Chronicling a Rice Dike
Born in Scotland, George Ogilvie came to South Carolina in 1774 to supervise the management of four plantations—three belonging to his uncle and one of his own. On the Santee Delta, Ogilvie found not the depleted pastoral land of Scotland, but swampland that was as fertile as it was forbidding. Cultivating these swamps required a brutal mastery: dominion over both the earth and the African slaves bought to work it. The work itself the unnamed slaves took care of, educated as they were in the art and mystery of rice cultivation. Ogilvie’s task was to supervise, and more than that, to document. Steeped in the classics, he turned to Virgil’s earlier accounting of a colonial farming enterprise to understand this new world. In 1776, as America began to wage war on its mother country, George Ogilvie wrote his own Georgic verses detailing the transformation of this rebellious landscape. He called it Carolina; Or, the Planter. Ogilvie fled the country two years later, rejecting a mandatory oath of allegiance to the new government. But the process he had documented continued to flourish. At Hampton plantation and dozens of other rice plantations in the lowcountry of South Carolina, planters continued to supervise the efforts of their skilled and enslaved work force in cultivating tiny yellow, white, or red grains. Those grains, coaxed from recovered swamp soil, were the fulcrum of the richest economy in the South. Making this entire process possible—harnessing the fertility of the swamps and the power of the nearby river—were walls. Rice dikes that set fields apart from the constant onslaught of nature. Embankments that sought to create a pastoral world, they survive yet, immersed in a slow process of decay and erosion. But the only record that remains of their construction, a vast undertaking that moved one world to create another, is the words of George Ogilvie.
A view of a rice dike
He drains The deep morass, or with strong mounds restrains The tide stemm’d river
From overhead, several hundred feet above the swampy morass of South Carolina’s tidal lowlands, you can see the Hampton Plantation rice dike. It rends the earth. Not a jagged gash or crooked streak, but a neat, exact incision. Like the gentle ridge that arises from even the tidiest suture, the dike juts above the floodplains of the South Santee, writhing in tortuous meanderings against the dike’s tidy bulk. Its jagged edges struggle to break anew the precise seam that protects the regimented rows and columns of the field beyond. The dike is scar tissue. A slowly dissolving wound inflicted to supplicate a recalcitrant earth.
Deep, beneath the black superior ground, Rich loamy earth and marly clay are found;
Not so on the ground. Standing astride the dike reveals a quotidian nature. Seemingly little more than a mound of dirt, the refuse maybe from some long-abandoned project, or the accumulation of a few hundred years’ tides. Standing atop, you cannot appreciate the magnitude of the dike. Equally lost from here are its details. The slight narrowing of the embankment as it moves upward. The faded imprints of hands long since decomposed. Markers of human bodies, once pitted in opposition to this landscape, now moldered into it.
A fruitful compost formed in lapse of time, Of putrid shells, and plants, and settling slime
Atop the dike too, sits a black bird no bigger than my hand. His dusty black plumage, turning to white at the wingtips, stands out from the dull green and gold of the rice fields. Yellow-headed and round, he seems immobilized by his ricely repast. Bobolink. Scourge of the rice fields. He regards each particle of dirt, seeing in the rootless expanse the trace of some past human intervention. The bobolink sits silently, contemplating a world now ceded to him.
Hence twelve feet, on either side you delve A ditch, full six feet deep, its wideness twelve
But suddenly, the bird breaks his reverie. Not far enough overhead to escape the blasts of shotgun shell that obliterated his ancestors, he flies. Scanning the fields for erstwhile grains, he can appreciate the immensity of the dike. Hundreds of feet long, it slowly sinks back into the earth from which it once so painstakingly arose. This bobolink, and his species’ recent revival in the lowcountry, is not a harbinger of some renaissance for this particular rice dike. It will continue, unused, and unremarked upon. Its unmaking as gradual and gentle as its making was quick and violent.
The making of a rice dike
Too near th’ Atlantic surges move Whose salts unkind to vegetation prove; But strive the happy golden mean to know
From where recoiling tides forbear to flow
Rice was cultivated not in verdant upland valleys, but in lowdown, murky swamps. Too near the ocean, and the saline tide would choke the tender plants. Too far, and the tide could not provide the life-giving floods that made the rice grow. Insalubrious to human habitation, these swamps concealed land made rich by almost total human neglect for millions of years. Only profit, in the form of little pebbles of grain, could compel the monumental reordering that ensued once the perfect plot of land had been found.
