Commemorating the African-ness of Charleston’s History
The 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first permanent African residents in 1619 Virginia provides us with an opportunity to reflect on the legacy of slavery. In today’s episode, I’ll try to situate this anniversary in a broader, international perspective and to connect it to the history of Charleston’s own African arrivals, which commenced some 350 years ago. Facts and figures form a big part of this story, but language and thread-pulling are also important parts of the ongoing conversation about the history and legacy of Africans and people of African descent in the Lowcountry of South Carolina.
Let’s begin with a few words about the significance of the year 1619 and the 400th anniversary at home and abroad. Some scholars believe that the focus on a small number of Africans who arrived in Jamestown, Virginia in August 1619 is misguided (see, for example this article on the Smithsonian website). Why? Because it minimizes or even ignores the larger, transnational history of slavery in the New World that had commenced a century earlier. And that’s an important point to remember. The corrupt business of trafficking African captives to colonies in the New World commenced as early as 1514 and continued as late as 1866, and a broad panoply of nations participated in the business, from Portugal and Spain in the southwest of Europe to Denmark and Sweden in the northeast.
England was, in fact, a latecomer to this trade. Within her colonies in the New World, Virginia was not the first to welcome African laborers—the island of Bermuda probably holds that title. One could argue, however, that the first enslaved Africans brought to an English colony were those captured by Sir Francis Drake and brought to the Roanoke colony in what is now North Carolina in 1586. Again, the concept of identifying the “first” in this exercise depends on how one defines the criteria.
The “first” African people to set foot in the land we now call South Carolina arrived here in 1526 as part of a large Spanish expedition from the Caribbean led by Lucas Vásquez de Ayllón. The purpose of that expedition was to establish a permanent outpost to serve as a base for future colonization. That mission failed, however, when the Africans rebelled and set fire to the camp. There in 1526 we have a brief snapshot of the world of English slavery in South Carolina yet to come.
A few years later, in the spring of 1540, Hernando de Soto marched through South Carolina with a retinue of servants that included a number of enslaved Africans brought from Cuba. In 1566, Spanish colonists from St. Augustine established a fortified outpost called Santa Elena on what is now called Parris Island, South Carolina. Enslaved African mariners aboard visiting Spanish ships may have stepped ashore at that site during its brief existence, but the Spanish abandoned Santa Elena in 1587 and retreated to St. Augustine in Florida.
The English colonization of the land now known as South Carolina began in earnest in April of 1670, at a place called Albemarle Point (now Charles Towne Landing State Historic Site). The earliest settlers, about one hundred in number, arrived from England, by way of Barbados, in three sailing vessels that arrived one after the other. It is not clear if the first vessel, called the Carolina, carried any people of African descent in the spring of 1670, but she certainly did a few months later. Her captain, Henry Brayne, sailed the Carolina to Virginia that summer to fetch supplies, and returned in August with a few white indentured servants and what he described as “one lusty negro man.” A few weeks later, in September of 1670, another supply ship sent from Albemarle Point to Bermuda returned carrying three persons of African descent, named (by their white owners) John Sr., Elizabeth, and John Jr. More white settlers arrived from Barbados in the final months of 1670, bringing a small number of enslaved people along with their Caribbean notions of exploitative plantation agriculture.
By the end of 1670, there were approximately thirty people of African descent living in the Charleston area among a population that included approximately 170 white Europeans and untold thousands of Native Americans. By the year 1680, when the seat of government moved from old Charles Town at Albemarle Point to new Charles Town at Oyster Point, there were approximately 200 Africans living among approximately 1,000 whites. From these numbers, we can see that the early white settlers of the Carolina colony imported a relatively small number of enslaved people during the first decade of our community’s existence. By 1680, Africans were still very much a minority here, forming nearly 17% of the total immigrant population of South Carolina.
In the decade between 1680 and 1690, however, white investors began importing Africans in earnest, bringing all but a few of them to Carolina by way of the more established English colonies in the West Indies. The enslaved population of the South Carolina colony jumped from 17% to 40% by 1690, when approximately 1,500 people of African descent lived among a population of approximately 2,400 whites in the Lowcountry. War in Europe and in the West Indies between England and France retarded the growth of South Carolina’s enslaved population during most of the 1690s. Between 1690 and 1700, the African population of South grew from approximately 1,500 people to 2,400 people, a relatively moderate increase that kept pace with the growth of the white population and continued to form just over 40% of the total immigrant population.
