Isle of Wight to Isle of Wight History Centre History Centre
The Rice Plant The Cultivation of Rice The Colony of Carolina and Charles Town
The Growth of Rice as a Staple Crop Labour The Rice Trade and Business Arrangements
From Carolina to Cowes & a Market The Demise of the Rice Trade: Thomas Jefferson v. Cowes

In 1781, when two authors published books on the Isle of Wight, one a history and the other a guide, both included, almost as an aside on Island trade, a singular paragraph on a rice trade between the American colonies and Europe that had been based on the port of Cowes as its transit port. One publication was a history, detailing the main historical events on the Isle of Wight and informing readers of the main country seats and churches on the Island. The reference to the rice trade occurs at the beginning in a small section on exports and imports, barely half a page long. The other publication was a guide, publicising the Isle of Wight and took the form of four long letters, written by the author to a friend. The author is more concerned with giving brief descriptions of the main Island sights, especially any natural features. Again, only a page or two are spared for mentioning the Island's trade, during which he adds a brief comment on the rice trade. Both authors bemoaned the demise at Cowes of this trade in rice, which, they claimed, had boosted the local economy.

"Before the defection of the American colonies, from thirty to fifty vessels loaded with rice annually arrived at Cowes, from South Carolina and Georgia; their cargoes were from twenty-two thousand to thirty-five thousand barrels, or from five thousand to eight thousand tons of that grain; besides deer skins, staves, indigo, pitch, tar, turpentine, and other articles of less consequence. The rice, after being landed, opened, skreened, and re-packed, was generally re-shipped on board the vessel in which it came, and carried to Holland, Germany, or some of the French ports in the Channel. This was a beneficial branch of business to the port of Cowes, which it has lost by the unfortunate separation above alluded to. Tobacco has also been landed in this port in the same manner, and for the same purpose, as rice; and this business would, in all likelihood, have greatly increased, had not the same unhappy circumstances put a stop to it."
[The History of the Isle of Wight. Sir Richard Worsley. 1781.]

"The lower parts of the town, where the chief business is done are rather crowded, it being a place, which in the shipping way has long possessed a considerable share of trade, and of which that of the carolina rice ships, till the late rupture with America, was a very capital branch." p.29

"Here the rice ships from Carolina intended for foreign markets, usually cleared and paid their duties, a benefit of which the loss has been severely felt, as the effect of the late American war, and of which alas! there are now but little hopes that it will ever return." p.67.
[A View of the Isle of Wight. John Sturch. 1781]

Beginning in the 17th century, Cowes had gained experience as a entrepot port for the re-exportation of tobacco. A number of London and Island merchants developed facilities in East Cowes for the accomodating of tobacco cargoes while they cleared customs. Although the experience of handling tobacco provided a useful pool of business expertise, the scale of this business was exceeded by far by that of rice in the 18th century.

The rice plant
The rice plant (Oryza sativa) is really a semi-aquatic annual grass and requires high temperatures and a great deal of sunshine to grow properly. It takes between three to six months to reach maturity, when it produces its flowering head or panicle, from which emerge spikelets containing the rice seed. A rice seed consists essentially of the grain (caryopsis) and the tough, enclosing outer layer, the hull or husk. This husk has to be removed with force. The grain, which is also what is known as brown rice, is made up of the embryo and the endosperm, containing starch. The endosperm is protected by bran layers, which give brown rice its name. It is these bran layers, which are removed to produce 'polished' or white rice. Grain width, length, thickness and colour all vary widely among varieties.

Today, rice is often categorised by its size (short, medium or long grain) or its botanical type (basmati, arborio etc) or its growing region (Italian, American etc.). However, for trade purposes, rice was often classified by the degree of its milling. 'Rough rice' refers to rice that had been harvested but still has the husk on. 'Cargo rice' or 'whole rice' is the term used for rice grain that has been milled to remove only the husk; it is also known as 'brown rice' and still has its bran and germ. 'White rice' is rice that has been fully milled and 'polished', which removes the bran layers and germ, leaving a pure white, semi-translucent grain.

The Cultivation of Rice
The cultivation of rice in Carolina and Georgia required the investment of a large amount of capital in dams, dikes, and slaves. The fields or marshland had to be cleared of trees and undergrowth before a sophisticated system of flood channels and ditches could be marked out. From the main channels, smaller channels ran off perpendicularly between the paddy fields. Low dikes or embankments were were built to enclose these paddy fields and floodgates or 'trunks' [early floodgates had consisted of a hollowed cypress tree trunk with a wooden plug in one end], simple forms of sluice, were installed to regulate the water flow on and off the fields. After the fields had been ploughed and harrowed, the planting of rice seed usually took place early in April. This was followed by the first flooding of the field with water, known as the sprout flow. When in this state, rice fields took on the appearance of salt pans, with their small dividing embankments enclosing a shallow pool of water. The water was allowed to cover the seed to help promote germination and, once the seed had sprouted, the water was drawn off. After about three weeks, the field was flooded to allow the water to almost cover the entire plant (the point flow). The level was reduced after a few days to half cover the young plants and the plants remained in this state until they could support themselves (the long flow). Once the water had been gradually drained off the plants, the field was hoed and weeded. About the end of June or beginning of July, the lay-by flow of water was slowly increased to cover the whole plant again. This level of water remained thus for around two months. The stale water had to be drained off at intervals and replaced with fresh. April sown rice was usually ready for harvesting in September. The lay-by flow was drawn off and the rice was harvested using knives or large sickles called rice hooks. It was laid out on the stubble to dry and ,once ready, it was tied into sheaves and carried off by boat to the rice farm. Like wheat, the rice plants were threshed by hand with flails and then winnowed to remove the dust and broken stalks. The rice grains were then placed in a mortar, made from a hollowed out tree trunk, and pounded with a beater made from a stout branch. This required a large number of slaves and was not mechanised until the late 18th century, when water-powered mills for hulling and cleaning rice were introduced. They were slow to catch on as many plantation owners continued to use cheap manual slave labour. The exhausting, labour-intensive and often fatal nature of the whole process of cultivating and processing rice was summed up by a South Carolina doctor:

