Excerpt: The African American Odyssey of John Kizell, by Kevin G. Lowther

In The African American Odyssey of John Kizell, historian Kevin Lowther tells the true story of a resilient Sierra Leonean who survived slavery in 1770s Charleston and later returned to his homeland to fight the slave trade at its source. John Kizell — his owner in Charleston was Esther Kysell, a Swiss-German widow and tavern keeper — became literate and left behind vivid observations on the impact of the slave trade on his people’s society and culture. Lowther, who formerly taught in Sierra Leone, sheds fresh perspective on the strong links between South Carolina and Sierra Leone forged through the “African trade.”

The following abridged excerpt, which describes a coherent black community in Charleston on the eve of the Revolution, is published with permission from the University of South Carolina Press.

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The boy who would become John Kizell arrived in Charleston [in 1773] with his birth name. Had he been his mother’s first son, born among the Sherbro-speaking people, he would have been called Cho; if the second son, T’ong. Or he might have been San or Barky. Whatever name he carried, it was his umbilical link to the motherland. It is how he might have been known initially among his peers in the city’s African community. But it would fall away, like the skin of a molting snake, when he took the name John in his owner’s household.

A young African, newly come to this alien place, confronted a complicated acculturation. He first had to assimilate a new identity. In Africa, he had been part of a well-defined extended family; in Charleston, he was an “African.” As two British scholars have suggested, however, the idea of being African “did not become commonplace among slaves and ex-slaves in the Americas until the late eighteenth century. Even then it was clearly adopted from the European habit of using that generic term.”

Learning the strange ways and languages of white people—of their master’s, in particular—was the most immediate challenge. In terms of survival, it was essential. But slaves’ broader socialization occurred within the black community, composed of African- and country-born people, including the Gullah, as well as many from the Caribbean. In the early 1770s, Africans still accounted for about half of all slaves in South Carolina. Many country-born blacks were only a generation removed from the Africa their parents had known. “Coming from highly diverse societies,” Philip D. Morgan writes, “African newcomers shared some cultural principles and assumptions—about how the world worked, how people interacted, and how to express themselves aesthetically. This normative bedrock . . . provided . . . a scaffolding on which a whole new culture could arise.”

It helped that Charleston was predominantly black. The 5,833 slaves and twenty-four free blacks in 1770 outnumbered the 5,030 resident whites. But at any given moment, Morgan estimates, there would have been as many as 1,500 transient slaves and perhaps 200 runaways. Because many whites retreated to healthier, cooler climes during the summer, blacks at times could have enjoyed a three-to-one majority. This provided them with an enormous opportunity.

“The invisibility accorded slaves,” Morgan explains, “was one of the few advantages they possessed as they attempted to order their lives. They could develop social ties to some extent apart from, and largely unknown to, their owners. . . . Slaves did not arrive in the New World as communities of people; they had to create communities.”

Charleston, in a real sense, was more African than it was English. . . . Morgan’s “invisibility,” however, applies aptly to published histories of the city’s colonial era. Blacks—their society and hybrid African culture, infused by developing lowcountry Gullah traditions—generally are treated as a shadow of the dominant European minority. This is only partly due to white ethnocentricity; it is the direct consequence of blacks’ success in concealing—in ways only Africans could appreciate—the communal life they had constructed.

Whites flattered themselves that they understood blacks. In fact it was the latter who, if only as a survival tactic, closely studied the master class. They perhaps knew whites better than whites knew themselves. Fear and ignorance governed white attitudes toward blacks and contributed unwittingly to the latter’s invisibility. . . .

Lowcountry planters and their backcountry brethren would have seen little immediate value in the runty African boy presented for inspection and sale on a Cooper River wharf. Where and when Esther Kysell first saw him is conjectural. He could have come to her second-hand—rejected by the planters, and thus purchased cheaply by a merchant who needed an extra pair of hands in his storeroom or to deliver parcels and messages. If he lived and filled out his slight frame, he would be a profitable investment.

Perhaps he had been bought initially by a German tradesman. Perhaps Frau Kysell had prevailed upon him to part with the boy. . . . [M]anaging the tavern was challenging without someone who could do general chores and safely run errands about streets filled with danger and distractions.

Regardless of how the boy’s relationship to Esther Kysell transpired, there can be little doubt that within months of his enslavement in Africa, he had been reborn into the milieu of Charleston’s street-savvy young blacks. They were the property of others, as many of them had been in Africa, but in the urban terrain of crowded streets and secluded alleys they were largely in control of their lives.

