Finally I’ve gotten to the meat of Judith A. Carney’s Black Rice, the part where she delves specifically into Carolina rice cultivation. She’s given me some great new insights that my previous research had not revealed, research from books as well as from trips to the Charleston region.
Take, for example, what was known as “trunk gates.” I had wondered why the sluices were given that name when they really didn’t look like trunks. Well, turns out that the early trunk gates which regulated water flow to and from the rice fields were just that–trunks, as in tree trunks. Cypress logs hollowed out for the purpose. Another bit of ingenuity brought over from Africa by Carolina’s slaves. Over time the trunks were re-engineered to something between the simple cypress log and the later hanging gates that appeared by the time of the American Revolution. I saw an awesome replicate of one of these when I last visited Middleton Plantation outside of Charleston, seen here:
The vertical piece is the actual gate that regulated water flow through the “trunk” which is the horizontal piece you see in the picture. This is what lay beneath the dykes that contained the rice fields. At the other end of the trunk would have been another gate that worked in conjunction with its mate to harness the water flow to and from the fields.
Another revelation (and they all seem so logical now to me) was that the first rice fields in the region were not cultivated next to the tidal rivers of the lowcountry but instead back in the myriad of inland swamps. In The Chronicles, James Logan and his business partner, Ezra Archer, are ahead of the times with their rice production, especially Logan who would grow tidal rice before someone as cautious as Archer, who would instead be content with inland swamp rice production until he could see if Logan succeeded or failed in his new venture. Soon, though, Archer would learn from Logan’s gamble that tidal rice required fewer slaves than inland rice–one slave could “manage five acres instead of the two typically planted to inland rice cultivation,” as Carney revealed in her book.
Weaving history into a story is challenging, to be sure, but great fun. And, like in my example of Archer and Logan, their part in that history helps to define and flesh-out the characters–Archer the shrewd, cautious businessman; Logan the bold explorer, a man willing to listen to the knowledge of his slaves and learn from them in order to become more prosperous.