Book Excerpt: Behind God’s Back: Gullah Memories, Part II

Chapter 2: Africans and Europeans


The physical isolation of plantations allowed Africans to preserve many aspects of their traditional way of life. The Africans not only brought their ability to grow rice, they also continuously adapted and modified the old ways with the new. Gradually their language, religion, music, customs and culture were incorporated into everyday life. Today, the people, their culture and language are called Gullah.


middleburg plantation house

Carolina was settled in the late 1600s as a private venture. Eight Lords Proprietors received huge land grants from King Charles II for helping him regain the British throne. They encouraged colonists to come to America for profit. But the enterprise was short-lived. By 1729, less than 60 years after the founding of Charles Town, the British government took control of Carolina. The colonists rebelled against the Proprietors for proposing restrictive laws and failing to protect them from the Spaniards and their Native American allies.

In addition to the prospect of owning land and making a living, Carolina, although officially Anglican, offered white God-fearing settlers a rare guarantee in the 17th century: freedom of religion. The Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina guaranteed that, “No person whatsoever shall disturb, molest or persecute another for his speculative opinion in religion or his way of worship.” This was an open invitation to Quakers, Jews and Protestants, although Roman Catholics were not welcome initially.

The Cainhoy peninsula was located in the Parish of St. Thomas and St. Denis as defined by the Church Act in 1706, which divided the province of South Carolina into 10 parishes. St. Thomas was the English-speaking area of the parish. The French-speaking Protestants in St. Denis arrived in Carolina in 1680 on the Richmond. Some of them settled in the Orange or French Quarter on the Cainhoy peninsula. The 1699 census listed 101 French settlers in Orange Quarter or about 25 families of between four to five persons in each family. By 1725 the population had dwindled to 16 French families.

Land grants were based on the “headright” system. Land was guaranteed to each head-of-household in the colony in exchange for working his assigned acreage. Heads of household were always men. Their families included relatives, indentured servants and enslaved Africans. The development of labor-intensive rice plantations soon increased the need for enslaved Africans who quickly became the majority in Carolina. Of course, they had virtually no rights.

In 1703 the colony’s population was estimated at 9,580 people, of whom 42.6 percent were white, 42.8 percent were black and 14.6 percent were Native Americans. However, the black-white ratio in rice and indigo growing coastal areas was as high as 15 blacks to every one white. By the 1790s the population in St. Thomas and St. Denis Parish was 431 whites and 3,404 Africans.

Simon Lewis, co-director of the Carolina Lowcountry and Atlantic World Program at the College of Charleston, said as many as 200,000 enslaved men, women and children from Africa’s west coast arrived in Charleston before the United States government outlawed the importation of slaves in 1808. That number represents approximately 40 percent of all Africans who were brought to continental North America. “After that date, slave-trading was still legal within the slave-holding states and some illegal slave trading from overseas continued,” Lewis said. The slave population continued to grow because the children of slaves became slaves themselves.

The physical isolation of plantations allowed Africans to preserve many aspects of their traditional way of life. The Africans not only brought their ability to grow rice, they also continuously adapted and modified the old ways with the new. Gradually their language, religion, music, customs and culture were incorporated into everyday life. Today, the people, their culture and language are called Gullah.

The origin of the word Gullah is unclear. It might be a shortened form of the African nation of “Angola” or a variation of “Gola,” an ethnic group in Sierra Leone. People of African descent in Georgia prefer to be called “Geechee,” which may also have roots in Sierra Leone from a tribe there known as the Kissi (pronounced Gee-zee). However, a river south of Savannah, Georgia, called the Ogeechee, appears to be a Native American name.

Gullah is a beautiful language that is more easily understood by listening to it than trying to read its words, which have various spellings. For instance, some Gullah people pronounce “Cainhoy” as “Cain Hi,” which evokes an eloquent description by the late Virginia Geraty, a Gullah scholar who wrote that Gullah is spoken softly, with a rolling rhythm. “As the Gullah speaks, you can almost hear the wind ruffling the marsh grasses. Their words sway like the long banners of moss that hang from oak trees that grace their homeland.”