The young Cho (or T’ong) quite possibly was enjoying greater freedom than he could have imagined in Africa. He found himself, indeed, in a wonderland of opulence, materialism, excess, choice and opportunity. He would soon become aware, if only subliminally, that Charleston’s slaves were masters of much of the city’s life. They dominated the marketing of produce and fish. They operated the small schooners and other craft which connected Charleston to inland and coastal areas. They sustained a vibrant cultural life which remained largely ignored or denigrated by whites. They maintained a communications network which kept them well-informed regarding affairs in the city as well as the lowcountry. And increasingly, as they observed colonials’ disenchantment with British policies, blacks began developing a political consciousness. . . .

One of the first things a newly-arrived African would have noticed in Charleston was blacks’ self-respect. A visiting Frenchman in 1777, walking the same streets as young John Kizell, was struck by “a peculiar kind of pride and bearing” among blacks, which he contrasted with the subservience he found in French West Indian slaves. “Without degenerating into insolence, it at least gives the impression that they regard a man who is not their master simply as a man, not a tyrant.”

Slaves’ sense of independence was apparent in their freedom of movement, their ability to fashion lives at least partially separate from their owners, and their assumption of unslavish prerogatives. Some “lived apart from their masters and rented houses on their own,” Ira Berlin writes of the evolution of African-American societies in the colonial era. They would share their earnings with their owners “in return for de facto freedom. . . . The small black communities that developed . . . in Charles Town’s Neck confirm the growing independence of urban creoles.”

Whites acknowledged the reality of slaves’ independence in various and subtle ways. The city’s grand jury expressed white frustration in early 1772 when it conceded that blacks had a “general disregard” for the law requiring that they have a “ticket” from their master to be abroad at night. Two years later the grand jury continued to be agitated by “Negroes in Charles-town [who] are become so obscene in their language, so irregular and disorderly in their conduct and so superfluous in their Numbers,” that yet another law was urgently needed to regulate their behavior.

Masters could also publicly betray the limits of their power in humbling terms. In the spring of 1773, one owner advertised for two runaway men, adding, “If the said Negroes will return of their own Accord, they shall be forgiven.” Another wished to sell his “excellent cook” and her three children. “The mother,” he stated, was not “contented with her present situation [and] obliges the owner to part with her.”

Whites’ grudging accommodation of blacks’ initiative was most evident in the economy. Whites had been complaining for decades that blacks exploited their control of several economic levers in Charleston. Although the law enjoined slaves from trading, however, it was seldom enforced.

In his analysis of eighteenth-century slave society in South Carolina, Robert Olwell describes the city’s lower market as “the only official institution in the colony where slaves predominated not only in numbers but in power.” Slaves “daily acted in ways that defied their proscribed subordination, encapsulated the dynamic that existed between the market as a place and the market as a process. The activities and relations that ‘governed’ the marketplace stood in stark contrast to the social order that prevailed in the remainder of the colonial slave society. . . . It was the place where the town met the country and where news and gossip were exchanged. . . . In trade, town and country slaves could cooperate to their mutual advantage.”

Black women dominated the market, often with the collusion of their masters. The latter were content to allow their slaves to sell their own produce as long as they profitably sold the owner’s. This in turn empowered the market women to acquire capital with which to buy and sell other goods. An anonymous individual expressed whites’ alarm in September 1772, writing to the Gazette about the “great numbers of loose, idle and disorderly negro women, who are seated [at the market] . . . from morn till night, and buy and sell on their own account, what they please.”

The implied freedom of these “huckster wenches,” as whites called them, defied white authority and created space, at the very heart of slave owners’ power, where blacks openly controlled events. It would have been one of the earliest lessons learned by an impressionable African youth, sent by his mistress to purchase food for that evening’s table at her King Street inn.

Fishmongering and butchering also rested largely in black hands. Black peddlers could be found throughout the city, selling virtually anything edible, from oysters and tarts to milk, fruit and cooked rice. In late 1770, the city commissioners expressed concern over the “riotous and disorderly” behavior at the new fish market near Queen Street—code words, among whites, for any black congregation. The marketplace was inherently “boisterous.” Blacks were free to socialize, joke, bargain and “palaver”—a West African “pidgin” term Kizell would have known, derived from the Portuguese palavra (or “word”), for animated discussion and argument.

