- The American South: The View from the Atlantic World
For some years now, American historians have set about dissecting the “American South” so that they may view the specimen from new angles and within broader frameworks. These efforts have rapidly diversified in both method and goal. The volumes under review here are firmly situated within this endeavor of interrogating the “American South”; in different ways, they both support the notion that it is a place as much deconstructed by its strong ties to the wider world as it is a region constructed by the shared experiences of its inhabitants. In general terms, the manner in which historians have contextualized the South has depended on two factors: which part of “the South” they are talking about, and with which era of Southern history they are concerned. Those historians who have looked at the pre-Revolutionary “old” South most readily turn to the Atlantic-world framework for comparison, a habit that has revealed how firmly the early South was embedded within larger British and Caribbean worlds. Following earlier efforts of Jack Greene and the Chesapeake school of historians to relocate the center of gravity in early American history further south, current studies fully integrate the region’s planters into the Atlantic world. Indeed, the early South embodies many of the connections that make the British Atlantic into a coherent entity—it received the greatest number of enslaved people from Africa, and it exported the largest amount of staple commodities to Europe. Engaging in these activities brought planters and enslaved workers into larger economic and cultural trends. Planters created their staple economies using ideologies of improvement and new scientific understandings of climate and agriculture that were being deployed elsewhere by participants in the Enlightenment. Enslaved people, as they moved from [End Page 26] Africa to the Caribbean and on to the mainland South, created new diasporic cultures. Work on other parts of British North America highlighting the importance of African immigrants and emphasizing the universality of elite genteel culture only adds to the impression that, while distinctive in many ways, the South was hardly unique. Thus has the early American South been incorporated into larger geographical entities to the degree that it is hard to imagine it as a wholly distinct and united entity in the colonial era.
Particularly fundamental in deconstructing the universality of Southern slave culture was Philip Morgan’s close comparison of plantation society in the early Chesapeake and South Carolina low country. Turning Southern slavery into Southern slaveries, Morgan revealed the differences between the Upper and Lower South before 1783. Building on the inherent contrasts that Morgan identified in the early South, scholars have subsequently deconstructed its Upper and Lower portions to an even greater degree. Historians of the Lower South now often describe a “Greater Caribbean,” extending all the way from Barbados to North Carolina. Within this entity, there were still plenty of connections to a larger British Atlantic world, not least in Charleston where urban society replicated many of the characteristics of English-speaking provincial towns elsewhere. Yet the warm but volatile climate characterized by destructive hurricanes united the Lower South’s environment with its Caribbean counterparts. These commonalities shaped the architecture of the region, making it look most like its southerly neighbors. As cities, Charleston and Kingston, Jamaica, appear to have been very similar in social structure: the “slave city” emerging as an early urban type that united Barbados, South Carolina, and Jamaica during the eighteenth century.
Focusing on colonial Georgia and the British Atlantic world, Pressly’s book, aptly entitled On the Rim of the Caribbean, seeks to bring the colony and its chief town of Savannah into the embrace of this circum-Caribbean world and the larger British Atlantic. Georgia is a prime candidate for this treatment, and it is surprising that there...