time period


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.

In subsequent years, the colony succeeds because of the unpaid labor of both skilled and unskilled Africans. These people build houses, cook, garden, raise cattle and provide untold other forms of artisanship and crafts. Approximately one in three of the early settlers is African.
Seed rice arrives in Charleston as a gift from a sea captain whose boat had been under repair here. West Africans knowledgeable of rice growing for centuries teach their English enslavers how to grow rice in wet areas. The “rice culture” creates tremendous wealth for the Colony.
The growth of indigo and cotton require more labor, which leads to the importation of more captive Africans. By 1708, the numbers of whites and blacks in South Carolina are about 4,000 each. For the next two centuries (except for a brief period between 1790 and 1820), blacks outnumber whites in the state.
About 20 miles south of Charles Towne, 100 Black insurrectionists seize firearms and attempt to rally more people to join them during what is now called the Stono Rebellion. They plan to fight their way to St. Augustine, Florida where the Spanish promise freedom. Instead, they run into a group of whites led by the Colony’s lieutenant governor who alerts the authorities before the freedom seekers can grow into an overwhelming force. The revolt is forcefully put down, and some 60 rebels are executed; many are decapitated. The public display of their maimed bodies serves to threaten and warn others of the consequences of running away or resisting enslavement.
In reaction to the Stono Rebellion, the Legislature passes even more oppressive “slave codes” designed to control and limit every aspect of Black life. Included are laws forbidding enslaved people to travel without written permission from their “masters,” meeting in groups without the presence of whites, raising their own food, possessing money, and the use of drums, horns, and other loud instruments that might be used to communicate with one another, and learning to read and write.