Hidden Roots: The essential agricultural knowledge that 18th-century female enslaved laborers contributed to the United States South

Colonial systems have left deep, violent wounds on the face of global history, many of which are still felt today. Some of these are readily apparent, conspicuous scars of the past provoking reflection and restitution; others, however, are quieter wrongs, issues of erasure or stolen voices. One such wrong is the issue of intellectual property of enslaved laborers and how, among endless other things, it was taken from them, often recredited as another’s work. Past and current racism has led to this willful ignorance and revision of history, diminishing enslaved laborers’ overwhelming contributions, both physical and intellectual, to the development of the United States economy. The history of slavery is often packaged into a general narrative and widely disseminated, but there are still numerous examples throughout history of the work and innovation of enslaved laborers going unrecognized, accounts still largely unknown to the masses. In the text “Out of Africa: Colonial Rice History in the Black Atlantic,” Judith Carney attempts to shed light on a corner of this greater problem of lost recognition, specifically the subject of slaves’ knowledge on rice plantations, and how it stemmed from agricultural knowledge originating in West African countries. Within this exhibit, I attempt to expand on Carney’s research while also somewhat narrowing my focus, exploring the path of female enslaved laborers taken from West Africa to the United States South during the 18th century, examining the invaluable knowledge, especially in relation to agriculture, that they brought with them and the impacts it had on the greater economy.

The sources presented here, ranging from illustrations to specialized maps, detail multiple stages in the narrative of intellectual property stolen from female enslaved laborers. I begin with the origins of this knowledge, West Africa, where many societies saw women performing more agricultural work than men (Robertson and Klein 55). It is incorrect to suggest that those of European descent were the sole or even main innovators when it came to agriculture (Sutter and Mangianello 99), and historical records indicate that technologies such as elaborate irrigation systems, or rice mills and mortars, essential and advanced for the colonial period, possessed foundations in African design (Chaplin 258). These technologies were often operated by women, a fact not lost on those in the slave trade. Though a larger number of men were captured and forcibly wrenched away to the Americas, women constituted the majority of enslaved laborers within African slave systems (Robertson and Klein 36). However, though the many women taken to the Americas for slavery suffered unthinkable abuse and maltreatment, they were often valued for the knowledge that they brought with them and subsequently passed on to others. White people in the plantation economy were aware of female slaves’ greater connection to and knowledge of the natural world, and so turned to them when such knowledge was necessary, even though they were doubtful of their scientific legitimacy (Parrish 261-262). Referred to as the “backbone” of the labor force, the skill and innovation with which women endured slave labor was invaluable for the plantation economy, and was often accompanied by the management of personal matters as well (Schwalm 38). These women did more work than their male counterparts, suffering additional and even more despicable conditions under slavery, and their innovations altered the global economies and the outcomes of wars (Schwalm 77).

By organizing the sources in a way that places the arc of female slaves from West Africa within the greater history of slavery, I attempt to represent the path along which their knowledge and innovation traveled, resulting in its eventual exploitation and erasure. As evidenced by the sources explored in this exhibit, female enslaved laborers brought invaluable knowledge with them from West Africa, adapting it to their new surroundings while expanding and innovating, ultimately benefiting the economy of the United States South.


Assembled by Hannah Kirk Nass