The Enslaved People of the Lowcountry

History Behind the Story #2: Enslaved People of the Lowcountry

If you’ve read Southern Rain, you met various characters who are enslaved, such as Shannon’s maid, Phoebe, who travels with her into the North and gains her freedom. Phoebe is one of my favorite characters from the series because of her strength, and I think, in a lot of ways, she is what Shannon wishes she could be.

A lot of times we tend to think of the enslaved in terms of the work they were forced to do since their living conditions were so bad. And yet, they were living, breathing people who got up in the morning, dealt with the frustrations that arise during the day, loved, lost, mourned, experienced great hardship, practiced religion, and built communities. There is a lot of rich and truly unique history to be explored with the enslaved of the Lowcountry.  So let’s delve in!

First, let’s talk ancestry.  In the early days of the colonial period, most who were captured and brought to the Lowcountry were from Kongo and Angola, which are two countries in central Africa on the western side bordering the Atlantic. Later, many were from just north of there on the Windward Coast in Senegambia and Sierra Leone. [1]

The climate was actually very similar to the Lowcountry’s in that part of Africa, which meant one key thing: rice. Long before it was grown in the Lowcountry, rice was king in West Africa, and those who grew it in Africa were experts in the tricky business of cultivating and keeping alive rice plants. This also meant that people from this region were targeted for capture since they would command a huge price in the Charleston Harbor.

So you know what happens. People were ripped from their families, tribes, and communities and stowed aboard ships where many died before they ever saw America. Conditions were hideous on the ships, and those captured were also susceptible to new diseases. If you made it to America, you were then quarantined on Sullivan’s Island (one of the Sea Islands) for a period before being brought into Charleston. During the peak period of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade (1783-1808), about 100,000 people from West African countries would be brought to Gadsden’s Wharf. Once there, they were kept in holding places, sometimes for months, which led to mass death. If you made it long enough to be sold, you might become a a domestic servant for Charleston homes, but the large majority would be sent to the rice fields.

There is quite a bit of evidence that the newly enslaved introduced many of the farming techniques key to the survival of rice culture in the Lowcountry.  Raising rice in the tidal regions required a great deal of engineering – things like levees, floodgates, drains, and cypress logs or “trunks” used to regulate the water’s flow.  The early red rice grown in the colonial Lowcountry is thought to be an African variety as well.[2]

While rice was dominant, indigo (another crop historically grown in Africa) was also introduced. And of course, ultimately there was cotton, still famously known as “Sea Island Cotton.”  So the type of work you would be doing on a daily basis was just luck of the draw depending on where you were born or bought. And rice seemed to be pretty much the worst plant to be forced to grow.  You would stand immersed in water up to the waist all day long, extremely hot on top and wet on the bottom, which led to various health problems. The work was extremely grueling, and life carried with it all of the instabilities that go along with slavery – the possibility of your children being sold, vulnerability to your owner, the possibility of harsh physical discipline, among others.

One day in my Civil War class, one of the students asked the professor which he would rather be – a house servant, or a field worker.  I kind of thought that was a no-brainer – no question the life of a house servant had to be more sheltered than that image we have of slaves in a hot field with an overseer watching closely.  But his answer surprised me: he drew a contrast in slave life for those in places like Tennessee and Virginia in the Upper South, where many slaves were domestic servants or at least in close contact with the owners on a daily basis, and those in places like Mississippi, Louisiana, and the Lowcountry, where you were much likely to be working in the fields with dozens, if not hundreds, of others.  He said that the latter actually found more mental freedom because they developed communities with other slaves, outside of and separate from their owners.  There was a bit more of a chance you could slip under the radar, outside of the notice of your owner.  And that was especially true of the Lowcountry, where often the Sea Island plantations weren’t traditional plantations, like you would think of in popular literature.  The master and mistress might stay there only a few weeks out of the year, if at all.  The plantations were the cash cow, but the owners tended to pass most of their time in fashionable cities like Savannah and Charleston, leaving the care of their lands and slaves to overseers.  Hence, Gullah Geechee culture arose.

Living so isolated from European/Western culture led to a very unique situation. You had people from various countries in Africa who all brought different languages and cultures with them, as well as some limited influences of the English language and American customs. Eventually, this led to a very unique language called Gullah (or Geechee in Georgia), which is still a living language today. Find that hard to believe? U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas spoke Gullah as his first language, and my sister is fortunate enough to have a professor who speaks Gullah. According to her, it’s a very flowing, lilting language which is not close enough to English that you can just follow along if you don’t know Gullah.

