yellow fever returned to Charleston in a particularly virulent form.90 The disease continued nearly unabated for the next fifteen years from 1794 to 1807. Large portions of the population fell victim to this new outbreak for few would have had the opportunity to acquire immunity from previous epidemics. Furthermore, most of the medical practitioners would not have had experience with treating the disease. The by now mature Dr. Rush relied upon an account of the 1741 Virginia outbreak written by Dr. John Mitchell.91 Younger doctors seemed not to place much faith in early methods of diagnosis and care thus treatment probably varied in its effectiveness and implementation.92 In fact, the yellow fever epidemics of the turn of the century spurred many doctors to produce medical manuals and histories which have become the basis for todays research into the medical history of the South.


Why was there a decline in malarial mortality and a cessation of yellow fever epidemics? One medical historian jokingly suggested that perhaps the Mosquitoes simply went away for forty years.93 This might be true. Interestingly, the yellow fever epidemics ended just as indigo gained ground as a staple cash crop. Even more fascinating is the fact that the yellow fever epidemics resumed as indigo culture was rapidly phased out after the Revolution. Although in 1788, 833,500 pounds of indigo were being exported94, in 1790, only 1694 casks of the stuff were exported.95 By 1796, indigo had been virtually eliminated from the agricultural economy.96 Conversely, the epidemics raged within three years of this decline. Thus, it is quite possible that the introduction, rise, and subsequent fall of indigo production had an effect upon mortality rates in colonial South Carolina.

Research to date indicates two possible supports to this assumption. The first involves the transition from a predominately rice to a mixed rice and indigo economy. Rice culture would have provided the perfect breeding environment for the malaria vector Anopheles and the Stegiomyia yellow fever vector. In contrast, indigo cultivation would have not required the standing water. Thus if more attention was paid to indigo production than rice production it is possible that the overall rice cultivation went down during the last forty years of the eighteenth century.

Although research to date cannot prove that many planters actually switched from rice to indigo thereby lessening the amount of standing water, rice exports from Charleston plateaued during the latter half of the eighteenth century. The figures for 1740 are very similar to those of 1789. During the target years of 1740 to 1790, rice exports fluctuated between the 91,110 pounds recorded in 1740 and the 100,000 pounds for 1789.97 During the forty year period, the rice exported averaged about 65,000 pounds a year with an all-time low of 35,523 pounds in 1753.98 Thus, this information indicates that the rice industry did not expand at nearly the rate of indigo. Furthermore, for some years during the target period, indigo might have surpassed rice in annual output.

An interview with two biologists indicated that the lessening of the existing standing water might have proved to be a deterrent to a growing population of mosquitoes. Less water would have reduced the places in which mosquitoes could lay their eggs. Fewer breeding grounds could have had a dramatic effect upon generational transition in the mosquito community. Furthermore, there would have been less standing water within the range of the inhabitants of the plantations.99 Thus there might have been less routine or widespread exposure to the disease ridden insects.

The second theory involves the nature of the indigo plant itself. Some forms of wild indigo, namely Baptistia tinctoria and Indigofera caroliniana were native to South Carolina. An early eighteenth century colonial plant collection in the British Museum contains some intriguing catalogue entries. Number 10521 describes "a sort of indigo prepared from wild indigo...[whose] juice rubbed on harnesses of horses keeps stinging flys from bitying them."100 Catalogue entry 10515 also mentions another wild indigo plant which had an insect repellent nature.101

Although to date no concrete data has been found, it could be possible that the indigo plant itself was a factor in the decline of fever mortality. Whether the indigo plant exuded something repellent to the mosquito102, which might have kept the mosquito away from indigo producing areas, or the indigo plant somehow poisoned the male mosquito during the pollination process103, the answer has not been fully explored.

Was it simply coincidence that yellow fever and malaria experienced a decline during indigo's rise, or are the two related in some manner. Whatever the connection between indigo and the mosquito is, the is little doubt that during the years of indigo's sudden and swift rise in cultivation, the number of people dying from malaria related complications and those dying from yellow fever dropped markedly. Eliza Lucas Pinckney introduced a new cash crop which helped to make South Carolina one of England's wealthiest colonies. However, her actions might have also helped the population of South Carolina reduce the fever mortality rates. The introduction of indigo broke the vicious cycle of rice cultivation, slavery, and fever by introducing a method of agriculture which did not rely on large amounts of standing water. Furthermore, the return of yellow fever epidemics in the mid 1790's coincided with the rapid decline of indigo production due to the loss of the incentive of the bounty. Although the exact nature of indigo's influence on the mosquito can only be speculated, research conducted to date indicates the probability of a connection between the two.


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