Africans likely first arrived in the area that would become South Carolina in 1526, as part of a Spanish expedition from the Caribbean. For the next century, ongoing struggles between Spanish, French, and indigenous groups in the region involved enslaved Africans who accompanied, and sometimes escaped from, European rivals.
After the English settled Charleston in 1670, the early colonists struggled to find a crop that would produce sufficient revenue for England, but by 1700 they discovered that rice was best suited for South Carolina’s semi-tropical climate. Early attempts to capitalize on this discovery failed due to the settlers’ ignorance of the intricacies involved in rice cultivation. Planters soon realized that using slave labor from the traditional rice-growing region of West Africa to perform this complex, arduous work, they could build economic stability.
Ultimately, the agricultural skill, ingenuity and technology of enslaved Africans made coastal South Carolina rice planters with the largest enslaved labor forces very rich. The floods fertilizing the inland and tidal rice fields also created deadly work conditions, from which tens of thousands of enslaved men, women and children perished in the stagnant and mosquito-and-disease-infested swamps, paying the ultimate price for an economic empire.
By 1708, the number of enslaved Africans and their descendants in South Carolina had grown to the point that they were the majority of the colony’s population. With some temporary fluctuations, this Black population majority would continue in the colony and later state of South Carolina until the Great Migration of the mid-twentieth century.