Benne wafers
Friday, August 10, 2018

For most folks in the Lowcountry, the word “benne” brings to mind images of benne wafers, those small, sugary, brown discs that you’ll find in local shops marketed as one of Charleston’s signature treats, if not the signature treat of the Lowcountry. If you’re new to the area, however, you might wonder, “what’s a benne?,” and that’s a fair question. Plain and simple, we’re talking about sesame. The sesame plant, and more especially sesame seeds, have been an important part of Lowcountry South Carolina culture for at least three hundred years, and 21st century foodies have ample justification to celebrate its place in our shared heritage. For the sake of argument, however, let me play devil’s advocate for a moment. Let’s imagine that you’re introducing benne to a savvy visitor who’s well familiar with the humble sesame seed, and your savvy visitor looks a bit perplexed. She might tell you that many cultures around the globe, from Japan to Egypt to Brazil, and all points in between, use sesame seeds in their cuisine, including soups, sauces, salads, cakes, candies, and creams. How can South Carolina claim to have any unique association with sesame? Here’s my response, and the theme of today’s program: Sesame, or “benne” seeds represent an important vestige of the African cultures that came to South Carolina some three centuries ago. European settlers in the Lowcountry who exploited the Africans brought here observed the value of the benne seed, adopted its African name, and once sought to produce it on an industrial scale. As a result, in a long-forgotten episode in Lowcountry history, for a brief moment it looked as if South Carolina would become a benne colony. That commercial venture never materialized, but the interest it generated in South Carolina laid the foundation for the spread of benne throughout the American colonies, and into the culinary fabric of these United States.

Benne is one of several West African names for a plant that botanists have classified as part of the genus sesamum. What we know as benne is sesamum indicum, a plant that was first domesticated in India and then transplanted to places like China, Japan, and Africa in prehistoric times. It grows wild in parts of West Africa, the ancestral home of most of the people brought to the New World—including South Carolina—as enslaved laborers in the late seventeenth, eighteenth, and early nineteenth centuries. The word “benne” is used, with a variety of spellings, in the Wolof, Mande, Mandingo, and Bambara languages of West Africa. Then, as now, Africans used benne in a variety of ways, as a food, as a medicine, and as a cultural object. Its seeds are toasted and used in various dishes. Crushing the seed releases an oil that has many uses. Benne leaves, when immersed in water, become very mucilaginous, or slimy, and create a beverage that is very useful for treating a variety of gastrointestinal complaints. In West Africa, benne seeds are traditionally associated with good fortune, and are given as given as gifts and planted domestically to cultivate good luck. In short, benne is a fascinating topic with a rich cultural history. Dr. Dorothea Bedigian, a botanist at the Missouri Botanical Garden, has published extensively on the history of the genus sesamum, especially concerning its introduction from Africa into the Americas.[1] Dr. Bedigian is certainly the botanical expert in this field, but she overlooked a few South Carolina details that I think constitute one of the most interesting and formative episodes in the American history of sesame. I’m talking about the Great Benne Experiment of the 1740s. Now, that’s a phrase I just made up, but you’ll see what I mean in a moment. First, however, let’s take a step back and look at the arrival of benne in early South Carolina.

Unfortunately there are no surviving historical documents that tell us how and when benne first come to South Carolina. The traditional story, however, is that benne came here in the hands of the enslaved people brought here from West Africa, who planted it in their own little gardens on the colonial rice plantations of the Lowcountry. It’s a simple, straightforward story, but it has good historical credentials. In the second half of the eighteenth century, several of the European American writers who took notice of benne observed that it was enslaved Africans who had brought it to their attention. But it may not have come directly from Africa to South Carolina. In the mid-1680s, the English physician, Sir Hans Sloane, reported that the African slaves in Jamaica and other Caribbean islands routinely grew sesame in their private gardens for their own use. Since the majority of South Carolina’s early slave population was brought here from the West Indies, it’s possible that the first benne seeds came to us not directly from Africa, but by way of our neighbors in Jamaica or Barbados.