Remote and almost entirely self-sufficient, Lowcountry plantations were like small towns inhabited by people who seldom left the place. The planter’s “big house” typically stood at the highest point on the overwhelmingly flat and low property. The main house was usually surrounded by gardens — formal as well as vegetable — along with barns and other buildings, all of which overlooked well-kept rice fields, hand-dug trunk lines and gates that were used to control the water levels during the planting season. Most of the fields were fed by brackish water from adjacent rivers and creeks.

Others used water from inland swamp reservoirs. Not far from the master’s main house was the slave community. Their small cabins, typically lining a dirt “street,” were primitive in comparison. They were usually one room and used primarily for sleeping. Some may have had a fireplace and chimney to provide warmth at night. Cooking was done outside in the yard or in the “kitchen house,” which was adjacent to the master’s living quarters. Fresh water was extracted from primitive wells and springs. African workers typically tended their own vegetable gardens near their cabins and some raised a few chickens and some livestock for food. Most of their bare necessities were provided by their owners.

Plantation boundaries changed as owners bought and sold the land, but many of the original names of the places live on. Middleburg Plantation is one example and nearby Limerick Plantation is another. Twenty miles from Charleston, the Cooper River divides sharply at a place known as the “T.” Middleburg is on the East Branch of the Cooper River in an area Native Americans called “Pimlica Maptica.” In 1693 French-born Benjamin Simons received a Proprietor’s warrant to farm a 100-acre tract of high land and swamp there. At age 15 Simons, a Huguenot, escaped from France following the execution of his parents. He got to the Dutch town of Middelburg. From there he traveled to London where he joined his aunt and uncle. They immigrated to Carolina. Simons eventually married his first cousin Mary Esther DuPre. They named their two-story, clapboard plantation house Middleburg.

The house, constructed between 1697 and 1699, is believed to be the oldest wooden building in South Carolina. No doubt, black hands erected the beams and nailed the siding onto the dwelling. Simons later acquired more land from another grant in 1704, seven years after his original warrant, increasing Middleburg Plantation to 350 acres. In 1772 Middleburg had 59 enslaved workers living on the place. By 1790, nine years before Jonathan Lucas II married Simons’ great-granddaughter, Sarah Lydia Simons, the African population at Middleburg was 90. Middleburg’s main house was near a cluster of houses built for African workers. A 1786 map of Middleburg shows tiny squares identified as “12 cabins for the Negroes.”

On this site, archaeologists found pottery made by enslaved workers, imported English ceramics from the 18th century, a slew of nails, glass shards, buttons and broken clay tobacco pipes and pipe stems. Lucas became concerned about his family’s safety in 1822 following a failed slave revolt in Charleston organized by freedman Denmark Vesey. After one of Lucas’ slaves was charged and hanged as one of the “primary leaders” in the revolt, Lucas moved his wife and 10 youngest children to his London estate, according to Max “Macky” Hill III, whose parents Jane and Max Hill own Middleburg. If the revolt had succeeded, or so the story goes, a conspirator would have received one of Lucas’ daughters as a prize.

The story, however, isn’t consistent with an account published after Vesey and 34 of his alleged co-conspirators were tried, convicted and hanged. Three prisoners – Brand, Richard and John – the property of a certain “Jon. Lucas,” presumably Jonathan Lucas, were acquitted by a court of two magistrates and five freeholders (landowners) and released. According to the Lucas family history, “A Lucas Memorandum,” written by William Dollard Lucas, Jonathan Lucas II moved to London after the English government invited him to build rice mills in England. Lucas erected large rice-cleaning plants in London and Liverpool, other European cities and in Egypt. “A Lucas Memorandum” does not indicate that Jonathan Lucas II was a full-time resident at Middleburg. The account says he lived in Charleston and all but one of his children was born on the Charleston peninsula. His third child, Benjamin Simons Lucas, was baptized in May 1806 at Middleburg.

