Slavery in the Lowcountry

By Benjamin Schwarz


Overseer and Slaves

American history offers no more complex, peculiar and terrible subject than the colonial and antebellum slave society of South Carolina’s Lowcountry. Only this region of British North America rivaled Latin America in killing off slaves as fast or faster than they reproduced. Nowhere in America were slaves so systematically repressed, and nowhere did they rise up in such numbers and with such organization. Slaves helped transform coastal South Carolina’s dark malarial swamps into the most expensive American agricultural lands, making their owners perhaps the richest entrepreneurs on the continent and enabling them to build the closest thing to a truly aristocratic society in America. Yet from this most uncharacteristically American aristocracy emerged the most ferocious defense of political liberty (for white men) in all of colonial America.

Perhaps because it was so atypical and extreme, the Low Country’s slave society has traditionally failed to attract the same attention from scholars and the general reader as colonial Virginia’s or even that of Georgia’s antebellum Cotton Belt or the Mississippi Delta. This situation began slowly to change in 1975 with Peter Wood’s “Black Majority: Negroes in Colonial South Carolina From 1670 Through the Stono Rebellion,” the first comprehensive treatment of its subject. More recently, aspects of the Lowcountry’s slave society have been explored in a host of specialized monographs and in two remarkable books, Peter Colcanis’ “The Shadow of a Dream: Economic Life and Death in the South Carolina Lowcountry, 1670-1920” and the first volume of William Dusinberre’s monumental “Them Dark Days: Slavery in the American Rice Country.” But all these books, with the partial exception of Dusinberre’s, focus primarily on either black life or white life and don’t fully recognize the Lowcountry’s slave society as the product of the interactions, antagonisms and accommodations between slaves and slaveholders.

This is precisely where Philip D. Morgan’s “Slave Counterpoint” succeeds and where Edward Ball’s “Slaves in the Family” fails. These are two very different books–Morgan’s is an academic yet accessible study, Ball’s a personal memoir and family history–that explore the same broad subject: the Lowcountry’s slave society. Morgan, the editor of William and Mary Quarterly, the most prestigious journal of colonial American history, and a professor at the College of William and Mary, has written a study comparing 18th century black culture in Tidewater Virginia and Maryland with that of Lowcountry South Carolina. Ball, the New York-based descendant of a wealthy Lowcountry slaveholding family, has written a history of that family and of the slaves they owned and an account of his search for and encounters with their descendants.

Although Morgan’s is the more authoritative and detailed account, “Slave Counterpoint” and “Slaves in the Family” paint similar pictures of the economy of the Lowcountry rice plantations and their social and political ramifications. Whereas colonial Virginia first developed its export staple–tobacco–and then developed a labor system–slavery–to exploit it (indentured servants were the primary laborers on tobacco plantations throughout the 17th century, and Virginia became a society based primarily on slavery only at the turn of the 18th century), colonial South Carolina was initially a slave society in search of a plantation economy. Most of South Carolina’s early white settlers came from Barbados, where they had already developed a slave economy based on sugar plantations. Arriving with their slaves in what was probably the most inhospitable region of British North America, whites began frantic efforts to develop a profitable export crop that their labor force could produce. Since South Carolina’s coastal swamps were too far north to yield sugar and other tropical commodities, for decades plantation owners had to settle on cattle and timber as their primary exports. At the turn of the 18th century, however, South Carolina’s whites finally discovered the lucrative staple that had eluded them: rice, a crop that soon defined nearly every aspect of Lowcountry economy and society.

The Lowcountry’s rice swamps were enormously profitable; they required enormous investments, and they were murderous. At least until the heyday of Louisiana’s sugar fields in the 1850s, no place in America offered such fabulous fortunes, and no place was so lethal. Early visitors to the region remarked that the white population appeared homogenous, since all its members had the same feverish, yellow faces, a result of the malaria that gave the Lowcountry the highest death rate of any region in British North America (perhaps a third of the Lowcountry’s slaves died within a year of their arrival). Though tobacco plantations could be profitable with a small number of slaves working them, rice cultivation, which required clearing and draining malarial swamps, constructing huge irrigation works and constant hoeing of the rice fields, was incredibly labor-intensive.

Contemporaries compared the work to the rechanneling of the Euphrates and the building of the pyramids. Although plantation owners could realize enormous profits, they had to make extraordinarily high investments in massive armies of expensive slaves who could produce the large quantities of rice necessary to recoup the heavy investment. As Morgan quotes an 18th century observer, “[R]ice is raised so as to buy more Negroes, and Negroes are bought so as to get more rice.”

Rice-PlantationBecause of the peculiar nature and demands of the rice economy, then, no population in colonial or antebellum America was nearly so black as the Lowcountry’s. Blacks comprised about 40% of the population of Jefferson’s Virginia but 85% of that of the Lowcountry (98% during the malarial season, when planters went to Charleston). With whites so greatly outnumbered and hence in constant fear of slave insurrection, the Lowcountry’s slave regime was particularly harsh and in certain features resembled a police state. But paradoxically, the very repressiveness of their society engendered among Lowcountry whites a fierce jealousy of their own freedom. As Timothy Ford, a South Carolina lawyer, explained in 1775, “[L]iberty is a principle which naturally and spontaneously contrasts with slavery. In no country on Earth can the line of distinction ever be marked so boldly. . . . Here there is a standing subject of comparison, which must be ever perfect and ever obvious. . . . The constant example of slavery stimulates a free man to avoid being confounded with the blacks. . . . [S]lavery, so far from being inconsistent, has, in fact, a tendency to stimulate the spirit of liberty.” Knowing full well what they had done to Africans by enslaving them, the Lowcountry’s slave owners would not permit the same to be done to them in any form.