"Our Staple Commodity for some years has been Rice, and Tilling, planting, Hoeing, Reaping, Threshing, Pounding have all been done merely by the poor Slaves here. Labour and the Loss of many of their Lives testified [to] the Fatigue they Underwent, in Satiating the Inexpressible Avarice of their Masters. You may easily guess what a Tedious, Laborious, and slow Method it is of Cultivating Lands to Till it all by Hand, and then to plant 100, 120 Acres of Land by Hand, but the worst comes last for after the Rice is threshed, they beat it all in the hand in large Wooden Mortars to clean it from the Husk, which is a very hard and severe operation as each Slave is tasked at Seven Mortars for One Day, and each Mortar Contains three pecks of Rice."

The Colony of Carolina and Charles Town
In 1663, King Charles II, being indebted politically and pecuniarily to a group of nobles, granted them a huge swathe of land south of Virginia. The boundaries of this territory nominally extended south from Virginia to what is today Florida (near to St. John's River). The area (extending from 31° to 36° of latitude i.e. the present Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina to Albemarle Sound and westward within those parallels to the Pacific) had been known as 'Carolana', when it was granted by Charles I to Robert Heath, Attorney-General, in 1629 but he had not made any use of this grant and the area remained unsettled and undeveloped. The grant of 1663 named eight Lords Proprietor : the Earl of Clarendon, the Duke of Albemarle, Lord Craven, Lord Berkeley, Lord Ashley, Sir George Cateret, Sir William Berkeley and Sir John Colleton. A set of constitutional provisions for governing Carolina was drawn up by Anthony Ashley Cooper (Lord Shaftesbury) and his secretary, John Locke. This was known as The Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina.

In 1669, Anthony Ashley Cooper sent an expedition to Carolina to establish a settlement in the Port Royal area. However, realising they were too open to Spanish attack from Florida, the expedition settled on a site to the north on the Ashley River at Albemarle Point in 1670. In August of that year, a Spanish attack failed to drive the English out. In 1679, a new site was chosen on a peninsula at Oyster Point between the Ashley and Cooper Rivers to establish the new town of Charles Town (later to become Charleston).

The main rice port was Charleston, but it was joined by Georgetown, Beaufort and Savannah. These towns served the plantations of the hinterlands as export centres and rice could be transported from quite some distance inland down the wide rivers.
"Carolina doth so abound in Rivers, that within fifty miles of the Sea you can hardly place yourself seven miles from a Navigable River, and divers are navigable for good big Vessels above 300 miles."
[Mr. Willsons Relation in Carolina Described more fully then heretofore... Dublin, 1684]. This ease of access via river and sea offered attractions to farmer and merchant alike.
[Left] Charles Town was originally sited on the south side of the Ashley River, but moved to a site near "Oyster Point", the name for the end of a peninsula between the Ashley and Cooper Rivers. The town was sited on the south-east side of this tongue of land and the river side soon accommodated a number of wharves.
[Below] The early town of Charleston was fortified with bastions and curtain walls for defence against local tribes and European predators, such as the Spaniards or the French. Outside the town walls there were a number of farmsteads and eventually a mill was set up on the western side of the peninsula. The enlarged detail of Charleston below is from the map underneath, "A Plan of Charles Town" in 1704 by Edward Crisp.

By 1690, Charleston had a population of between 1,000 and 1,200 and had become one of the largest towns in the colonies. The initial focus for settlement remained centred round the Charleston region, although there were settlements in the north round Albemarle Sound. In the 18th century, the Georgetown area provided another area of settlement and in the far south of Carolina and Georgia, the towns of Beaufort and Savannah became a focus for settlement in this area. But Charleston remained pre-eminent in the Carolina rice trade with 80% of exports being dispatched from that port. South Carolina drew settlers from Barbados, the northern American colonies, Britain and later French Huguenot refugees. Further refugees from other parts of Europe were also attracted to settle. Charleston became not only a commercial centre but a cultural one too. Initially the colonising energy had come from Barbados planters with an interest in using Carolina as a base for supplying their plantations in Barbados with supplies and materials from Carolina. With its natural harbour and closer proximity to the West Indies, Charleston was favoured by the early colonists far more than the other area of early settlement around Albemarle in the north. In 1712, the colony was divided into North and South Carolina. In 1729, seven of the Lords Proprietor sold their shares in Carolina to the Crown, which now became the property of the king and therefore a royal colony.

Early accounts of Carolina emphasized the availability of timber and products such as pitch and tar, all of which were sought after for use in the ships of the Royal Navy. As early as 1622, John Pory had explored southwards into North Carolina and "past through great forests of Pynes 15. or 16. myle broad and above 60. mile long, which will serve well for Masts for Shipping, and for pitch and tarre, when we shall come to extend our plantations to those borders."[Virginia’s God be Thanked, by Patrick Copland. London, 1622] The area was also seen as appropriate for the growing of hemp and flax, both which were much in demand for rope and sailcloth. The authors also noticed the abundance of fur animals, and in its early decades fur was to become one of the main exports of Carolina. The region was also very suitable for raising cattle, which were allowed to live in an almost wild state on the grasslands and marsh pastures, only to be rounded up periodically by negro forerunners of the cowboys of the 19th century mid-West. (Indeed these negro farm hands were known as cowboys in Carolina too). Tobacco and cotton were also raised in the early days and initial attempts to raise silkworms on the mulberry bushes came to nothing. The first mention of rice in any description of Carolina appeared in a newspaper, The Moderate Intelligencer, in an article on Carolina under the title of "A Description of Carolana by a Well-willer" in 1649. "The Soyle is for the most part of a black mould about two foot deepe, you may trust it with anything. The Indian Corne yeelds 200 for one, they have two Crops in six moneths; English Wheat, Barley, and Pease, yeeld 30 for one; Hempe, Flax, Rice, and Rape-feed have a large encrease:..." However, rice was never intended to be a deliberately cutivated crop, but seems to have arrived in Carolina from two different sources. The geograpical seabord of Carolina was particularly well suited to the cultivation of rice. Its whole coastline and low-lying hinterland is generously sliced through with a great many rivers and creeks, bordered by large swathes of low-lying marshland. The geography of this wetland region, not only favoured a crop like rice that required a huge amount of water, but also caused the growth of towns on the coast as ports - Charleston, Georgetown and Savannah. These port towns serviced and were nourished themselves by the hinterlands they served. The warm summer climate and the abundance of water therefore made South Carolina an ideal place for growing rice.