It seems likely that benne first came to the attention of white planters in South Carolina around the turn of the eighteenth century. At that time, rice was a relatively new crop in the Lowcountry, and was just beginning to gain attention as a profitable pursuit. By the 1720s, however, rice production had increased dramatically, and it was clearly South Carolina’s most profitable export. And while many Lowcountry planters focused all their efforts on rice, others began looking around for other crops that might also bring rapid wealth to the colony. In addition to considering traditional European crops, South Carolina planters looked to their own work force for ideas. Here, as in the West Indies and in Virginia, enslaved people didn’t own any land, but they were allowed to grow a few crops for themselves in small garden plots that they tended after finishing their daily tasks. In such garden plots, enslaved people grew benne, as well as other crops brought from Africa, such as okra, peas, and yams. At some point, white planters began experimenting with these African crops as well, and started contemplating their usefulness on a larger scale. The first written record we have of this process dates from the summer of 1730, when a man named Thomas Lowndes presented samples of South-Carolina-grown sesame seeds to British trade officials in London. Two, nearly-identical letters written by Thomas Lowndes to the British Board of Trade and Plantations, and to the Lords of the Treasury, survive in the National Archives of the United Kingdom, containing the earliest-known description of North American sesamum. Let’s hear an excerpt from Lowndes’s 1730 description:

“A planter in Carolina sent me some time ago a parcel of seed, desiring I would try it, and see of what use it would be, for if it turn’d to account South Carolina could with ease produce any quantity of it. By an experim[en]t I found twenty-one pounds weight of seed produced near nine pounds of good oyl [sic]; of which more than six pounds were cold drawn and the rest [drawn] by fire. I take the liberty to send your Lordships some of the oyl and seed. . . . The name of the seed is sesamum[;] it grows in great abundance in Africa and Asia, and the inhabitants of those parts eat it, as well as use it for several other purposes. . . . It rejoyces in the pine barren land, (which is generally a light sandy soil); an acre produces about 20 or 25 bushels, and each bushel weighs about 52 lb, and 52 lb yield[s] eleven quarts of oyl. It grows with very little culture. A friend of mine [in Carolina] will have a great quantity of it here [in London] before next Christmas. This seed will make the pine barren land of equal value with the rice land. The oyl will be of great use in our woolen manufacture and is for many purposes even preferrable [sic] to [olive] oyl, of which commodity about 5,000 tons are entred [sic] annually at the port of London.”[2]

What became of Mr. Lowndes’s scheme, nothing is known. Apparently, the British Board of Trade and the Lords of the Treasury weren’t too concerned about their country’s heavy reliance on Italian oil imports. Perhaps you’ve never considered this, but Italian olive oil was a valuable commodity in old England and in her American colonies. Olive oil was used not only in cooking, but also as a salad dressing, and as a component in the production of wollen clothing and felted hats. In short, Britain used a lot of olive oil, and they had no domestic manufacture of it. If you look at advertisements in Charleston’s early newspapers of the 1730s, you’ll find occasional notices for the sale of imported Florence oil, which is actually a high grade of Italian olive oil. We didn’t get it directly from Italy, however. It came to South Carolina by way of England, and the distance and extra freight charges made it expensive and scarce. The prospect of getting an alternative supply of oil, made from sesame seeds in South Carolina, didn’t seem to catch anyone’s attention, at least in times of peace and prosperity. That all changed, however, when Britain and her American colonies went to war with Spain in 1739, a war known curiously as the War of Jenkins’ Ear. Between 1739 and 1748, Britain waged war with Spain, and then France too, in Europe, on the Atlantic Ocean, and in the Caribbean islands. As a result of all this turmoil, Britain found it difficult to procure items such as olive oil, silk, indigo, and other goods that couldn’t be produced at home. As a result, the British government prodded its American colonies for assistance in trying to supply its domestic needs. Just like our government does today, the British Parliament offered government subsidies to farmers who could meet their needs. Accordingly, in late May 1744, the South Carolina legislature ratified its own farm subsidy law, titled “An Act for the further improvement and encouraging the produce of silk and other manufactures in this province.” The bulk of the text of this act concerns efforts to produce silk (and we’ll save that for a future discussion), but the fifth paragraph of the act articulates “a bounty or premium” “for the encouragement of the produce of wine, oil, flax, hemp, wheat, barley, cotton, indigo and ginger, in this Province.”[3] In other words, our colonial government was offering a cash incentive to planters who could successfully demonstrate the viability of large-scale, commercial cultivation of any of these crops in South Carolina, which in turn would allow South Carolina to take advantage of the subsidies offered by the British Parliament. In the summer of 1744, an agricultural race began—not just to see which of these crops would best succeed in Lowcountry soils, but to see which could be grown for the greatest return on investment.

