The logs of slave ships, as well as advertisements for the sale of slaves, reveal what Europeans knew--and did not know--about Africa. Ship captains noted where rice was grown and stocked their holds with rice to feed their captives. People from Africa's rice-growing regions were sold at a premium to planters in America, who then became wealthy from the cultivation of the pearly grain. From the founding of the province of Carolina in 1670 through the end of the transatlantic slave trade to North America in 1807, about 40 percent of all Africans arriving at the port of Charleston, South Carolina, came from the region then known as the Rice Coast or Upper Guinea Coast. An equal percentage came from the regions of the Congo and Angola, where farmers did not grow rice but used coiled baskets to winnow other kinds of grain.

In the Lowcountry the vast majority of people were of African descent, and most of them lived and worked on plantations. Rice plantations operated on the "task" system, with enslaved workers assigned daily quotas of work, such as hoeing a quarter acre, according to their age and fitness. When the task was completed, men and women could tend their own gardens, raise pigs and poultry, catch fish or make baskets.

In the 1750s Lowcountry planters began moving their rice operations from inland swamps to tidal rivers. With an expenditure of energy that rivaled the labor required to construct the pyramids of Egypt, enslaved workers built a system of earthen embankments, canals, sluiceways and gates, transforming the rice plantations into what one planter called a "huge hydraulic machine." After the Civil War, free men and women worked for wages, a share of the crop or land. Many black families were able to purchase plots of 10 to 50 acres and began to farm for themselves.