Thursday, February 28, 2013

Early American Colonial Rice and Slavery: An Interview with Historical Fiction Author Dorothy K Morris

1) Please tell us about your book. 

DIRTY RICE is a novel set in the early 18th Century in the Low-Country of the early South Carolina Colony. It tells of love, passion, adventure and cruelty with totally believable characters. It is the first prequel to the four books of the Mockingbird Hill Series.

The early 18th Century saw vast expansion into the New World from England, the European Continent and from Africa, and the establishment of rice plantations in the coastal regions of South Carolina and Georgia, long before cotton was king. Set against this background DIRTY RICE sweeps us away to a bygone era of adventure, romance and brutal reality.

This is the story of African rice and African people, their knowledge, expertise and their forced labor that made the Carolina Colony the wealthiest colony in colonial America. It takes us from the plush parlors of aristocratic English absentee land owners, who set policy in the Colony to maximize profit, to the swampy shores of Carolina amid the mud and muck of rice fields, where people kidnapped from West Africa because of their knowledge and expertise in the growing of rice, were forced to work to fill the coffers of the landowners with wealth. It is a story of exploitation by some and compassion from others; the emphasis on the people who lived and were forced to cope with what life sent their way.

The Gullah people and their culture that remain along the coastal regions of South Carolina and Georgia are the remnant of these people.

2) Tell us a bit about your main characters.

There are several main characters. Among them are English and Colonial Lords and Ladies—the Talleigh family. The main people are Captain Fredrick Talleigh, Lady Corina Talleigh, Lady Agnes Talleigh Grenville and her brother in England, Joseph Talleigh. They are the power and the money behind the plantation and other land holdings in the South Carolina colony. There are indentured servants and slaves. There are freemen, both black and white.

Roundale, Harvey and Hunter are the household indentured servants.

Convicts sent by the Crown to the Colonies work the rice fields until they are replaced by slaves.

Among the free blacks are Ben Talleigh, who was purchased by Fredrick’s father and reared along with young Freddy aboard the ship, The Allegience. He was given the same education as Freddy and allowed to earn his freedom. Fredrick, absolutely against slavery, and one of the forerunners to the idea of equality in the new world, considers Ben his brother.

Edriam and Fulani are free black women who were captured and then rescued. They are given to the care of Lady Corina Talleigh, who is destined to marry her cousin, John Grenville, even though she loves Captain Fredrick Talleigh, another cousin.

Reginald Upton, a free man born in the Virginia Colony, is the overseer of Grenville Plantation.

Yosie is a slave woman who causes herself much trouble by just trying to help herself.

Sir John Grenville, the son of Lady Agnes, has returned from Harvard College determined to replace all the convict labor with as many slaves as he can, as soon as he can. He has fallen under the influence of his peers at Harvard and has become quite unruly.

The lives of these people are woven together in an exciting and compelling story.

3) If you ask the typical American, regardless of their race, about slavery, the first thing that will likely pop into their head is cotton, not rice. What got you interested in writing a book with a rice plantation background?

I chose the rice culture for several reasons. Some of my ancestors who help to settle the colony were rice planters in the island and coastal regions of South Carolina Colony. I wanted to explore the beginnings of the colony and the deeper I got into research the more I realized the importance of rice, not only for the wealth it brought to both England and the colony, but because it was the impetus for bringing more and more slaves, who were deliberately brought into the colony from the rice culture on the West Coast of Africa. The coastal land in both places was so similar and no one knew how to prepare land for rice growing like these West Coast Africans.

4) Please tell us about your research for this project. Sometimes research centering on the African and African-American point of view in this time period can be difficult given the nature of the records of the early colonial period.

My main source of research, besides the many, many papers published on the web, was a book by Judith A Carney, called BLACK RICE, published by Harvard University Press in 2001. In this book she explores in depth the African origins of Rice Cultivation in the Americas. It is a book I recommend for anyone who is interested in the history of slavery in America, whether black or white. It was a revelation to me.

On the Web, I read articles by experts on the Gullah people, the Gullah culture and heritage. I read about the different practices of dealing with slaves in different time and places. I read about the task work system that obtained in the early colonial period in many areas and that died out as time passed.

5) What do you hope readers will get out of your novel?

First of all I hope they will enjoy the read and enjoy meeting my new characters. Second I hope they will have a better understanding of the reasons for the slaves being brought here, as horrible as those reasons are. Third I want them to understand the great gap in knowledge that was not passed down from that time to us. We never knew the knowledge, the expertise and the skills that these West Africans brought with them and that these things were the exact reasons they were brought. We were only left with the knowledge that they were mindless laborers. Reading Carney’s book brought up quite a bit of indignation and even anger at this lack and omission on the part of my teachers and historians, who are only now beginning to catch up.

Even though slavery and rice growing take up a great portion of the story, I write mainly about people. I hope they will understand the foibles, the courage, the evil, the good, and the challenges, resolutions and sometimes non-resolutions that beset these characters.

6) Do you have any links you’d like to share?

7) Please tell us about your other projects.

My original four books constitute a series called the Mockingbird Hill Series. They cover the time from 1849 through 1868, set in the Low Country of SC, some in Boston and Texas. The titles are:





When I began to write the next book, I was inclined to begin before 1849 and my research resulted in going back much farther. My next book will be a sequel to this one. The title will be TALLY’S NOOK.


Thank you, Dorothy.

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