If you know anything about this state’s early history, you probably know that indigo became an important export crop in mid-eighteenth century South Carolina. The sudden rise of indigo in the mid-1740s was no fluke or accident, however, but rather it was the result of calculated and concentrated efforts spurred by our government’s 1744 cash incentive. In fact, just twenty-three months after the ratification of the 1744 crop bounty, the South Carolina legislature promptly cancelled the bounty on indigo. Why? Because in 1745 so much indigo had been raised in the Lowcountry that the continuation of the bounty would surely send the government into debt.[4] Thus by the spring of 1746, South Carolina planters had successfully demonstrated that indigo could be grown in large quantities in South Carolina (even though the question of its profitability was still a matter of some debate). But what about the other crops mentioned in the 1744 bounty act? The government bounty for vegetable oil and other crops was still on the table, so planters kept on planting.

At this point in our story, enter Mr. Francis Gracia, a joiner or cabinet-maker by trade, but also an important figure in the history of sesame in America. How, you ask? Because in late September 1746, Francis Gracia published the earliest known advertisement for sesame seed oil in America; an advertisement that also includes the earliest known use of the African word “benne” in the English language. Here’s the text of the brief ad, as it appears in the South-Carolina Gazette of 22 September 1746: “There is made and sold, by FRANCIS GRACIA, in Church Street opposite to Justice [Thomas] Dale’s, good SALLAD OYL of Cessamum [sesamum] or Benny Seed; approved by several Gentlemen to be equal if not preferable to any Olive Oyl imported here from Europe. Price Fifteen Shillings per Quart.” Gracia’s role in the production of this benne salad oil is a bit ambiguous, however. As a professional cabinetmaker, he had probably built the hand-operated machine used to press the benne seeds and extract the valuable oil. In fact, in June of 1733 the government of South Carolina granted to Gracia a five-year monopoly on a machine he had invented, “for the more expeditious beating or pounding of Rice.”[5] But we also know that Gracia, who lived on Church Street, was also a part-time planter, and owned a relatively small tract of about 90 acres on James Island.[6] Whether or not Gracia raised his own benne on James Island, or merely collected a quantity of seeds from other planters, is a matter of conjecture, but let’s stick to the main point: Francis Gracia was the first man in South Carolina to prove that benne seeds (using the African term) could make a fine salad oil, and to get his product to market. The real question, however, was whether or not it could be done with a sufficient margin of profit.

