The Gullah people are descendants of West Africans brought to the Sea Islands of South Carolina, Georgia, and northern Florida as early as 1670. The story of the Gullah people is much like the story of all enslaved Africans; it is the story of forced labor. Over hundreds of years, however, this forced labor created a distinct culture that retains many of the West African traditions those Africans brought with them.
Gullah history and culture was shaped mainly by the cash crop of rice – the crop that would become the crown jewel of the colonial and antebellum economy in this region. Until slaves from West Africa, where rice is a vital crop, were brought to the Sea Islands, attempts to cultivate rice failed. Thus, it was because of the ingenuity of West Africans did rice thrive here. Rice cultivation was an intricate process, and Gullah descendants understood each step in the process that ensured the successful crop and each of the measures used on rice plantations – from planting to cultivation to harvest - was derived from Gullah African ancestors. Without rice, planters would not have attained their wealth. Yet, this crop as well as the task system (where slaves worked specific tasks rather than “sun up to sundown”) that allowed for more time to develop community among the enslaved and the conditions of the environment that made a consistent white presence near impossible, allowed the Gullah to develop their own culture including language, arts, religious practices, and foodways.
As Jonathan Green stated,
“If you are going to study Gullah, you have got to study rice.”