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/.

French Huguenots in South Carolina

History Behind the Story #1: French Huguenots in South Carolina

In celebration of the recent release of Southern Rain, I announced that I would be doing a series on the History Behind the Story.  Today, I bring you the first in the series: a look at French Huguenots in South Carolina!

It was very subtle in Southern Rain, but there were a few indications of the heritage I chose for the lead family, the Ravenels. I was surprised during my research of the Charleston aristocracy of the 19th Century to find that a huge proportion of them were descended from French Huguenots.  That was a bit of a head-scratcher: how did a people go from being oppressed, persecuted, and run out of their country to being at the very top of the food chain and oppressing others in just a few generations?  But first, what is a Huguenot?

Think 16th and 17th Century France.  A little event called the Protestant Reformation was happening after the bombshell dropped by Martin Luther. The ideas that were being espoused were things like personal faith rather than church intervention and that scripture alone was authoritative.  Obviously, the desire to reform the Catholic Church stirred up a lot of tension and threatened the power structure of Europe.

It’s important to remember that, while they were religious minorities, most Huguenots in France still had a great deal of wealth and power. The very term “Huguenot” is ethnoreligious and cannot be translated purely into the word “Protestant.” The Protestants in France, while largely ethnically similar to the Catholics, became almost a separate ethnic group, but one in which many of the members had aristocratic ancestries similar to the noble Catholic families.

In certain areas, tensions ran high, forcing the Huguenots to give up their faith or flee France as refugees.  A war was begun with the Massacre at Vassy, in which royal troops ambushed and murdered or injured hundreds of Huguenots in their place of worship.  Political intrigue and death ensued. Mass slaughters of Huguenots were enacted throughout France.

Happily, this conflict ended in the Edict of Nantes, which granted a great deal of concessions to the Protestants. For a time, there was peace (sort of). The peace was ruptured utterly by the Edict’s revocation by Louis XIV (The Sun King), which resulted in cultural or literal genocide of Huguenots, either by forced conversions, executions, or what many saw as no choice but to flee.

Do I see Charleston in the future of many of the Huguenots?  Yes!  Now, Huguenots were fleeing all over the world by hundreds of thousands, so the Lowcountry was just one refuge.  But it was a refuge that ultimately stuck for those who did immigrate to the area. A Huguenot Church was quickly established there and is in operation to this day!

The Huguenots settled throughout the Lowcountry near Charleston along the Ashley and Santee Rivers and near the Sea Islands. Anne LeClercq says of those who settled there, “The French Huguenot had come to Upper Saint John’s after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 and found in the somber beauty of the Santee Swamp, with its forest walls of oak and cypress, an area inhabited only by wild animals and widely separated villages of Santee Indians.”[1]  They were no longer oppressed.  In fact, they thrived.

Those who settled the area were either of elite heritage or were highly skilled artisans and tradesmen. They quickly assimilated, often intermarrying with other settlers, and were very prosperous because of a mixture of hard work and industry, a background of knowledge of what it took to amass power and wealth, and a dogged determination to make something of the second chance they had been given.  In short, while the elite in Charleston were made up of families from all over Europe, the Huguenots quickly became one of the largest groups that made up the elites.  LeClercq names a few of the family names: “Porchers, Gaillards, Mazycks, Palmers, Ravenels, Cordeses, Marions, Dwights, and Gourdins.”[2]  I chose the surname Ravenel from a list of French Huguenot names since I wanted the central family to be of that heritage. The way I have heard it pronounced in Charleston in present day is Ravv-uh-nell, with a slight emphasis on the first syllable.

The Huguenot assimilated in another way, too: they affiliated with larger Protestant denominations and, in a generation or two, largely lost their Huguenot ties. You’ll notice when you read Southern Rain that the historical Ravenels are Presbyterian. You might be wondering about that, since that denomination is largely associated with Scotland, but that was one of the churches into which the Huguenots poured over in America. For one, they had the same roots (Presbyterianism also grew out of the Reformation), and they also maintained similar beliefs.

And what about the fact that the Huguenot and their descendants became some of the largest slaveholders in the South?  One would almost guess, based on the Huguenots’ oppression and commitment to faith, that they might have been friends of abolition, and perhaps some were. But in large part, they were not. The amassing of wealth and aristocracy in South Carolina happened quickly, but its full fruition did occur over the course of several generations. For instance, from the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 to 1859 when we see the height of the Ravenels’ wealth, five or six generations have passed, and the descendants were probably very similar in their beliefs to the majority of South Carolinians of European descent.  And yet, that isn’t to say that slaves weren’t owned by those of Huguenot heritage generations before the Civil War, or even by that first generation.  While one can’t say with certainty what initiated the slaveholding status of Huguenots, Nancy Maurer sees it as another evidence of the assimilation necessary to achieve wealth and status.[3]  And that may be largely true, since it quickly became obvious that the most successful occupation in the Lowcountry was that of planter.  By the third generation, nearly all South Carolinians of French heritage (and South Carolinians in general) were slaveowners.[4]  We’ll talk about the enslaved people of the Lowcountry in the next article, including their heritage and daily lives.

Many sources seem to indicate that the Huguenots assimilated so effectively that they lost all cultural identity as French and all cohesiveness as an immigrant group.  I don’t find that to be true. You have only to visit Charleston to find French influences in everything from architecture to naming, and especially in its unique and wonderful cuisine.

I’ll leave you with a bit of a cliffhanger! You’ll notice that in Southern Rain, Frederick Ravenel, who is the ancestor of the modern Ravenels, says with all of the political incorrectness of his era, “I wouldn’t want Catholic children,” and seems to hold to that determination throughout.  Yet, we know that the modern Ravenels are, in fact, Catholic. Hmm…how did that happen? Guess you’ll have to read the second book in the Torn Asunder Series to find out! 😊

[1] LeClercq, Anne Sinkler Whaley, An Antebellum Plantation Household (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2006), pp. x.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Maurer, Nancy, The Evolution of French Identity: A Study of the Huguenots in South Carolina, 1680-1740 (2006), pp. 12.

[4] Ibid, 66.

Sources:

Reformation (2019), https://www.britannica.com/event/Reformation.

Huguenot History, https://www.huguenotsociety.org/heritage/history/.

LeClercq, Anne Sinkler Whaley, An Antebellum Plantation Household (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2006).

Maurer, Nancy, The Evolution of French Identity: A Study of the Huguenots in South Carolina, 1680-1740 (2006).

Protestant Immigration to Louisiana, https://www.britannica.com/event/Reformation.

Image Credit:

Carolina, The French Huguenots, https://www.carolana.com/Carolina/Settlement/french_huguenot_settlers.html.

*P.S. I tried to include both scholarly and more readable sources. I have many more.  If you would like them, just ask, and I’ll get the links to you!

History Behind the Story Series

To celebrate the release of Southern Rain tomorrow, I am launching a series of fun articles dealing with the history behind the story.  I thought it might be fun to look at some the circumstances that molded the plot lines for the book and give you an opportunity to ask any historical questions you might have.  Right now, I’ll give the list of topics I’m planning to cover.  Let me know if there’s a topic you would like to see that isn’t mentioned, and I’ll cover it, too!

  1. French Huguenots in South Carolina
  2. Enslaved People of the Lowcountry
  3. Fashion on the Brink of the Civil War
  4. Societal Rules and Quirky Charleston Customs
  5. Kissing Cousins – Did People Really Marry Their First Cousins?
  6. A Break-down in Civilities – Rhetoric Before the War
  7. The Congregationalist Church in New England
  8. Abolition in New England
  9. The Navy Before the Civil War
  10. Rose O’Neal Greenhow