The answer to that question appeared on the front page of the South-Carolina Gazette just a few months later, on the 1st of December 1746. At that time, the local economy was reeling from the effects the war with Spain and France, and South Carolina needed all the help in could get. Indigo might be the silver bullet to fix the situation, but it was still in the experimental stages. In a detailed economic analysis, an anonymous correspondent calling himself “Mercator,” tells us that South Carolina planters were still not convinced that indigo would be as successful as was imagined last spring, and this uncertainty “ought to spur on every one who has an opportunity of doing it, to hold out the helping hand to his sinking country. . . . [In the] mean time, it is now pretty certainly known, that Indigo requires at least good corn land to be planted on, and it is as well known, that Sessamum will grow and yield very good crops on very indifferent land, such as most of the old worn out plantations in the settlements.” Mercator then presented the text of a letter, recently received from a friend in London, containing details about the market for various vegetable oils in Britain, and the potential profitability of Carolina sesame. The anonymous friend in London recounts how he took a parcel of benne seeds from South Carolina and processed it into oil for experimentation. Using a hand screw press, he drew four ounces of oil from one pound of seed. Using a stone mill, however, he drew five pounds & fourteen ounces of oil from 18 pounds of seed. “The first [oil] drawn of this tasted pretty well,” said the London friend, “but the last was rancid or tasted strong of the seed, and there seems to be a great foot or sediment.” This Carolina benne oil would thus sell as a second- or third-rate oil in London, and so the profit margins would be rather slim. Estimating that it would sell for three or three and a half shillings per gallon in London, our anonymous correspondent then took the time to calculate the cost of production, including the charges for freight from South Carolina to London, the cost of the barrels for shipping, and the charges of weighers, packers, porters, warehouse rent, import duties, insurance premiums, brokerage commissions, and contingencies. These calculations were done according to the rates during time of war, as was the state of affairs in the autumn of 1746, as well as the customary rates during time of peace. After detailed calculations and scrutiny, Mercador then summarized the bottom line for the readers of the Gazette: “The planter may reasonably expect Twenty Bushels from an acre, and that a common field hand can very well attend five acres—but, as my [London] friend observes, it’s safest to go low in our calculations, let us suppose only that a hand can tend but four acres, and that they will yield only Fifteen Bushels an acre; and that the [net] price the oyl will yield in England is the lowest in the foregoing calculation, [that is] 15 pence per gallon, and let us then see whether this commodity will not be well worth our while to go upon. . . . Now as he has proved that one bushel of seed will make at least two gallons of oyl, we shall have one hundred and twenty gallons from the four acres, which sold in England clear of all charges at 15 [pence] per gallon, will produce to the planter £7 10 shillings Sterling for the labour of a common field slave, only two third parts of the year; which is a sum much greater I imagine than can be got by the labour of the best hand employ’d in rice even at 40 s. a hundred, and the labour of producing the oyl will be infinitely less. But what a fund of riches will this article produce, if our oyl should [net] us, as it reasonably may be expected to do in times of peace, 3 shillings a gallon, and our land should yield us twenty bushels an acre, and a common field-hand should be able to tend five acres of land!”[7]

Clearly, some folks in South Carolina were very sanguine about the potential profitability of sesame. In early 1747, James Crokatt, the official agent or lobbyist for South Carolina in London, sent over a model of an English mill for pressing benne seeds, and it was put on display at the colonial treasurer’s office for public inspection.[8] By the end of 1747, however, the race was over, and indigo, not benne, was the clear winner of the competition to find the next big cash crop for South Carolina. In the spring of 1748, the young merchant Henry Laurens shared this news with several of his London contacts. “The Sessamum Seed & [sesamum] Oyl,” said Laurens, “is no more talk’d of as an Article for Exportation [here].”[9]

Over the next few years, a few brave souls, including Francis Gracia, continued to sell benne seed oil in Charleston, but the price was high and the demand, not so great. By the 1750s, even Francis Gracia was growing indigo on his James Island tract, and he sold that property before he died in 1764 at the age of 70.[10] In the decades after the “Great Benne Experiment” of the 1740s, it appears that most of the white community in South Carolina forgot about the little seed. Behind the big house, however, many of the enslaved Africans here continued to grow small patches of benne for their own use, and occasionally shared it with their white masters.

During the American Revolution, South Carolina planters continued to grow rice and indigo, but mostly for domestic use rather than for export. The war drastically changed our patterns of import and export, so it became more important than ever to raise a variety of crops for local consumption. This farming practice continued after the end of the war, when South Carolina endured nearly a decade of hard times as the local and national economies gradually recovered from years of wartime destruction. The British bounty, or subsidy, on South Carolina indigo ended during the American Revolution, and so local planters quickly abandoned indigo as an export crop.

Just as our economy was beginning to recover in the early 1790s, Eli Whitney’s newly-patented cotton gin created a new market for the fluffy white fiber. South Carolina planters immediately threw themselves whole hog into the cotton business, and since Britain was ready to buy up all the cotton we could produce, the crop spread westward rapidly, into the fertile lands of what would become Alabama, Mississippi, and beyond. Trade relations with Britain soured in 1807, however, and Americans once again began looking in fields and forest for alternative crops that might supplement the cotton trade.[11] Over the years, a handful of botanists on both sides of the Atlantic had taken note of the presence of sesamum, or benne, in the American south, and it began to resurface. President Thomas Jefferson received a small parcel of benne oil in late 1807, and was so impressed with its qualities as a salad dressing that he added benne to his gardens at Monticello in 1808.[12] In the 1820s and 1830s, a raft of physicians both in the South and in the North, began touting the medicinal qualities of a drink made of benne leaves, specifically as a valuable treatment for what was called “the summer complaint,” or Infantile cholera. It seems the mucilage or slimy content of the leaves made a very palatable and nutritious drink for patients that otherwise couldn’t keep anything on their stomachs.[13]