The Growth of Rice as a Staple Crop
Rice was intially grown in a similar way to other grain crops such as wheat in dry, upland fields, relying on rainfall for its irrigation. Later, it was found more convenient and efficient to grow the rice in fields, made in inland swamps, near to a source of water, which was channelled into large reservoirs, ready to be used on the fields of rice for weeding and watering. About 1738, the use of tidewater marshland, bordering rivers and creeks, was developed: the tides were used to back river freshwater onto the fields, thus eliminating the need for costly resevoirs and making available a far greater supply of water than inland fields could hope for. This technique required a great amount of skill and experience in its handling, since a number of factors could allow sea water to swamp the field, if care was not taken. The skilled use of tidal flows resulted in higher levels of productivity. Another advantage of the river plantations was that transportation of rice by boat or flat to the market town was hugely cheaper. Plantations soon sprung up around the river marsh systems around Charleston, later to be repeated around Georgetown and Savannah.

It would seem that there are a number of theories about how rice arrived in Carolina. One describes how rice was introduced to Carolina in about 1685, when a ship, captained by a John Thurber, came into Charleston for repairs and he offered a local resident, Dr. Henry Woodward, about a bushell of rice from Madagascar, which he had on board. This story may explain how the dominant species of rice arrived in Carolina, but there were inefficient attempts to grow rice before this date. The origins of successful cultivation can be found in the slaves who arrived from Africa's "Rice Coast" bringing with them the crop and the skills to cultivate it from their homelands in Africa. But it would seem that the Lords Proprietors may have had the intention of cultivating rice, amongst other special crops, in their new colony some years before the first ships were sent out. In 1663, Duke of Albemarle wrote to Lord Willoughby of Parham, explaining that their initial plans were to produce such commodities “as the Kinge hath not yet within his Terrytories in quantity, although his people consume much of them to the exhausting the wealth of the kingdome, the commodyties I meane are wine, oyle, reasons, currants, rice, silke &c....[Duke of Albemarle to Lord Willoughby of Parham, August 31, 1663, William L.Saunders, (ed.), The Colonial Records of North Carolina (Raleigh: State of North Carolina, 10 volumes, 1886-1890), I, 48.] By 1690, large quantities of rice were being grown, although it was by no means the main export at that time. In 1700, it was reported that 330 tons of "Carolina Golde Rice" was being exported to Britain and the West Indies. This type of Carolina rice was considered a rice of high quality. In 1710, William Salmon published his "Botanologia: The English Herbal", in which he wrote in glowing terms about the rice grown in Carolina:

"(Rice) is now Sown in Carolina, and become one of the great products of the Country: I have seen it grow, and flourish there, with a vast increase, it being absolutely the best Rice which grows upon the whole Earth, as being the weightiest, largest, cleanest, and whitest, which has been yet seen in the Habitable World."
[Botanologia: The English Herbal by William Salmon. London: H. Rhodes and J. Taylor, 1710]
In 1700, Edward Randolph, Collector of Customs, wrote, "They have now found out the true way of raising and husking Rice. There has been above 300 Tons shipped this year to England besides abut 30 Tons more to the Islands". In fact, so productive were the plantations, that the governor of Carolina wrote that the colony "hath made more rice ye Last Cropp then we have Ships to Transport." In 1713, 1800 tons of rice was produced. The 1720's and 30's was a period of great economic growth for the Carolina rice industry, due to a prolonged period of peace and new developments in rice-growing technology - the use of tidal freshwater for irrigating the rice fields. The 1730's saw the production of an average of almost 10000 tons of rice. With the development of this tidal flooding in the 1730's, rice became Carolina's second cash crop, after indigo. This had been introduced as a crop into Carolina in the 1740's when the War of Austrian Succession had disrupted Britain's usual supply from the West Indies and the British government had offered a bounty to encorage the growing of indigo in Carolina. Indigo remained the primary crop during the 1750's and 60's but suffered a collapse during the American Revolution, when the indigo market, totally reliant on Britain, was lost. Rice was therefore able to become Carolina's main cash crop. A measure of the growth in the rice trade can be seen in the freight charges that generally diminished throughout the 18th century. In 1700, the cost per ton was 100 shillings, which dropped to 50-55 shillings in the early 1750s and had been reduced further by the early 1770s to 32-38 shillings.

In the first decade or so, labour came from a number of different sources: white indentured servants, native American slaves and west African slaves, who, in the initial stages, were a minority of the work force. However, by 1730, the majority of most plantation workers were represented by West African slaves and the use of native Americans had diminished. This shift had arisen for a number of reasons. African slaves seemed more resistant to disease than native Americans and they could tolerate the heat better than the white workers. Native American slaves were difficult to recapture once they ran away, since they were easily assimmilated by other tribes and could return to their traditional lifestyle. Above all, many African slaves had direct experience of growing rice in the West African areas from which they came and the origins of the successful cultivation of rice in North America is directly attributable to these slaves, who arrived with the necessary skills and experience to make rice a practical reality. These skills were particularly useful for the rice planters and some had knowledge of the technique of tidal flooding. By 1730, it is estimated that two thirds of the South Carolina's population was made up of slaves and by 1740, this proportion had risen to ninety percent.