The history of South Carolina changed forever in 1698, when the English Parliament passed a law that allowed English investors to trade freely in Africa. Prior to that time, a corporation called the Royal African Company had enjoyed a legal monopoly on the right to carry African captives to the English colonies in the New World, and had made a handsome profit doing so. Starting in 1698, however, any English investors could outfit a ship and legally carry enslaved people from Africa to the colonies in the Caribbean or in North America, and so the trade began to increase dramatically. By 1708, if not a year or so earlier, enslaved people of African descent formed just over 50% of the population in South Carolina, and the numbers continued to rise. By 1730, when South Carolina officially became a more stable Royal colony, under the direct supervision of the British crown, people of African descent outnumbered whites in the Lowcountry by a ratio of two to one.
South Carolina’s role in the larger, trans-Atlantic slave trade changed dramatically around the year 1710. Prior to that time, the port of Charleston received cargos of enslaved Africans by way of ships from our sister colonies in Bermuda, Barbados, Antigua, and Jamaica. The famous Charleston mariner and merchant, William Rhett (1666–1723) had embarked on a slaving voyage to the coast of Africa in 1696, but this was apparently an isolated incident that did not represent the normal pattern of commerce. By the year 1710, however (the exact date is a bit fuzzy owing to a paucity of paper records from this era), slave ships began to arrive in Charleston directly from Africa. As the infrastructure and wealth of South Carolina continued to grow, the port of Charleston became an increasingly important destination within the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
In 1740, the black and white population of South Carolina included somewhere between 54,000 and 59,000 people, of whom 39,155 people were of African descent. That rather precise figure of enslaved people is derived from tax returns, but we don’t have correspondingly accurate data for the white population at that same time. That fact doesn’t matter for the moment, because I’m trying to make a point about the black population. Because of the voracious importation of Africans during South Carolina’s first decade as a Royal colony, that era represents a high water mark of sorts in our local demographics. Between 1730 and 1740, the enslaved population of South Carolina represented somewhere between 66% and 72% of the non-Indian population of South Carolina (depending on what sort of population estimates one embraces). Of those enslaved people, approximately 66% were born in Africa, while the remaining 44% were “creoles” born in South Carolina or another New World colony. The records concerning South Carolina’s early population are incomplete, but, from the surviving documents, it appears that the year 1740 represents the peak of African-ness of South Carolina’s enslaved population. In the wake of the Stono Rebellion of September 1739, and the commencement of a naval war with Spain that October, South Carolina imported a very small number of African captives in the decade after 1740.
This time last year, I did a podcast about the rise and fall of the trans-Atlantic slave trade into the port of Charleston, so I’m not going to duplicate that material today. If you’re interested the ups and downs of the traffic between Africa and Charleston in the eighteenth century, you can listen to episode number 50 through your favorite podcast service or through on the library’s website.
On the eve of the Civil War in 1860, enslaved people still formed the majority of the approximately 70,000 people living in Charleston County. Following the abolition of slavery 1865, people of African descent continued to dominate the local population for the ensuing half century. As many of those people began moving northward in the aftermath of World War I—a national phenomenon known as the “Great Migration”—Charleston’s population of African-Americans began to decline. From about 1930 to the present, persons of African descent have formed a minority of the local population, although their numbers are still strong. The U.S. Census Bureau has estimated that the population of Charleston County in July 2018 was just over 401,000 people, of whom 27.3% identified as African American. Within the United States at large, which contains just over 327 million people today, the percentage of African Americans is currently estimated at 13.4%, which is about half of the Charleston-area percentage.
Enslaved African people and their descendants have formed a considerable part of South Carolina’s population from the earliest days of colonial exploration to the present. Their labors, achievements, expressions, and opinions have contributed greatly to the growth of our community. Despite these truths, the literature of South Carolina history often reduces the presence and actions of enslaved people to an anonymous, passive role in the narrative of our collective past, as if these people were not in fact people with hopes and fears and agency. This reductive tendency is both unfortunate and damaging because it distracts readers and students from the brutal, inhuman realities of slavery. To combat this reductive dehumanization, I can recommend two simple actions that everyone can do.
