Carolina Gold and Carolina White rice: a genetic odyssey

 Tom Hargrove   |  

In 1982, Dr. César Martínez visited a rained rice-growing area near Tarapoto, in Peru’s upper Amazon Basin. Martínez, then a rice breeder with the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), based near Cali, Colombia, came upon a hardy rice variety with heavy heads of beautiful grain grown by subsistence farmers in rained plots. Farmers called it Carolino. Martínez was impressed by the humble variety. “Carolino grew fast, even in those poor, leached-out Amazonian soils,” he said. “And it obviously resisted pests because it had no chemical protection.” What he didn’t know at that time was that Carolino’s journey began on the other side of the world—a fascinating saga that is larger than life.

Carolina Gold and Carolina White are sister varieties of rice of the antebellum South that were similar, except that one had a golden husk, while the other was pale. Pearly grains and a nutty taste gave the Carolina rice varieties a special place on the British royal table, and made Charleston the most prosperous city in England’s American colonies. During their reign of two centuries, the sisters fostered vast rice plantations in the low country of the Carolina and Georgia.

However, the true origin of Carolina Gold is probably Indonesia. It reached Madagascar through Indonesian immigrants who settled on the island in the 1st century AD. It is reported to have immigrated to the New World three centuries ago [around 1685] when a New England ship sailing from Madagascar to New York was forced by a storm to seek shelter in Charles Towne, which is now known as Charleston, South Carolina.

The gentry of Charleston entertained the officers of the two-masted brigantine until the storm passed. Before setting sail, the ship’s captain, John Thurber, thought that rice might grow well in the swampy lowlands around Charleston. He gave a “peck,” about 5 kilograms, of rice seed that he’d collected in Madagascar to Dr. Henry Woodward, a prominent Charleston physician and local botanist.

The seeds thrived and became known as Carolina Gold and Carolina White. Carolina Gold was, in fact, the first commercially grown rice variety in the U.S. Exports of Carolina Gold and Carolina White generated colossal fortunes for the rice plantations of the low country of the Carolina and Georgia (see Merle Shepard’s reference to this in a genetic odyssey Pioneer Interview excerpt on page 41).

But the Carolina rice industry depended on black slaves, brought the “Rice Coast” of West Africa because they knew rice culture. Their ancestors had grown rice for more than 3,000 years.

The end of slavery after the Civil War doomed rice farming on this gold coast. Without slaves, the landowners could not maintain the dams and locks that held back encroaching seawater. Also, hurricane damage worsened because erosive cotton farming had silted the rivers. The Carolina rice disappeared with the collapse of the Carolina rice industry after the Civil War. The last commercial crop of Carolina Gold was harvested in 1927, with only a few seed samples of the Carolina rice preserved in gene banks.

But the Carolina rice survived its close brush with extinction. More than 5,000 war-weary and disillusioned Confederate veterans migrated to Brazil after the Civil War and the Confederacy’s defeat in 1865.The Confederates almost certainly took the seeds with them to South America.

Carolina Gold and White show how genes of good crop varieties spread. The seeds made a remarkable journey: from Indonesia to Madagascar by boat almost 2,000 years ago, then to the wealthy and slave-driven Carolina plantations. Her seeds seem to have helped war-weary Confederate veterans start a new life along the Amazon in South America.

Freed slaves may have taken her seeds back to Africa, which she once called home. Carolina Gold recently started a new life in South Carolina, and her white-hulled sister is a parent of an improved variety for upland rice farmers in Colombia and Panama.

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