The Rice Trade and Business Arrangements
The main consumers of Carolina rice were Holland and the German States, who took between 60 and 80 percent of rice exports. The Iberian Peninsula, especially Portugal, also took a significant quantity of rice, while Britain itself preferred wheat and only took small amounts of rice. It tended to be used initially in recipes for the young, old and the sick. For example, in the 1636 Ship Money fleet that set out under Northumberland, rice, along with sugar and oatmeal, were provided as medical supplies. Rice remained limited to use in milk puddings and most period recipes suggest almond, honey, saffron and raisins as flavouring. In 1660, Robert May, in his cook book "The accomplisht cook, or The art and mystery of cookery", mentions eight recipes for rice, most of them being puddings or potages based on milk. In 1625, in his book "A way to get vvealth, by approued rules of practice in good husbandry and huswifrie", Gervase Markham thoroughly recommended rice as a filling and nourishing food, emphasizing its advantages for the ill and as a useful alternative food on ships.

In 1705, Britain had added rice to the list of what were termed 'enumerated' commodities. This meant these named items had to be shipped to Britain, where a duty had to be paid before they could be re-exported on to Europe. Rice was one such enumerated cargo. However, in 1731, due to pressure from the rice merchants, Parliament decreed that rice could be exported directly to ports lying south of Cape Finisterre, because of the high shipping costs involved in voyages to Britain and then to Portugal. This led to direct trade between South Carolina and the Iberian Peninsula. Two Statutes obliged ships' captains to obtain a license from the Customs for loading and carrying rice and to give bond when the license was granted. On arrival in the Iberian port, the master had to obtain the signature of a British consul or two known British merchants, testifying to the landing of the rice. On his return to Britain, the master had to submit both the certificate and the licence. A small duty was payable equivalent to that which he would have paid had the rice been cleared through a British port. The Cowes Customs Books bear witness to merchants or their agents applying for and receiving a 'rice licence' and a 'plantation certificate'. For example, in December 1764, a licence and certificate was sought for the Medena of Cowes with Robert Ratsey as master. Henry Laurens, a Charleston merchant/planter, ordered his agent in London "to Charter a Ship on my Account qualified by a licence & Certificate to carry Rice to Spain or Portugal & entitle me to all the Markets in those Kingdoms within & without the Medeterranean Sea" [Henry Laurens to William Manning, Charles Town, August 21, 1775. Henry Laurens Papers, South Carolina Historical Society, Charleston, South Carolina.]

Most of the shipping of rice and ownership of the ships was in the hands of British merchants, who used Charleston as a shipping point for rice cargoes. Only a small number of Carolinian merchants, such as Henry Laurens, were involved in this shipping and generally it was British merchants, who either chartered ships or used their own. Once their crops had been harvested and processed, the planters looked for agents or country factors, usually based in Charleston or the nearest rice port, for a sale. The Charleston export merchants, usually acting as correspondents for British merchant firms, then bought this rice off the factors. It was their task to secure enough rice for a viable shipment back to Britain and ultimately Northern Europe. British merchants tended to leave the purchasing of rice to their correspondents in Carolina, who had the necessary local current knowledge of the market. They specified upper limits for the quantity and price of the rice and for the cost of freight. The buying of rice was somewhat precarious due to the conflicting interests and business machinations of both merchants and planters, and by frequent price fluctuations. Planters were often prepared to hold back and store rice, until satisfied with the price. Haggling over the price often resulted in planters offering one price for sales on credit and a lower price for ready money. However, price conditions were also made unstable by several other factors: the distant nature of destination markets; the changing size of annual rice crops; market trends and business conditions in Europe; quality of grain harvests in Europe; and the demand for shipping. Wartime also produced huge price swings, as the threat of privateers caused insurance rates to rise and prices to plummet. Therefore, prices were very hard to predict and their flexible variation meant much skill was required by the correspondents in Carolina as well as the merchant houses in Britain and their factors at the destination ports. Market intelligence was all important. The on-the-spot expertise of the correspondents was also crucial in decision making concerning the timing of the voyages and the choice of markets. The best time for shipping was acknowledged as being from December until March and the trade petered out by May and June, when only old rice was available. The timing of voyages therefore required much business skill on the part of the correspondent: the changing nature of rice prices and freight charges needed to be considered as well as the local market conditions in Europe, such as they could be learnt from information sent out to them. Correpsondents often waited to the last moment before deciding which European port would provide the most advantageous market for rice. This is why many ships that came into Cowes where under orders to ship the rice to "Cowes and a markett". Indeed, in 1769, an advertisement in the South Carolina and American General Gazette, stated that the Mary and the brigantine Jennie were taking on rice "for Spain, Portugal, London or Cowes and a market." Merchants also had thir correspondents based in Cowes. For example, on Thomas Jefferson's return to America from France in 1789, an American merchant, Mr. E. Lawrence, used his correspondent to procure fresh provisions for him whilst waiting in Cowes for his return ship.[John Trumbull to Jefferson, 3 Oct. 1789] By the 18th century, the Custom House at Cowes was provided with a public office "to accomodate with desks gentlemen who are occasionallysent to the port for instructions." These agents were charged with the handling of rice consignments at Cowes; overseeing business affairs this side of the Atlantic; and issuing instructions to ships' masters from the merchant house based in London.