First, let’s watch our language. Perhaps you’ve notice that I’ve avoided using the word “slave” in this conversation. I’ve mentioned “slavery,” the “slave trade,” and “slave ships,” of course, but those are phenomena, not humans. In the past, some humans were enslaved by other humans, but no one ever aspired to be a “slave,” and certainly no one was ever intended by nature to be a slave. The act of enslaving a fellow human being is, by its very nature, an aggressive, violent, exploitative act. Although that horrible practice was once legal in many places around the world, slavery cannot now be justified or condoned by any logic or law. “Slaves” were not objects that grew on trees or sprang from the earth to serve others. They were people, just like you and me. By adopting the phrase “enslaved people,” or a similar expression, we can use a small turn of language to help restore their humanity. This might seem like an inconsequential change to some, but I promise you that it makes a difference in how we think about the people in our past. By emphasizing their humanity—their “people-ness”—and then noting their condition, we can each play a small but important role in acknowledging the injustice inherent in the practice of slavery. Helping each other understand the extent to which slavery warped our history is an important step towards eradicating discrimination—the lingering legacy of slavery—in our community, our nation, and our world.
You may have also noticed that I often use the phrase “of African descent.” This is an important linguistic tool in talking about the history of slavery in a particular place over a period of time. In early South Carolina, for example, our community was populated by a number of people with different connections to the African diaspora. Some were born in African, but bore children who lived their entire lives in South Carolina. Some were born in other New World colonies to parents who were originally from Africa. Some were born to parents whose lineage included Native American and/or European ancestors. For people of such diverse backgrounds, terms such as “black,” “negro,” or “colored” are often insufficient or inappropriate. The phrase African- or Afro-American might seem useful, but many would argue that this modern term should not be applied to pre-1865 people whom the United States government formerly considered to be non-citizens and only 3/5ths of a human being. And, after a while, it becomes cumbersome to deploy such phrases such as “Afro-Jamaican,” “African-Canadian,” and so on.
In light of these linguistic shortcomings, I’ve adopted the phrase “person of African descent.” It’s a simple way to acknowledge the African root and then provide space for a broad range of variation. One might describe an individual more specifically, if one knows the details of his or her genetic admixture, but terms such as mulatto, mestizo, quadroon, and the like are freighted with vestigial historical meaning. Describing an individual as “a person of African descent,” however, acknowledges both their humanity and geographic ancestry in one simple phrase. In fact, we are currently in the middle of what the United Nations has designated the “Decade for People of African Descent.” The purpose of this U.N. project is to direct international attention to the history and present plight of approximately 200 million people around the globe, and to recognize “that people of African descent represent a distinct group whose human right must be promoted and protected.”
A second way to combat the historical reduction of enslaved people is to tell their stories. That might seem like an easy task, but our ability to describe the lives, loves, and sorrows of the enslaved people who once inhabited our community is frustrated by the paucity of records that describe the details of their existence. The documentary record tends to reduce these people to anonymous laborers toiling in the background, and it’s very difficult to find historical threads with which we might pull them closer to the foreground. When such threads can be found, however, and the surviving paper records allow us to learn more about the contours of an enslaved person’s life and personality, a world of opportunities can open. People who were once reduced to a commodity or a statistic can bloom into three dimensions and speak and move and act. Forget about investing our imagination in the attempt to clone dinosaurs or Neanderthals, why can’t we channel those resources into re-humanizing the very real people who shaped our community?
As a historian, I believe we need to search for these threads of human stories more diligently, and to pull at them more persistently. Yes, it’s difficult work and it takes a great deal of time and effort, but I’m convinced that it’s a worthwhile effort. I’m working on several such projects at the moment, and I look forward to rolling them out in the coming years. In fact, I have one such story in the works for the month of February. Tune in next week as we begin the story of an extraordinary man that I’m calling “Abraham the Unstoppable”—an enslaved man whose physical endurance and bravery during a time of great danger convinced the legislature of South Carolina to purchase his freedom from slavery.
 Peter Wood, Black Majority: Negroes in Colonial South Carolina from 1670 through the Stono Rebellion (New York: Norton, 1974), 3.
 Wood, Black Majority, 20–22.
 For population statistics of early South Carolina, see Wood, Black Majority, 144–54; Russell R. Menard, “Slave Demography in the Lowcountry, 1670–1740: From Frontier Society to Plantation Regime,” South Carolina Historical Magazine 96 (October 1995), 280–303; Philip D. Morgan, Slave Counterpoint: Black Culture in the Eighteenth-Century Chesapeake & Lowcountry (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998), 61.
 Menard, “Slave Demography,” 280–83. For a detailed description of this corporation, see William A. Pettigrew, Freedom’s Debt: The Royal African Company and the Politics of the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1672–1752 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013).
 Wood, Black Majority, 100.
 Philip D. Morgan, Slave Counterpoint: Black Culture in the Eighteenth-Century Chesapeake & Lowcountry (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998), 61.
 July 2018 population estimates obtained website of the U.S. Census Bureau, on 31 January 2019: https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/charlestoncountysouthcarolina,US/PST045218.