Bank Teller's Counter, c. 1895
George Washington's Christening Cup
Masters often hired out their urban slaves to others, and some slaves were allowed to hire themselves out as well. For a master to rent his slave, he or she had to purchase a slave badge (Exhibit L) from the city treasurer that included a registration number, the year of its issue, and the slave’s skills, such as carpenter or porter. No other place in the English colonies had these badges. Free Blacks were required to wear their own badges from 1783 to 1789 (Exhibit M).
This type of control was done mainly out of fear. Whites were well aware that not only did the colony’s enslaved population outnumber them, slaves didn’t especially like their condition of servitude and were prone to run away or, worse, rebel. Once such rebellion occurred along the Stono River south of Charleston. On the morning of September 9, 1739, twenty slaves originally from Angola were left unsupervised while digging a ditch. They surprised and killed a commissioner of highways, John Gibbs, then killed Robert Bathurst, owner of Hutchenson’s Store, and his employee. From the store they procured arms and marched south, killing more whites.
The escapees marched with banners that said, “Liberty!” They most likely desired to reach St. Augustine, Florida, then a Spanish colony where runaway slaves could gain their freedom. Along the way they gathered more followers, some not necessarily being willing participants. The insurrection grew to about 100 souls. Whites quickly organized a militia that easily defeated the rebels, killing or capturing many. Others who escaped were tracked down in the next few months. One managed to evade capture for three years. After this incident, the Negro Act of 1740 was passed to further restrict the movement of slaves. For over a century hereafter fear of slave uprisings only increased.
South Carolina’s Lowcountry depended heavily on slave labor for its many plantations. The Southern slave economy is usually associated with cotton, but the cash crop that made many Carolinian colonials rich was rice. Plantation owners who grew this food preferred to import slaves from specific regions of Africa: its Gold Coast, Congo-Angola region (where the Stono rebels were from), the Windward Coast, and Senegambia. This was because natives of these regions knew how to cultivate rice and were excellent boat and fishermen.
Rice plantations usually had an overseer under whom were trusted slaves known as drivers. It was they who were responsible for overseeing all aspects of the growing and harvesting of rice. Because rice plantations were far more labor intensive than, say, a cotton plantation, slaves were assigned tasks based on their skill set. To grow rice, it needs to be planted in dry land and be inundated in water as it grows. The seasonal rains were backwards to this need, so many ditches to move water were dug by groups with this specific task, usually strong men. Others did the sowing of the rice and were expected to cover half a acre a day. The flooding and draining of fields was controlled by a rice trunk gate (Exhibit N). Weeding was ever a challenge and a hard job. Once the rice was harvested, it was milled by hand using a mortar and pestle.
Rice made Carolina Colony’s Lowcountry wealthier than anywhere else in the North America, with Carolinian planters being four to ten times richer other colonists. In the early days of colonial South Carolina, plantations grew red rice from the East Indies and Madagascar. Soon enough someone realized Asian white rice grew better, so that became the dominate type. In the 1770s a short grain variety of rice known as Carolina Gold was developed. Rice cultivation could only be done along South Carolina’s and Georgia’s tidal rivers, and only 550 planters grew this crop. By the nineteenth century funding the creation of a rice plantation was out of the reach of most. Rice planters had “old money.” They also owned the most slaves, without whom they would have had nothing.
During the Antebellum era, Georgia and South Carolina continued to grow ninety percent of the nation’s rice. At the dawn of the Civil War, there were 227 rice plantations covering 70,000 acres and producing almost 100 million pounds a year. The Civil War caused the decline of rice production in the region. Those plantations not outright destroyed or devastated during the war struggled to pay even low wages to its African American work force to grow this crop, especially during Reconstruction when former slaves had the power to demand higher pay. Rice production continued but a series extreme storms and hurricanes between 1893 and 1911 destroyed much of the necessary dike system, making further growing of this crop impossible without a massive investment in infrastructure. A museum information reported that “the last commercial rice crop in the state [was] grown in 1927.”
The wealthiest of planters became the equivalent of top tier South Carolinian aristocracy. To emulate their English brethren, they spent lavishly on imported luxury goods from Britain and Asia. Locally they bought from the best furniture makers, silversmiths, and so forth. Having one’s portrait painted was also a status symbol. They also liked to plant formal gardens because that’s what large English estates had.
Another affect the elite of South Carolina and Georgia adopted from the English aristocratic was a love of dueling. A perceived slight or outright insult could result in two men facing one another in a field, usually armed with dueling pistols such as you see here (Exhibit O). These were made in England by gunsmith William Jacot. Although dueling was officially outlawed in 1812, that didn’t stop Charleston residents Ludlow Cohen and Rich Aiken from fighting it out at Brampton Planation in Georgia on August 18, 1870. They had quarreled over a sailboat race and decided only a duel to the death would settle the matter. Borrowing pistols from A.G. Guerard, they fired and missed one another four times until Cohen killed Aiken with his fifth shot. No deaths by duel have since been reported in Georgia.
Editor’s Note: The author of this work is not really a Charlestonian and decided to write this travel log from the perspective of a homegrown tour guide in the museum because he felt this format would allow him to best highlight some of its exhibits and artifacts in a coherent way. Most visitors to this museum take a self-guided tour. Despite the fiction that this log was written by a resident of Charleston, everything in it is factual and based on the information provided by the museum’s information signs and artifacts.