- The World of Thomas Jeremiah: Charles Town on the Eve of the American Revolution
Lord Dunmore's Proclamation, first announced by John Murray (Lord Dunmore), Virginia's royal governor in 1775, and eventually adopted by other British military leaders in the conflict in North America, offered freedom to slaves who fled to him from masters who were sympathetic to the independence movement. The proclamation offered these "Loyalist" runaways the opportunity to take up arms against their former oppressors, thereby threatening the security of slaveholders' property rights and their ability to sustain profitable production. Dunmore hoped to frighten Virginia slaveholders into renouncing the independence movement, but his strike at the raw nerve of the plantation colonies backfired, provoking anger and resentment against the British and propelling many reluctant revolutionaries in the southern colonies into strong support for independence. In The World of Thomas Jeremiah, Ryan persuasively argues that, in South Carolina, fears of British-inspired slave insurrection preceded Dunmore's proclamation, and that the actions of enslaved and free black men in and around Charleston—more than the British policies—created the fear and determination that moved the revolutionary movement forward there. [End Page 307]
To further his argument, Ryan re-examines the execution of Jeremiah, a former slave, fire fighter, harbor pilot, fisherman, and business entrepreneur. Working to counter previous histories of Revolutionary Charleston that dismissed Jeremiah's importance, Ryan carefully combines a narrative about this free black man, who was hanged and burned for planning a major slave rebellion in 1775, with a description of the waterfront of Charleston. Jeremiah and other free black or enslaved maritime workers were recognized at the time as extremely important but potentially rebellious contributors to the successful South Carolinian export economy. Ryan reveals how Charleston, with its waterside markets and streets extending inward from the extensive wharves along the Cooper River, was clearly designed with ease of access to the waterfront in mind, allowing slave pilots, fishermen, boatmen, and innumerable other members of the Low Country's black majority to permeate the city's physical and social spaces.
In determining the motives for, and implications of, the actions of those responsible for Jeremiah's execution, Ryan uncovers a degree of anxiety among the owners and employers of black maritime laborers previously unrecognized by historians. Looking toward the menacing presence of several British naval vessels just outside Charleston's inner harbor in 1775, South Carolina's local leaders felt that any evidence of insurrectionist activities among maritime workers, slave or free, needed a swift and brutal response. Thus, they quickly determined Jeremiah's guilt and publicly executed him in gruesome fashion. Realizing that violent intimidation of the slave and free black population was only part of the solution to their problem, they then committed to open hostilities with Great Britain in hopes of removing a potential ally for rebellious slaves.
Ryan draws much of his evidence from a pool of extant correspondence and official records of South Carolina's local white elite and the royal officials and British military officers on the scene in Revolutionary Charleston. Although the thoroughness of the author's research is commendable, the actions and thoughts of Jeremiah and other free and enslaved men of African descent become lost in the bulk of the author's analysis after the opening chapter, despite their centrality to his argument. Notwithstanding this flaw, which may have been unavoidable given the nature of the sources, Ryan's contributions to our understanding of Revolutionary Charleston, bolstered by two appendixes that provide extensive primary documentation of Jeremiah's trial and the actions of two other maritime slaves, are unimpeachable.
Ryan has created a work that gets to the heart of revolutionary movements. His study reveals the divisions and social stresses in the southern colonies, delves into the psychology of slaveholders in pre-revolutionary Charleston, highlights the dilemmas of the free and enslaved laborers in the Low Country of South Carolina, and determines the motivations of those who participated in the Revolution. As such, it...