Instead of attempting a Vesey-inspired insurrection, many enslaved people on the Cainhoy peninsula took steps to emancipate themselves. They simply ran away. Newspaper advertisements for runaways provide valuable details about their personalities and styles of dress. Because teaching enslaved people to read and write was illegal, few of them left written accounts of their lives. They are not generally documented as individuals in legal records either. Therefore, advertisements for runaways are among the few descriptions available.

In March 1786 a three-guinea reward was offered for the return of Molly Dean, a “very smart, good looking woman” who spoke English well. She was formerly owned by a butcher named Bealer and well known about Cainhoy. Her husband lived on “Mr. Daniels’” plantation and there was reason to believe she was “harboured thereabouts.” Unlike most enslaved people, Molly Dean had a first and last name.

runaway slave ad manemia

Another was a woman whose name was Manemia. Before she ran away in January 1809, she had been known by two other names, Amelia and Peggy. Manemia spoke in a soft, low voice. One of her ears had been cut from the “boring” for her earrings. The cut portion of her ear “resembles an old-fashioned ear drop of the largest kind.” She used a kerchief to cover the ear. Manemia was raised on Andrew Deveaux’s plantation on the Cooper River in the St. Thomas area of the parish. She had been sold to Necca DeCoster in Charleston before she disappeared. “She has numerous acquaintances in Cainhoy and to the southward as well as in this city (Charleston). She was seen about two weeks since in King near Queen streets, and last week at the upper end of King Street, but from the many friends she has in various parts of the city it is impossible to point out the most likely place to find her.”

A missing slave named Sam was advertised as having pit marks on his skin from smallpox. Sam, a house carpenter, left his owner, John Fogartie of Cainhoy, in the fall of 1787. Sam was wearing a shirt and trousers made from a coarse cotton cloth called osnaburg. The heavy cloth was used primarily to make sacks for grain, upholstery and draperies.

When Sarah, a woman from Angola on the southern end of Africa’s west coast, ran away from her owner in Cainhoy, she was not alone. In April 1787 she was captured and taken to the Work House in Charleston for punishment. Sarah belonged to Mrs. Bushett of Cainhoy. She fled with two of her children, one three years old and the other 18 months. Sarah knew what it was like to be free because she had been captured in Angola and survived the Middle Passage to bear children in America.

A “mustee lad” named Primus, who was 17 or 18 years old in December 1786, ran away on Christmas Day without waiting to see if his owner would follow the tradition of giving him a present. “Mustee” was a term used to describe a person who is descendant from a white person and a person with one-fourth black ancestry. At least six weeks later, Primus still hadn’t been found. He was well known in Charleston and St. Thomas “where it is supposed he is harbored at a plantation called Free David’s on Cainhoy.”

Sometimes slave owners described a runaway’s style of dress. In May 1798 after Moses fled, he was said to have been wearing a “blue Negro coat” made with coarse cloth that had a red cape and cuffs. He also wore overalls. In addition to his dark complexion, Moses had other distinguishing features. “He has some marks of a whip about him,” the advertisement said. Ads announcing runaways usually listed the person’s height. At six feet, Moses, a 19-year-old mulatto was exceptionally tall for the times. He was a house painter who ran away in October 1795. His skin was pocked by smallpox scars. He had long, bushy hair and wore an osnaburg jacket and overalls.

According to the ad seeking his return, Moses didn’t spend much time in the streets during the day. On Sundays, he went fishing or headed to Sullivan’s Island. His owner said if he wasn’t hiding out on Sullivan’s Island he most likely “will conceal himself amongst Negroes, and go fishing for some time, until he gets employment on board some coasting vessel, or those which bring wood to town, as he formerly went in such vessels.” Moses’ mother was a free mulatto woman who had lived at Cainhoy but moved to Johns Island, south of Charleston, where her son rambled often.

A case of homesickness in early 1821 caused 30-year-old Massa to run away from her owner near Columbia. Massa was born on Daniel Island and enslaved in Charleston before she was bought and moved to Columbia. Her new owner placed an ad in the City Gazette and Daily Advertiser in Charleston offering a reward for her return.

This is Part 2 of a 3-Part Excerpt Series. You can read Part 1 here, and Part 3 here.

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