In the 1840s, some South Carolina farmers became convinced that the international market for cotton was glutted, and that the future of Carolina cotton was doomed. In an effort to spur diversification, the South Carolina Agricultural Society recommend experimentation with alternative crops, including the production of benne oil, as a means of supplying our own domestic needs.[14] At the same time, a new, history-making cookbook was published. The Carolina Housewife, as it was called in 1847, contained a recipe for “bennie soup,” the earliest known published American recipe for an African sesame dish. Then, during the American Civil War of the early 1860s, Southern botanists and farmers again shined a light on the humble benne seed as a valuable crop that could help alleviate wartime shortages.[15]

In the years after the Civil War, the benne seed morphed into a nostalgic symbol of old times, a curious vestige of the old days of slavery. When the widows and daughters of local Confederate veterans needed to raise money in 1893, for example, they sold benne treats, and made a handsome profit.[16] Recently, I’ve been scouring the local newspapers to see if I might discover when benne seed treats first began to be sold commercially in Charleston, and I think I’ve found the answer. Around the year 1908, Mrs. Eleanor Williams and her family began selling benne wafers, benne brittle, benne squares, and benne sticks at their shop, Onslow’s Candy Store, at No. 300 King Street. After World War I, other sweet shops began marketing similar novelties to the ever-increasing numbers of tourists passing through Charleston.[17] After World War II, food writers from New York raved about the curious treats they discovered in the Palmetto City, and by the spring of 1950 you could purchase little bags of Charleston benne wafers at Macy’s Department Store in New York. The rest, as they say, is history.[18]

So the next time you bite into a deliciously sweet benne wafer, or find toasted benne seeds sprinkled on your dish at a swanky downtown restaurant, try to remember the long journey this little seed has taken over the last three hundred years. From the hands of captive Africans, to the dinner table at the White House, it’s a wonderful story, and it’s a delicious part of our Lowcountry heritage.



[1] If you’re interested in the botanical details of the history of sesame or benne in the New World, I recommend African Ethnobotany in the Americas (New York: Springer, 2012), a collection of scholarly essays that was co-edited by Dr. John Rashford of the College of Charleston. In that book, you’ll find a chapter written by Dr. Dorothea Bedigian that represents the most comprehensive study of the transmission of sesame from the old world to the Americas.

[2] National Archives of the United Kingdom, CO5-361. This letter is abstracted in Collections of the South Carolina Historical Society, 2 (Charleston, S.C., 1858): 126; and Cecil Headlam, ed., Calendar of State Papers, Colonial Series, America and West Indies, 1730 (London: His Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1937), 246.

[3] See Act No. 708, “An Act for the further improvement and encouraging the produce of silk and other manufactures in this province, and to repeal an act of the General Assembly entitled ‘An Act to encourage the making of hemp,’ passed the 23rd day of February, 1723, and for repealing such part of an act of the General Assembly entitled ‘An Act for the better regulating the Port and Harbor of Charlestown and the Shipping frequenting the same,’ as is therein mentioned,” ratified on 29 May 1744, in Thomas Cooper, ed, The Statutes at Large of South Carolina, volume 3 (Columbia, S.C.: A. S. Johnston, 1838): 613–16.

[4] See Act No. 737: “An Act to revive and continue the several acts therein mentioned, and to repeal that part of an Act which gives a bounty upon indigo, intitled [sic] ‘An Act for the further improvement and encouraging the produce of silk and other manufactures in this province, and to repeal an act of the General Assembly entitled “An Act to Encourage the making of hemp,” passed the 23rd day of February, 1723, and for repealing such part of an act of the General Assembly entitled “An Act for the better regulating the Port and Harbor of Charlestown and the Shipping frequenting the same,” as is therein mentioned,’” ratified on 16 April 1746, in Statutes at Large, 3: 670–71.

