In the early eighteenth century, rice became the major cash crop of the Lowcountry, and would continue to dominate coastal South Carolina's economy into the nineteenth century. Rice was first domesticated in Asia several thousand years earlier, then spread to Eurasia and Africa, and finally arrived in the Americas with the Columbian Exchange in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. After rice grains came to Carolina in the late seventeenth century, enslaved West Africans in Carolina from rice-growing regions most likely grew rice for subsistence food. It was not until the eighteenth century that Carolina planters had amassed the local capital, enslaved labor force, economic entrepreneurship, and plantation cultivation system to support a major rice export industry. Before 1720, naval stores and the American Indian slave trade were the most lucrative exports from the Carolina colony.
Scholars currently debate whether Europeans or West Africans from rice-growing regions provided the initial skills and technology critical for launching Carolina's lucrative rice plantations. On one side of the debate, historians Daniel Littlefield and Judith Carney assert that rice agriculture in the Lowcountry began with and depended on West African expertise. They base their argument on the long history of West African rice cultivation, the Carolina adoption of rice-growing technology unique to West Africa, and Lowcountry planter preferences for enslaved Africans from rice-growing regions. Other scholars, including David Eltis, Philip Morgan, and David Richardson, argue that shifting trade access within the larger Atlantic market was a more significant factor in shaping which parts of West and Central Africa slaves in the Americas came from, regardless of planter preferences.
They also assert that the transmission of rice cultivation skills to Carolina could have occurred through various channels. Most scholars today agree that the Carolina rice industry grew out of a complex series of cultural, economic, and technological exchanges between Europeans and Africans in the colonial period. They also acknowledge that enslaved West Africans from rice-growing regions directly brought key skills and experiences to Carolina rice cultivation and processing, including the use of fanner baskets and toe-heel planting methods.
With access to North America's largest trans-Atlantic slave trade port in Charleston, Lowcountry slaveholders in the colonial and the post-Revolutionary period could also overcome high mortality rates in their enslaved population by continuing to purchase new "saltwater" Africans. Like sugar planters, the growing wealth of rice planters and port access to the Atlantic slave trade meant that Lowcountry slaveholders had less incentive to ensure the survival of enslaved Africans. In this way, increased trade access could lead to particularly brutal and negligent treatment of enslaved Africans by white slaveholders.
Over time, however, like other parts of North America, enslaved Africans and their African American descendants in the Lowcountry experienced greater rates of survival and childbirth in comparison to slaves in tropical sugar-growing areas. With a black population majority, they also had access to large African American communities, in contrast to slaves in the tobacco-growing Mid-Atlantic regions of North America. Greater survival rates combined with large African communities increased the ability for enslaved Africans in the Lowcountry to maintain traditions and kinship support systems heavily influenced by West and West Central African roots. They could also pass these cultural traditions on to new generations of African Americans, to form the creolized Gullah Geechee culture of the Lowcountry.
With cash crop revenues increasing in the eighteenth century, Lowcountry planters began to live away from their plantations during the sickly summer and fall months. They lived in second homes in nearby urban areas such as Charleston and Savannah, or in coastal or mountain hamlets, such as Pawleys Island, South Carolina and Flat Rock, North Carolina. Some planters even left the southeast region for northern urban areas, including New York City. Lowcountry planters never entirely became absentee planters, like British West Indian planters who often lived in England, but they did spend large portions of the year away from their rice fields. This meant that enslaved Africans and African Americans on rice plantations, numbering in the dozens to hundreds, could access some independence from white planters in this region – though white overseers and enslaved black drivers still asserted the planter's authority throughout the year.
In the Lowcountry, planters implemented a task system for organizing rice cultivation labor, in contrast to the more widespread gang system used in sugar, tobacco, and later cotton. Under this system, instead of working by set hours, from sun up to sun down, enslaved laborers completed an assigned task or set of tasks each day that varied depending on gender and age. Once this task was completed, they could pursue other activities such as tending their own subsistence crops, hunting, or fishing. This limited independence allowed enslaved Africans to supplement and enhance the nutritional value of their diets beyond slave rations. They could also develop informal market economies by selling or trading extra game and subsistence crops, often to other slaves, non-slaveholding whites, and even white slaveholders.
Despite these advantages, the conditions of disease, labor exertion, and brutality on rice plantations undermines portrayals of Lowcountry rice slavery as more benign than plantation labor elsewhere. These conditions were so extreme that similar to the West Indies, the Lowcountry did not experience natural increase of enslaved populations, as found in other North America colonies, until the 1760s. Enslaved children experienced especially high mortality rates in Lowcountry rice plantations.