Black Majority: Race, Rice, and Rebellion in South Carolina, 1670–1740

Image of Black Majority: Race, Rice, and Rebellion in South Carolina, 1670-1740
Release Date: 
January 23, 2024
W. W. Norton & Company
Reviewed by: 

Few nonfiction books age well, especially those about race in America—the works of W. E. B. Dubois and John Hope Franklin being the most conspicuous exceptions.

Also exceptional, on a more modest scale, is historian Peter H. Wood’s gem, his groundbreaking, 1974 book Black Majority: Race, Rice and Rebellion in South Carolina, that has retained its well-deserved shelf life. So it is no surprise that W. W. Norton has issued a 50th anniversary edition, with a new Foreword and Epilogue.

Having encountered Black Majority after graduating from Duke University 50 years ago—as Wood was beginning his decades-long faculty career there—one thing remains clear to this reviewer: What was an important, eye-opening book back then is even more so today. It is likely to be as much a revelation to this generation as it was to ours and those that followed.

In her Foreword to this new edition, National Book Award winner Imani Perry writes that when she read it in 1990, as a Yale undergraduate, it was “an enchanted encounter” that turned him away from majoring in math, “and ushered me into a lifetime of study of American history and culture.”

“What it revealed,” Perry recalls, “was still quite novel to most people outside the formal study of American history: Enslaved Africans possessed knowledge and skills that were integral to the development of this nation. . . . They were more than mere objects of use and exploited unfree labor, they were people who brought culture and habits of cultivation with them across the Middle Passage.”

This meticulous, densely documented narrative, bolstered with numerous numerical tables and charts to support Wood’s findings, is presented in understated prose that builds to a climax with his account of the 1739 Stono Rebellion. In retrospect, what is amazing is that Wood did all his research before the internet, working hands-on at various archives.

“Whatever the exact year in which a Black majority emerged,” Wood writes, “the development was unprecedented within England’s North American colonies and was fully acknowledged long before the British crown took control of the proprietary settlement in 1720.”

In 1737, one foreign visitor observed, “Carolina looks more like a negro country than like a country settled by white people.”

The key development, according to Wood, was rice, and the skills in cultivating the crop that enslaved people from West Africa carried with them to colonial South Carolina. Until Black Majority, no convincing case had been made between the importation of African captives and the Lowcountry's production of rice. This synergy should have come as no surprise: “Semitropical West Africa bore a closer resemblance to coastal Carolina than did most parts of Europe,” he writes.

In part, West Africans were so successful in cultivating rice because many of them had done it in their homelands, and because of a developed immunity to mosquito-borne malaria, endemic to South Carolina’s coastal Lowcountry. (However, that very immunity may have been responsible for their vulnerability to sickle cell anemia on this side of the Atlantic.)

The period between 1695 and 1720 in many ways “represents the high-water mark of diversified Black involvement in the colony’s growth,” Wood writes. “During these years, some fifteen thousand persons with roots in Africa came to outnumber Europeans in the Lowcountry population. To a degree unique in American history, they participated in—and in some ways dominated—the evolution of that particular social and geographical frontier.”

As a result, Wood writes, “Colonial slaveholders were utterly dependent upon a pioneer pattern of versatility and competence among unfree workers in these early years.”

They were not simply passive, docile agricultural workers.

As rice prospered, out of economic necessity, enslaved people also became highly skilled artisans, as wood workers—called sawyers and coopers—boatmen guiding skiffs through the swamps and marshes, printers, even as apothecaries. “Planters exploited skilled unfree labor in butchering . . . and salt gathering, and in packing and loading meat for export.”

Some skills of the colony’s Native Americans and enslaved Africans dovetailed, like the cultivation and utilization of gourds and calabashes for carrying liquids, and for use as birdhouses. Also weaving baskets and mats from reeds and grasses.

As the enslaved people gained marketable skills and developed some traction in the informal economy, the State of South Carolina began to institute laws to restrict them, with uneven results.

The language of Wood’s new edition of Black Majority reflects the changing times since the first edition, which used terms like “slaves” and “slavery,” now using the more generally accepted “enslaved persons.” Wood has dropped the term “Negro,” and replaced the word “plantation” with “slave labor camps.”

With more accuracy, he now uses terms like “deported in chains,” “locked in lifetime subservience,” “imprisoned workers,” “incarcerated Black families,” “involuntary workers,” and “forced laborers,” who were “unfree” for having been “kidnapped” and “deported.”

Tensions in South Carolina simmered in the months leading up to the brief but bloody 1739 Stono Rebellion. Plantation owners attributed this unrest to recently imported, restive laborers from Angola. They believed that “most unrest was necessarily traceable to outside agitators—a dubious trope passed along from one generation to the next,” a useful fiction that served the Southern ruling class well for the next 225 years.

The uprising ultimately failed. “Yet,” Wood writes, “it remains only one swell in the tide of rebellious schemes, which characterize these years.” In that sense, they foreshadowed the Denmark Vesey rebellion of 1822, also in the area of Charleston, and the Nat Turner Insurrection in 1831, in Virginia.

Fifty years on, the story of South Carolina’s colonial period told in Black Majority remains largely unknoiwn or forgotten.

Wood writes in his new Epilogue that it is still the case that people “often protest rightly that they learned little, if anything, about such things when they were in school.”

Here is the remedy.