Because slaves comprised the overwhelming majority of the population in the Lowcountry, slavery took a different form there than in most other areas of the South. From the early 18th century to the Civil War, American slavery was called “the domestic institution,” because although it was dependent upon unlimited violence, it nevertheless required daily and intimate contact between slaves and slaveholders. The average slaveholder in most areas of the South owned fewer than 10 slaves and, guided by a patriarchal and later a paternalistic ethos, even most larger plantation owners referred without a trace of hypocrisy (however misguidedly) to their slaves as members of “my family.” In the Lowcountry, with its absentee slaveholders, this paternalism was greatly attenuated. More important, because they had so few interactions with whites, the Lowcountry’s blacks retained African customs and linguistic traits that made them seem even less part of an American “family” than slaves in more racially mixed areas.

But although whites and blacks were more radically separated in the Lowcountry than in any other area of the American South, they profoundly influenced each others’ lives. Morgan’s appreciation of their complex relationship differentiates his nuanced portrait from Ball’s rather simplistic story. Ball, limiting his sources primarily to his family’s plantation records and other papers, essentially tells two stories–that of his family and that of their slaves. Rarely does he intersect the two except to speculate sensationally (albeit almost certainly correctly) on the topic of miscegenation.

On the other hand, Morgan’s synthesis draws upon a wealth of social, political, legal, economic, literary, religious and anthropological sources to illuminate through a variety of prisms what he calls “the core contradiction of slavery–treating persons as things,” which guaranteed that master and slave would be thrust apart, even as they were bound inextricably together. Slave society was thus defined by its inherent contradictions: “However much masters treated their slaves as chattels, the humanity of their property could not be ignored or evaded. However total the masters’ exercise of power, negotiation and compromise were necessary to make slavery function. However sincerely planter patriarchs stressed mutuality and reciprocity, their authority ultimately rested on force. . . . However deep a chasm opened between blacks and whites, channels of communication arose to bridge it.”

In such a society, in which, to quote the most brilliant historian of the subject, Eugene Genovese, “slavery bound two peoples together in bitter antagonism, while creating an organic relationship so complex and ambivalent that neither could express the simplest human feelings without reference to the other,” affection and warmth flowed naturally into hatred and violence and vice versa. Morgan’s study ultimately shows how blacks and whites penetrated and altered nearly every aspect of each others’ world yet remained distinctive, and how “their encounters could not fail to produce unlimited permutations of human emotions, infinitely subtle moral entanglements.”

Thus, while Ball understandably feels compelled throughout his book to expose and condemn his ancestors’ enormities, Morgan uses the testimony of a former Ball slave as evidence that, in the former slave’s words, “there can never be any affinity of feeling between master and slave” and cites the same slave’s recollections of “the greatest tenderness of feeling” on the part of masters toward their slaves and of one master’s wife who was “a true friend to me.”

Ball becomes particularly heavy-handed with such ambivalent issues. He has an interesting story to tell, but he is probably not the right one to tell it because his need to apologize for his family’s misdeeds keeps him from examining their history in a clear-eyed way. He can’t help but editorialize self-righteously and declares often that while he is not “responsible” for his family’s past, he is “accountable to it,” a formula which he never manages to explain. Whenever he relates an encounter with the slaves’ descendants, his otherwise facile writing turns wooden. He stops using contractions–a sure sign that a writer is treating his subject too reverently and self-consciously–and his descriptions of these people are often strained, one-dimensional, saccharine and unintentionally patronizing. One “had a fine baritone voice, and his gaze was direct.” With another, “lines were deeply etched on her cheeks, like grooves . . . her eyes were moist the way age wets the vision.” Another was “poised and tall with a lovely smile.” Clearly, what happened to the Balls’ slaves is part of one of history’s greatest crimes, but Ball too frequently strikes a sanctimonious pose that hinders his ability to explore the intricacies of black-white relations that sprang from that crime.

It is impossible not to compare “Slaves in the Family” to an illustrious group of books extraordinarily well-written by wealthy Southern whites in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s that marry family history and memoir in a tormented effort to come to terms with the complexities of Southern race relations and the crippling heritage of slavery. Some–Katharine Du Pre Lumpkin’s “The Making of a Southerner,” Lillian Smith’s “Killers of the Dream,” James McBride Dabb’s “The Southern Heritage”–courageously held to egalitarian views on race. Others–David Cohen’s “God Shakes Creation,” Ben Robertson’s “Red Hills and Cotton,” William Alexander Percy’s “Lantern on the Levee”–while moderate for their time, held to what could be called a “genteel racism” that is, thankfully, now beyond the pale.

But all are painfully penetrating and honest attempts to grapple with a shameful past and with the ambivalence at the heart of history and in the heart of man. All these authors found that in their families’ histories, the admirable and the loathsome were rooted in the same soil and that the region they loved was tragically riddled with contradictions and paradoxes. “Slaves in the Family” cannot measure up to such company.

More than 150 years ago, Alexis de Tocqueville defined what remains the fundamental and most obdurate problem in American life: “The two races are fastened to each other without intermingling; and they are alike unable to separate entirely or combine.” The contours of this contradictory relationship were formed, as Morgan’s extraordinary book demonstrates, before the founding of the nation in the colonial slave societies of the Chesapeake and the Lowcountry. Ball’s view of the past, in which slaves and slaveholders pursued largely autonomous histories, neglects the complexities and messiness that Morgan, unflinchingly, refuses to ignore and that we must face squarely if we as a nation are ever to transcend the conundrum that Tocqueville defined.

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