Still their tenacious roots their rights defend And wide and deep those nether limbs extend In vain the hoe, in vain the spade is try’d, In vain the mattock, would those roots divide; The ax alone, with many a painful stroke,
Unspurs the cypress and unprongs the oak
It began with trees. Great hulking things, cypress and live oak extended gnarled appendages deep into the banks of the river. Hundreds of years some of them had stood. And yet their destruction took only hours, sometimes days. Still, it must have seemed like eternity to the men hunched over wooden-handled implements of steel. Torn, too, from their homeland, they ripped into the supple earth under the threat of punishment and with no promise of repayment. With stubborn resolve, the laboring slaves tore the earth apart with a calculated ferocity. They reduced this new world, strange in its customs but requiring the same work as their ancestral homes, to its essential elements: twin piles, one of dirt, one of roots.
The roots, high pil’d await consuming fires; The mould to swell the rising bank retires; Where youths and females to receive it stand, And form the sloping dike with plastic hand
Compelled to work, the wives and daughters of those bound fathers and sons fashioned the dike. Handful by handful, they sculpted its neatly rounded edges. Taller than each woman, and twice the width of its height, the dike came into being out of these incremental movements. Movements of the hand in concert with the rest of the body. Hour after hour they persisted in their toil, even as the sky darkened. Their whole world lit only by the inferno of the roots being consumed nearby. Steadily, they purged the old world and reformed it.
But lo! Ere half the needful depth you gain, Quick gushing streams o’erflow the unfinished drain! No more your lab’rers see their strokes to aim; Chills shake their limbs, and cramps distort Their frame
Fueled by desperation. Palsied men and women, bodies shaking with fever and exhaustion. Each body sinking down as the water seeped in to fill newly vacant holes. No refuge in the growing field. A choice only between this watery hell, or the ceaseless burning nearby. A growing pile of mud. The women compacted each glopping handful. A patch against the inexorable water seeping in from every direction . Steadily sinking downward, they made a course with this liquid mortar. Improbably, miraculously—their efforts aligned into a wall. A wall that could hold back the diurnal force of the ocean itself.
Hence twice twelve feet, on either side, you delve A ditch, full six feet deep, its wideness twelve— And scarce, ere now have you begun to prove How hard the task to subjugate
The land once reformed required repeated conquest. The dike was the main instrument in a larger system: check banks and trunks, canals and gates. Each designed with a specific purpose, to allow, disallow, or otherwise control the riverine waters.From season to season, slaves worked.Maintaining the rice dikes and fields. Plowing and harvesting. Winnowing and threshing.
Themselves always under the threat of flailings or isolated imprisonment in close, dank quarters. Those too designed for renewed subjugation.
But the rice lasted only as long as the labor did. Once freed, men and women were no longer compelled by obligation or habitation to cultivate the grain whose murderous labor had bent their backs to the ground for almost 200 years. Most fled from the malarial swamps. To cotton fields. To cities and industries that would have them. Now, generations on, memories of rice cultivation have begun to fade. All that remains is the dike.
Fig. 1: “Rice production on a plantation near Savannah,Geogia,1867” from Harper’s Weekly, 5 January, 1867.Shown on www.slaveryimages.org, complied by Jerome Handler and Michael Tuite and sponsored by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and the University of Virginia.http://hitchcock.itc.virginia.edu/SlaveTrade/collection/large/NW0077.JPG
Fig. 2: “Hampton Plantation, McLellanville, SC.” Aerial Map. Google Maps, April, 2013.
Fig. 3: “Rice Threshing, U.S. South, 1866,” from Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, 20 October,1866. Shown on www.slaveryimages.org, complied by Jerome Handler and Michael Tuite and sponsored by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and the University of Virginia Library.”http://hitchcock.itc.virginia.edu/SlaveTrade/collection/large/NW0088.JPG
Fig. 4: “Gordon, 1863 [carte-de-visite by Matthew Brady studios.]” Available at:http://click.si.edu/Story.aspx?story=297
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