From Carolina to Cowes & a Market
During the 18th century, Cowes became the main entrepot port for rice shipments between the British colony of Carolina and the rest of Europe. In accordance with the Navigation Acts, certain goods, whether from the British colonies in America or from mainland Britain, were required to pay customs before being shipped to a continental market. The 1660 Navigation Act laid down that certain enumerated goods (tobacco, sugar, indigo) could only be shipped to Britain or her colonies. For those British or colonial merchants who wished to export any of these goods to Europe, they had first to clear customs at a British port. In 1705, further protectionist legislative measures were taken, when Parliament included rice as an enumerated commodity ( 3 and 4 Anne c.3 & c.9). A number of ports on the Channel coast became favoured ports for custom clearing: Poole, Southampton and Portsmouth were all used at times. However, because of its convenient position in the English Channel on the trade route from America to Northern Europe, Cowes became the favoured transit port for ships clearing customs. It avoided the still hazardous and time-consuming journey up the Thames estuary to London. In addition to this, London suffered during the 18th century from a very over-crowded river port. This put a huge strain on the business of the Customs House with the result that any ship requiring a Customs transaction was faced with huge delays along with the consequent ills of pilferage, damage and spoiling of cargoes. The government of the day were assailed with a constant stream of complaints from merchants and ship masters about the slow pace of Customs business and the crowded and inadequate nature of the legal quays below London Bridge. It is therefore understandable that during the 17th century, Cowes had already become a chosen port for several London and Cowes merchants trading in tobacco and wishing to clear customs in the re-export trade. Thus, Cowes had experience in handling transatlantic trade and already had the appropriate facilities. It was any easy step to take for Cowes to accomodate the rice trade.

The rice, usually rough rice, was shipped in barrels containing about 600 pounds of rice. Exporters preferred to export their rice as unmilled cargo (brown) rice since this form incurred lower tariffs. The ship then sailed across the Atlantic and made for Cowes. The ship was usually described as "from Carolina to Cowes & a Markett" or "bound to Cowes for Orders". At Cowes, the ship was met by an agent of the merchant concerned with instructions which northern European port to head for to sell the consignment of rice. The destination depended on the actual price of rice in that locality. Usually the rice was re-shipped in the same ship for Europe, but there were times when another ship was used for the re-shipping leg of the voyage from Cowes to Northern Europe. The main rice merchant, based at Cowes was George Mackenzie, who not only possessed business contacts in Charlestown, Carolina but also owned certain amounts of land there too. Mackenzie owned various wharehouses and wharfs north of the customs house, running from Red Funnel ticket Office towards the Columbine shed. In 1767, Mackenzie owned six out of the nine wharehouses that existed at East Cowes. Among these was the "Redstorehouse", the "Storehouse on Crane Key", the "Slip Storehouse" as well as the "Packing House" and the "Brandy Loft". [WHIP/PR/2] The other wharehouses were all named after the neighbouring person's premises or the late owner and there was, of course, also the "King's Wharehouse". In fact, by 1750, the houses belonging to the small village of East Cowes were dominated by the wharehouses of various merchants along the High Street. After George Mackenzie's death, his son, James, took over the business, which became known as James Mackenzie and Co. It was James Mackenzie who had recommended Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Auldjo, when the former needed an introduction and a place to stay in East Cowes on his journey through to France in 1786 and again in 1789. No doubt, Jefferson was familiar with Mackenzie form his rice trading activities in Carolina.

[Above] A detail from a map of the Isle of Wight made by John Andrews in 1769, showing the Cowes area.
[Left] Map showing East Cowes in 1793. It is still very much a village with port and shipbuilding facilities.
[Below] An enlarged detail from the Andrews map showing East Cowes.

When a consignment of rice entered Cowes harbour, it was necessary for it to 'clear customs'. A new ship entering Cowes Roads was first spotted by a customs official from the watch-house in Watch-house Lane at West Cowes. A tide waiter or tidesman was then placed on board the ship, rowed out by one of the Customs boatmen, to ensure there was no illicit landing or trading of any uncustomed goods. Meanwhile, the master of the ship was required to report the Customs house, situated in the High Street at East Cowes (The site is now part of Red Funnel's ferry departure car park, opposite the White Hart pub). Here, in the so called Long Room, the ships papers were checked: bills of lading, the ships manifest, etc. If these were in order, they were certified and the master was given a certificate of authorisation or warrant. This was the the work of the Collector who was required to check documents and assess the customs duty payable on a cargo as well as keeping a written account of all these customs assessments. He was also responsible for receiving and safeguarding the duty monies and submitting them to London. The Controller also kept written records of all monies received and disbursed, although he handled no money himself. His independent accounts were then sent to the Exchequer as a check on the Collector.

The rice was then discharged from the ship with the help of land waiters and porters, supervised by a searcher, who took a careful account of all cargoes, which were placed in a wharehouse, usually the King's Wharehouse, but private ones were also used in times of need. The searcher's duties included the general supervision of the landing and examination of landed goods and was often combined, as at Cowes and most other out-ports, with the office of land waiter, resulting in the title of 'waiter and searcher'. All these land and tide-based operations were controlled and supervised by the Tide Surveyor. Once the customs had been assessed and paid, the rice was re-loaded and the ship was permitted to continue on the journey to its destination, usually in Northern Europe. For example, in April 1757, the Sally of Boston in New England, a ship of ninety tons, "Loaded at Georgia in America with Rice and Bound to the Port of Cowes and here to unload his Cargoe and Cleere & Reship the same and to proceed therewith as order'd either to Holland Hamborough or Bremen". In June 1761, the Heron of Portsmouth, a ship of 170 tons, "was Loaded with Rice at Charles Town in South Carolina and bound therewith to this Port of Cowes to unload and cleer the same and Relade it and finally to proceed and Deliver the same Cargos at some and such Port in Holland Hambrough or Bremen as his Merchants his Affreightors shall order and Direct"