[5] See “An Act for the Encouragement of Francis Gracia, of Charles Town, in the Province of South Carolina, in projecting and making an engine for the more expeditious beating or pounding of Rice,” ratified on 9 June 1733, in David J. McCord, ed., The Statutes at Large of South Carolina, vol. 6 (Columbia, S.C.: A. S. Johnston, 1839), 621–22. This act grants Gracia, a “joiner,” a five-year monopoly on his new invention, which is not described.

[6] In an advertisement in the South-Carolina Gazette, 13–20 February 1755, Francis Gracia described his “plantation on James Island” as being “pleasantly situated between Mr. Lamboll’s and Mr. Stone’s, and about a mile across the river from Charles-Town, containing upwards of 90 acres of indico [indigo] land, having 8 acres of the wild sort planted thereon, which grows luxuriantly, with a good dam and necessary buildings, vats, &c.”

[7] South-Carolina Gazette, 1 December 1746.

[8] South-Carolina Gazette, 30 March–6 April 1747: “A Compleat [sic] Modell [sic] of a MILL for grinding, heating and pressing the Sessamum [sic] Seed for Oyl [sic]; also Patterns of Cochineal [sic] and Spanish Flora Indigo, (sent by Mr. Crokatt from London, in the Billander Betsy) to be seen at the Treasurer’s-Office in Charles-Town.”

[9] The quotation is taken from a letter written by Henry Laurens in Charleston to William Stone in London, dated 18 May 1748. See Philip M. Hamer, et al., ed., The Papers of Henry Laurens, volume 1 (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1968), 139.

[10] According to the South-Carolina Gazette, 1–8 October 1764, on 16 April “died, aged 70 years, Mr. Francis Gracia, a native of this province.”

[11] For example, the Charleston Times, 22 April 1809, included the following “communication”:  “An old inhabitant of Charleston remembers, when young, that a Mr. Gracia, living on James Island, made excellent Sallad [sic] Oil from the seeds of the plant called Bennay, or Bennie, which is very easy to cultivate; and it was said, yielded plentifully of good oil. This communication is intended to induce some persons to try the experiments at this time, which may probably turn out to some advantage. This is the season for planting most kinds of seeds.”

[12] For a brief description of Jefferson’s experimentation with sesame, see the Monticello website:

[13] See the essay on “the Sesamum Indicum, or Bhene [sic] plant,” taken from The National Intelligencer, reprinted in the Charleston City Gazette, 24 July 1823.

[14] For the state of South Carolina’s agricultural economy, see James H. Hammond, Anniversary Oration of the State Agricultural Society of South Carolina (Columbia, S.C.: A. S. Johnston, 1841). For advice concerning the cultivation of “bene,” see The Southern Cultivator, Vol. 4 No. 6 (June 1846), 84–86, which contains the “Proceedings of the S.C. State Agricultural Society” held on the evenings of 24–27 November 1845 in Columbia.

[15] The recipe appears in [Sarah Rutledge], House and Home, or, The Carolina Housewife (1847), 45. For a Civil-War-era discussion of the benefits of benne, see Francis Peyre Porcher, Resources of the Southern Fields and Forests, Medical, Economical, and Agricultural, Being Also A Medical Botany of the Confederate States; With Practical Information on the Useful Properties of the Trees, Plants, and Shrubs (Richmond, Va.: West and Johnston, 1863), 92, 450–53.

[16] Under the heading “The South Carolina Tent,” the Charleston News and Courier, 25 May 1893, page 2, printed news of a Confederate Memorial Bazaar held in Richmond, Virginia, earlier that month. “Among other things Mrs. [William P.] DeSaussure made groundnut and benne candy in large quantities, using twenty pounds of benne seeds for this heretofore unknown sweet in Richmond.”

[17] Confectioner George Onslow died in 1908, and one of his employees, Mrs. Eleanor Williams, purchased his business. The Williams family operated Onslow’s Candy Store beyond World War II, and claimed to have originated the commercial production of benne candy. See, for example, Charleston News and Courier, 20 November 1939, page 10, and Charleston Evening Post, 29 March 1943, page 7.

[18] “Charleston benné wafers” are mentioned in Sheila Hibben, American Regional Cookery (Boston, Little, Brown, 1946), 316, 339. The sale of Onslow’s benne wafers at Macy’s Department Story is mentioned in “Everybody’s Business” in Charleston News and Courier, 26 May 1950, page 27.


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