- Money, Trade, and Power: The Evolution of Colonial South Carolina1s Plantation Society
Since its founding in 1994, the College of Charleston’s Program in the Carolina Lowcountry and the Atlantic World has furthered the study of early South Carolina. Money, Trade, and Power, based on the Program’s 1995 conference, “New Directions in Colonial South Carolina Lowcountry Studies,” is the first book from their new publishing arm.1 The results will be particularly interesting for historians of colonial economic development, or of social interactions in a nascent plantation complex.
Many of the essays cluster around two crisis points in South Carolina’s development. The first transition, from a “frontier” to a “plantation” economy, occurred in the years after the Yamassee War of 1715. (219) In this war, a group of several Native American tribes, led by the Yamassees, attacked the white settlers, but were defeated. After the war, trading relationships between the whites and the Native Americans were permanently poisoned. The supply of slaves from the Indians was shut off. (173) Meanwhile, the plantation system changed, as rice became the colony’s staple crop. Slaves no longer worked in “small, familial groups” alongside their masters, but in much larger “disciplined and rigorous” “labor camps,” where each slave was assigned a standardized task to complete. (219–220) Gary L. Hewitt shows that the colonial assembly worked to benefit the increasingly powerful planter class, rather than the colony’s merchants.
A second transition occurred in the years after the slave rebellion at Stono in 1739. In combination with King George’s War of 1739–1748, Stono caused white South Carolinians to refine the plantation complex and try to strengthen their control over their slaves. The importation of African slaves was sharply reduced. As Matthew Mulcahy points out, many whites believed that slaves born in the colony were less prone to revolt. (289) Reacting to the high cost of wartime shipping, planters learned to value “self-sufficiency and diversification.” (226) They began to train more skilled slaves who could work on their plantations or return a steady income to their masters. Max Edelson adeptly analyzes how Henry Laurens’ skilled slaves accepted their isolation from other slaves in exchange for the rewards of “affiliating” with the master. (236–9)
The essayists also demonstrate an interest in transatlantic connections. How did ideas travel through the Atlantic World? Jennifer Lyle Morgan shows that the concept that female slaves were valuable not only as laborers, but also because they could bear children, was transmitted from Barbados to South Carolina when slaveholders moved from the island to the mainland. Several essays reveal the Anglicization of South Carolina. Robert Olwell and Edward Pearson argue that eighteenth-century British concepts of power influenced the adaptation of law and gentility in a colonial context.
Rather than analyzing all of the essays in this volume in detail, I’d like to mention two that I found particularly notable. Elizabeth Pruden’s “Investing Widows: Autonomy in a Nascent Capitalist Society” finds that South Carolinian widows were able to use the bond and mortgage markets to direct their financial futures. They were able to “sell plantations, move into Charleston, and lend capital at 8 to 10 percent.” (357) Hence, widows in South Carolina were more independent of their sons’ control than widows in other colonies. (346) Pruden’s essay continues a laudable new emphasis on credit and finance in early America. I would like to know whether South Carolina’s widows were able to retain their unusual independence in the face of the financial development of post-Revolutionary America.
R.C. Nash’s “The Organization of Trade and Finance in the Atlantic Economy: Britain and South Carolina, 1670–1775,” another entry in his fine series of essays on colonial South Carolina’s overseas trade, is essential reading for anyone interested in colonial American commerce. Nash argues that in most British plantation colonies, major planters built unmediated relationships with British merchants. South Carolina, on the other hand, developed “a large...