The quality of the rice could only be ascertained for the first time at Cowes, when it was unloaded from the ships and agents were liable for the odd surprise. Some consignments were liable to corruption form sea water that had been shipped during heavy seas. For example, in September 1758, the Mary Pink of New York, a ship of three hundred tons, with a cargo of rice, was caught in a storm on the voyage. Not only did she take on much water through the decks, but she had also developed some large leaks. The pumps were constantly manned and the master reported they "Pumped up great Quantitys of Rice" from the hold. In May 1759, James Mackenzie also lodged a complaint for rice damaged by water during its voyage in the Pitt of New York, and said "that a very great part of the said Cargoe of Rice came out greatly Damaged", for which the Cowes Collector allowed "one Hundred Seventy Six Hundred Weight and upwards". Walter Kerr's rice problem was caused by human means rather than by nature. He was master of the 150 ton ship the Kepple of London, on a voyage to Amsterdam with a cargo of rice belonging to Hugh Rose, an East Cowes merchant. Ninety barrels of rice had been reloaded and the master took his ship to Pleasant Fenn's shipyard to have the hull careened. The ship was being heeled over onto the port side, to give access to the starboard side. Unfortunately, the ship slipped over and crashed down hard on the port side, damaging the timbers such that water poured in on the high tide. Although many came to their aid, they were unable to right the ship, resulting in the ship being stranded as the tide went out. The rice was deemed to "be so greatly Damaged as to be of very little or no vallue". At other times, an unscrupulous planter or agent may have loaded barrels of poor quality rice: either containing a greater or lesser degree of broken rice or containing much dust. In 1775, in a letter to his agent in London, Henry Laurens, a Charleston merchant/planter, inquired into a number of parcels of rice, that had proved to be unsatisfactory when opened at Cowes. "My own Rice I mean the produce of my own plantations was very good originally but I perceive by a fragment of one Crop which lately came to Town that the Overseer had packed too much in each Barrel in consequence of which it had heated, caked discoloured & produced a great quantity of Dust perhaps the damaged at Cowes might have gone from that plantation" [Henry Laurens to William Manning, Charles Town, August 21, 1775. Henry Laurens Papers, South Carolina Historical Society, Charleston, South Carolina.] Consequently, Cowes also developed facilities for cleaning some of the rice, where it could be "sifted" or 'screened before it was reshipped.

Apart from employment for local people in the Customs service, there was also a demand for ship repair facilities and the Cowes Protest Book attests to the number requiring the services of a shipbuilder to repair varying degrees of damage or wear. Pleasant Fenn, at East Cowes, tended to receive most of the business for large jobs, since he had slip and yard that could haul ships out of the water. Although Fenn did build ships for the Royal Navy, Customs service and private individuals, by far the majority of his work was re-fitting and repairing merchant ships. Ropemakers, sailmakers, blockmakers, blacksmiths and anchorsmiths were all to be found at Cowes during this period. Cowes also provided a convenient place to grave or careen the hulls of ships in the form of the Shrape mud. Ships could be beached here at high tide and then have their bottoms cleaned of barnacles and marine weed. This was an important and regular task for all ships, since the accumulation of material on their hulls reduced their speed through the water and consequently made them more vulnerable to attack by the privateers that operated in the Channel. Pilots based at Cowes also found themselves in demand by masters who were not familiar with the waters of the Solent and the Needles.

The tradesmen of Cowes, victuallers, chandlers, inns, etc. all benefitted from supplying merchant ships in Cowes Roads with fresh provisions for the next leg of their voyage as well as new equipment and materials. Often these ships were "stayed" in the harbour due to contrary winds or poor weather and might remain there for weeks, providing much business ashore for the tradesmen of Cowes. The earliest mention of Cowes in a trade directory is in The Universal British Directory of Trade, Commerce, and Manufacture. (London, 1793.):

East Cowes is a small place opposite West Cowes, where are large warehouses for the reception of different goods, &c. unladen from ships that require repairing, or for cleansing rice, &c. brought from Carolina, and re-shipped again for a foreign market; from thirty to fifty of these ships are annually at this port, where from twenty-two to thirty-five thousand barrels of this grain were usually skreened, repacked, and shipped for Holland, Germany, &c. Here have been, at different times, several ships of the line built. The custom-house is likewise in this place,and the port is one of those for landing tobacco, snuff, &c. and it is from hence that all vessel going from the island laden must clear outwards, as likewise enter their cargoes, &c. when imported.

The Demise of the Rice Trade: Thomas Jefferson v. Cowes

During his time in France as ambassador of the newly formed United States of America, Thomas Jefferson also acted as a quasi-commercial envoy for Carolina rice merchants and planters, becoming involved in efforts to discover why France tended to prefer Italian rice to that of Carolina, to an extent that verged at times on industrial espionage. This was partly due to his interest in agriculture and gardening; but he was also acting on behalf of several rice merchants from Carolina, who had asked him to look into the nature of the rice market in France.

In April 1787, Jefferson took a journey to Aix-les-Bains to partake of the waters for his health. After this, he continued to Marseilles with the intention of carrying out a survey into how much trade was carried in American ships to France. While here, he also inquired into the subject of rice, for he hoped "to visit the rice country of Piedmont, to see if anything might be learned there to benefit the rivalship of our Carolina rice with that." Whilst in Paris, Jefferson had found it difficult to obtain any information about Italian rice, but he came away from his conversations with the rice dealers with the distinct impression that the difference between Carolina and 'Piedmont rice' derived from the machine used in cleaning the rice. More specifically, he believed that Italian rice was preferred because the machine that they used for cleaning it, caused less broken rice.