The Gullah-Geechee people formed kin networks, culture, and religious practices. It’s important to remember just how many enslaved people populated the region.  Charleston was the most popular port of disembarkation in all of North America during the North-Atlantic slave trade, which produced an African majority early on that persisted up until the time we see Shannon’s family with a lot to lose, worried, as war begins to look more likely in Southern Rain.  They were simply outnumbered, sometimes by as much as nine enslaved to every free person, which led to extreme hysteria about what could happen if the enslaved were freed.

It’s hard to talk about it in these terms, but to owners like Shannon’s family, the majority of your wealth could be caught up in your slaves, which gave strong pecuniary motives to hotly contest any argument, whether it be financial, political, or moral, for abolition. Perhaps owners in the Lowcountry were more worried than others, too, because the enslaved of that region had never really accepted the terms of chattel slavery but had instead grown up in a culture separate from their owners, which had to have undercut the owners’ power to some extent. You’ll notice in Southern Rain that Shannon is acquainted with the house slaves, on close but still unequal terms with a few of them, and entirely unacquainted with her father’s field slaves. She would probably be hard-pressed to recognize any of them, and this was not uncommon for the region.  Many of the field workers wouldn’t have spoken English, and the Ravenels only spent the late autumn until December on their plantation before going back to Charleston to participate in the social season and then to escape the summer illnesses which often festered in the swampy regions just outside of Charleston.[3]  And in any event, the life of a young twenty-year-old daughter of a master was as different from that of a twenty-year-old enslaved woman as could possibly be imagined.  Except that they were both twenty-year-old women with human emotions, some of which had to have been similar, which is rather interesting to explore with Shannon and Phoebe, two women of roughly the same age who go north together into a different world.

One last thought, which I hope isn’t too much of a spoiler for the second book: what becomes of the Sea Island slaves during and after the Civil War? Something really unique, actually.  Although Charleston was impenetrable to the Union until the very last days of the war, the Sea Islands were abandoned fairly early on by the owners, who feared invasion by U.S. Naval forces, who were squeezing tighter every day with the blockade of the South.  Union forces began overrunning the Sea Islands as early as 1861, which is years earlier than most slaves experienced freedom.  Many Gullah went on to serve in the Union army, but some stayed on the plantations in an experiment in which former slaves continued to farm the land and earn their own money.  As many as 195 plantations were involved in the experiment.  Abolitionists, many from the North, began to pour in to establish schools.  President Andrew Johnson did return most of the land to the original owners after the war, but many Gullah continued to live in relative isolation in the area. When my family and I visited McLeod Plantation in the Sea Islands, we learned that there were ancestors of Gullah slaves living on the plantation until the 1990’s. Similarly, at Magnolia Plantation on the Ashley River, we learned that there are ancestors still living and working there to this day.

I could write for days about the rich culture of the Gullah Geechee – their food, craftsmanship, dwellings, and family life.  If you would like to learn more, check out some of the sources below, especially the National Park Service’s page on African American Heritage and Ethnography. Let me know if you have any questions on the life of the enslaved as you read Southern Rain!

[1] There were many Indian tribes populating the Lowcountry upon contact, which were ultimately mostly extinguished due to disease and war, but many were also taken as slaves. There was intermarrying between those of African and Native American ancestry, so there was a very nuanced heritage at play, which contributed to the unique blending of cultures in the region.

[2] Ultimately, the go-to rice plant was the famous “Carolina Gold” variety.

[3] The Sea Islands were less likely to experience the harsh effects of the “sickly season” than the swampy regions around the Ashley and Santee Rivers due to a slightly more salubrious climate.

Sources:

Slavery in the Lowcountry, https://iaamuseum.org/history/slavery-in-charleston-and-the-lowcountry/.

African Passages, Lowcountry Adaptations, https://ldhi.library.cofc.edu/.

Africans in the Lowcountry, https://www.nps.gov/ethnography/aah/aaheritage/lowCountryA.htm.

Gullah History, http://www.beaufortsc.org/guides/gullah-history/.

Image Credit: Slavery in the Lowcountry, https://benjaminschwarz.org/1998/03/22/slavery-in-the-low-country/.

Published by

Tara Cowan Author

Tara Cowan has been writing novels since she was seventeen. Southern Rain is her first published novel. A huge lover of all things history, she loves to travel to historic sites, watch British dramas, read good fiction, and spend time with her family. An attorney, Tara lives in Tennessee and is busy writing her next novel. To connect with Tara, find her on Facebook or follow her on Instagram @teaandrebellion_

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