Jefferson had hoped to find out about this machine in Marseilles, but, on finding no one with any information, he therefore travelled to Lombardy and the Po valley, the main rice-growing area of Italy. From Nice, he passed "across the Col de Tende, by Coni, Turin, Vercelli, Novara, Milan, Pavia, Novi, Genoa." While in Italy, he found there was no difference between the two machines, but he did ascertain that the Italians used a different species of rice. Jefferson decided to obtain enough seed to send back to Carolina . Unfortunately for him, the Turin government was very sensitive about safeguarding its rice and the death penalty awaited anyone found guilty of the exportation of seed rice. Nevertheless, Jefferson acquired "as much as my coat and surtout pockets would hold" to smuggle out of the country and also managed to organise the transport of a couple of sacks of rice to Genoa, although he did not hold much hope of it reaching that port.

Once he had returned to Paris, he not only sent the rice back to America, but also, more importantly, set about arranging for a French merchant firm to receive rice directly from a Charleston merchant house. At this time, Carolina merchants were still hampered by the dominance of British merchants. In October 1787, Ralph Izard, a Charleston merchant writing to Jefferson in France, was still sorry to write "how they[Charleston merchants] have been hitherto hampered by their engagements with the British Merchants, and their Trammels are not yet broken." [Ralph Izard to Thomas Jefferson, 20 Oct. 1787] Indeed for the immediate period after the American Revolution, the British were still able to oversee the rice trade. The rice ships began to return to Cowes some time after the end of the war in 1783. In May 1786, William Arnold, the Collector of Customs at Cowes, wrote to his brother-in-law in New York saying, "We are in hopes of getting the rice ships again to Cowes. They have made a beginning as I find we have one or two clearing now." However, the rice trade never did return with any vigour to Cowes and finally dwindled away. It was only after many countries, that previously had been dependent for their rice on Britain, started a direct trade with America, that Britain's dominance was broken. Merrill Peterson highlighted this situation:

"Rice exports were less than one half the pre-war figures. Britain continued to dominate the trade - a highly profitable re-export trade on her part - through the controls of debt and credit and the excellent facilities of the entrepot at Cowes." [Thomas Jefferson and Commercial Policy, 1783-1793 Merrill D. Peterson William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd Ser., Vol. 22, No. 4. (Oct., 1965)]
However, the Charleston merchants, acting through Jefferson, were very keen to establish close trading links with France, trading directly with French merchants. The Americans hoped not only to break the commercial dominance of British merchants but also to promote in France the use of Carolina at the expense of Italian rice. Import figures for 1788, collected by Jefferson, show the predominance of Italian rice in the French market:
French Imports of Rice 1788Quintalslbs
States of the King of Sardinia41,36390
Holland 3,34273
United States of America 7,19344
States of the Emperor of Germany & Flanders 2,22776

It is clear that even in 1788, France still obtained more rice indirectly through England than directly from America. Jefferson was prepare to help Carolinian merchants to displace the dominant share of Italian rice in the French market with their own. However, the French merchants had little to no experience of direct business trading with Carolina, since British economic policy, based on the Navigation Acts etc., had dictated that all enumerated products from the American colonies must clear customs in England and be carried in British bottoms. Trade in these goods was generally very much dominated by Britain: finance, commercial infrastructure, business experience, trading facilities and shipping were all in the hands of British merchants. Many of the letters from American merchants at this time testify to the resentment felt concerning Britain's continuing over-riding dominance of trade from and to America. For example, in a letter to Nicholas Barrett, the merchants Brailsford and Morris wrote "Our pride is every Day hurt, at seeing our Trade so fettered by British Policy."[Brailsford & Morris to Nathaniel Barrett, October 1787] In support of the American merchants, Jefferson was therefore working to help establish a direct trade link between America and France with the intention of by-passing England, thereby effectively withering her part in the rice trade. "I am happy to find that the idea of diverting the rice trade from England to France is thought to be not impracticable", wrote Jefferson in 1787 on hearing that Charleston merchants greeted the idea favourably. But Jefferson also had ulterior motives for wanting to forge closer links with France: the young United States was very keen to have the support of a leading European nation to help it get established. In 1786, Jefferson wrote to Izard, a Charleston merchant, about his desire to see the rice trade switch to France: "I much wish to see this branch of commerce opened between this country & us directly. it will be a strong kind of connection the more with the only nation on earth on whom we can solidly rely for assistance till we can stand on our own legs." Jefferson therefore recommended and urged the removal and transfer of the rice "deposit" port from Cowes to either Honfleur or Le Havre. In November 1786, he informed Izard that "we are endeavouring to get Honfleur made a free port in hopes it may become the depot for rice, instead of Cowes." [Jefferson to Izard, 18 Nov. 1786] In July of the following year, he again stressed this point in a letter to John Adams, explaining that he, Jefferson, "had before endeavored to lead the depot of rice from Cowes to Honfleur and hope to get it received there on such terms as may draw that branch of commerce from England to this country." [To John Adams July 1, 1787] The merchants Brailsford and Morris also hoped that Honfleur "with proper encouragement may be rendered a successful Rival to Cowes." [Brailsford & Morris to Nathaniel Barrett, October 1787] In September 1789 in a letter to Izard, Jefferson suggests Le Havre: "Paris and the seaport towns are the principal places of consumption, but most of all Paris. Havre therefore is unquestionably the deposit for it, because from thence it may come up the river, or be shipped to any foreign market as conveniently as from Cowes." [Jefferson to Izard, 18 Sep. 1789] However, Jefferson knew it would not be easy, since the rate charged on barrels of rice at Cowes was very low and would be difficult to compete with. French merchants would have to have to provide an attractive package if they were to wrest the rice trade from Cowes.
"Such Cargoes of Rice as are sent to Cowes and there sold for a Market are landed, sifted and reshipped & marked at the expense of 1/ each Barrel which very moderate expense, is one very great inducement for sending our Vessels there. The charge for lights, &c. however in some measure make up for that reasonable compensation for so much trouble, but at the same time gives a necessary hint to the Merchants at L'Orient & so to be limited in their Charges as possible, as otherwise, Cowes will maintain her superiority against all their exertions to rival her. Messr Berard & Co notwithstanding their resources are still very unequal to the supporting that preparation of our Trade, as may be directed to the French Coast, as we esteem it the best Market for our Tobacco, and nearly equal to any European Market for our Rice..."
[ Brailsford & Morris to Thomas Jefferson, 31 October 1787. ]
With this end in mind, Jefferson acted as agent for the Carolina merchants by arranging and setting up trade links with a French firm and initiated direct trading of rice from America to France. It was this transfer of control of the rice trade from British merchants to those of other foreign countries that contributed to the decline of the importance of Cowes in the rice trade. Ironically, on his return journey from France back to the United States in 1789, Jefferson was to receive lodging and hospitality while in Cowes from an East Cowes resident, Thomas Auldjo. "I must ask you to perform for me the friendly office of calling on Mr. McKenzie in my name, & returning him my grateful thanks for his kind recommendation of me to Mr. Auldjo of this place [Cowes], from whom I have received every possible attention & friendly assistance; insomuch that I should not depart with a quiet conscience were not my sense of these Kindnesses duly expressed to those to whom I am indebted for them."[Thomas Jefferson to John Cutting, 17 Oct. 1789] Once in America, Jefferson was able to return the favour, when he recommended and successfully proposed Auldjo for a position as consul of the United States at Cowes. Although the official station of the consul was later transferred to Poole, it is a measure of Cowes's importance that the first consul for the U.S. in the southern England was placed at Cowes. Jefferson had possibly met Auldjo a first time, on his voyage to France to act as Minister Plenipotentiary. He travelled with his eldest daughter on a merchant ship bound for Cowes: "we arrived at Cowes on the 26th. I was detained there a few days by the indisposition of my daughter. On the 30th. we embarked for Havre..." [Autobiography, Thomas Jefferson]

Jefferson was to be delayed at Cowes for about ten days because of adverse winds and poor weather. "On the 26th. of Sep. I left Paris for Havre, where I was detained by contrary winds until the 8th. of Oct. On that day, and the 9th. I crossed over to Cowes, where I had engaged the Clermont, Capt. Colley, to touch for me. She did so, but here again we were detained by contrary winds until the 22d. when we embarked and landed at Norfolk on the 23d. of November." [Autobiography, Thomas Jefferson] The arrangements for his journey to Cowes however sheds some interesting light on the Cowes Customs service. Because his "Baggage coming from Paris will without Doubt contain Articles highly dutied & perhaps contraband in this Kingdom", JohnTrumbull, a colleague of Jefferson, wrote to Pitt asking for orders to be sent to Cowes Custom House "to suffer the Baggage of Mr. Jefferson to pass from the Packet in which He will arrive from France on board the ship in which he will sail for America without being search'd or open'd." Trumbull was aware he was asking "an unusual or improper thing" and was effectively asking the British to turn a blind eye to Jefferson's luggage. Trumbull reveals a comtemporary perception of Customs officers as somewhat autocratic and brusk: "this will put it in the power of any Officer of the Customs to be extremely troublesome & as politeness of these Gentlemen is seldom the prevailing trait of their Character, there is little doubt of their exercising the Plenitude of their power unless contrould by your orders." [John Trumbull to Jefferson, 24 Sept. 1789] Whether this is deemed as officious meglomania or incorruptible efficiency, it is clear that the British Customs were very thorough. It is uncertain whether Jefferson had highly dutiable luxuries or political and diplomatic papers of a sensitive nature. Trumbull informed Jefferson that "Mr. Auldjo will I hope have procured you all the protection from the Custom house which was necessary." [John Trumbull to Jefferson, 3 Oct. 1789] It would seem that Jefferson did get his luggage through without any delay for there is no more mention of the matter in his letters.

The two Isle of Wight authors, quoted at the start, both attributed the decline of the rice trade to the loss of the American colonies, but in fact this was only an indirect cause. In 1781, when they were writing, no or very few rice cargoes arrived at Cowes, for the simple reason that the colonists were still fighting a desparate war with Britain. However, for quite some time after the war, Britain continued to hold all the commercial advantages in trans-atlantic trade. France had so little experience in this sort of trade that it was not until 1787 that moves were made to establish a direct link between America and France. Indeed, when Jefferson was to return home to the United States, no immediate ship could be procured from any north French port; he was obliged to cross over to Cowes to pick up a ship bound for America. In 1797, Willaim Arnold, the Customs Collector at Cowes, wrote to his brother-in-law in New York about the poor trading situation at Cowes: "For the last year or two we have had many of your American ships touch here on their way to other markets, and tho' they do not often unload here it brings some grist to my mill in the collection of light dues. I wish you could establish a good trade to and from this port, a more convenient one I know not. And poor Macauley's house and stores here being unoccupied, I wish for a good neighbour in the house." By contrast, before the American War, Macauley's stores had been owned by the rice merchants, Mackenzie & Co, and not only witnessed much activity but were rarely without cargoes of rice.

The Organisation of the Colonial American Rice Trade by Kenneth Morgan. [William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series, Vol. 52, Issue 3 (July 1995)]
A Woman Rice Planter by Patience Pennington. (The Macmillan Company, 1914)
Carolina in the Seventeenth Century: an Annotated Bibliography of Contemporary Publications by William S. Powell.
Golden Grains of White: Rice Planting on the Lower Cape Fear by James M. Clifton.
For the daily life of slaves on plantations, see THE CULTURAL LANDSCAPE OF THE PLANTATION. On the same site, a good page, entitled "By the Sweat of Our Brows" Slave Tasks can be found featuring buildings and tasks associated with rice plantations.

Produced by the Isle of Wight History Centre. © 2004
Text by Rob Martin.
Created: January 2004.