In addition to misapprehending the hullabaloo of a typically African marketplace, whites were bedeviled by many other real and imagined fears of the overwhelming black presence. They complained that blacks were keeping horses—a valuable commodity—and dressing in “excessive and costly apparel.” Both were violations of laws collectively known as the Negro Acts. They were especially concerned with the authorities’ laissez-faire tolerance of blacks’ moving about at all hours without tickets and their consumption of liquor. . . .

Although the law prohibited tavernkeepers and retailers from selling liquor to a slave without permission of his owner, “Stranger” wrote in the South Carolina Gazette in September 1772 that by noon “the dram shops are crowded with negroes.” Three years later, as fear of black insurrection flared, the grand jury recommended that liquor be sold to blacks during daylight only. Because they could buy liquor at almost any hour, “Negroes have their opportunity of getting intoxicated before their owners can employ them or of their being hired as Porters. . . .” It also resulted in “their rioting through the streets in Evenings.”

Some white citizens suggested taking matters into their own hands. Melchior Werly, a butcher and prominent member of the German Friendly Society, was one of five men who published a warning in October 1772: “We the Subscribers, living on Charles Town Neck, having been much injured by the great Number of NEGROES who are continually passing and repassing, selling Vegetables, &c without Tickets, so that we cannot distinguish Run-Aways or others that rob us, Do give this public Notice, That we have determined forthwith to put a stop to this pilfering Trade by Seizing whatever we shall find in the Possession of any Slaves, not having Tickets . . . and by executing the other Powers wherewith we are invested by the Negro Act.”

Perhaps goaded by the prospect of vigilante justice, the grand jury proposed several months later “the erecting of Public Stocks in every cross street . . . with power to be lodged in every white person to put offenders there as the only means to . . . check the intolerable insolence of Negroes and other Slaves in Blaspheming, talking obscenely and gaming in the public streets as they daily do, but particularly on Sunday” when the town watchhouse was shut.

There is no evidence that either of these expressions of white angst and frustration was acted upon. Young Africans soon learned yet another lesson: white people liked making laws better than they did enforcing them. Charleston abounded with streetwise boys and adolescents who understood white ways and how to turn them to their advantage. John Kizell was now one of them.

Blacks were alert to any opportunity to assert a degree of independence from white surveillance and control. What whites regarded as insolence often was nothing more than blacks’ mimicking their masters’ mores and life style. That could embrace wearing stylish clothes in defiance of the coarse garb prescribed by law; speaking good English and displaying “white” manners; or owning property, even slaves.

Time and circumstance provided urban blacks with frequent cover to engage in “communal” activities beyond the pale of white oversight. Sundays afforded the chance to gather outside town with plantation friends and runaways while their masters spent long hours at church. At night, meanwhile, the black community pulsated.

It was in the workplace where blacks truly challenged whites on their own ground. Skilled slaves undercut the economic power of white mechanics and displaced many; the unskilled monopolized the market for casual labor. The grand jury conceded the point in 1771 when it proposed “to empower the Commissioners of the Streets to punish such Negroes as refuse to work unless it be agreeable to themselves and such pay as they may require.”

Slave owners profited by hiring out their slaves, skilled and otherwise, or by allowing them to sell their own services. . . . Skilled slaves were in great demand and could earn their owner fifteen to twenty percent of their value annually. This was further incentive to the slave to free-lance his talents and pocket the full proceeds. Masters and employers could be fined if a hired-out slave had no badge, but like many laws in Charleston, this one may have been observed more in the breach. . . .

Charleston whites regarded slave society as largely monolithic. . . . Inevitably, there were cultural divisions, especially among the recently-arrived African-born and between them and their country-born cousins. There was still a tendency to identify with one’s ethnic group, but not necessarily as “African” or even as “black.”

By the time John Kizell was becoming acculturated to life in Charleston, the social and economic hierarchy among blacks was well-defined. There were the house servants and liverymen; the carpenters, masons and other skilled workers; the market women; and the legion of porters, wharf men and menial workers. There were at least three additional classes of blacks, occupying relatively privileged positions, that whites regarded warily.

The most important men were connected to the water: pilots, fishermen, boatmen and seagoing mariners. The latter were already “creating a black Atlantic maritime tradition,” according to W. Jeffrey Bolster in Black Jacks, African American Seamen in the Age of Sail. They were fashioning “a new cultural self-consciousness that linked meaning and experience in ways foreign to whites, and that reflected Africans’ fusion of the sacred and the secular. . . . Across West Africa, the surface of the water served variously in myth and ritual as the boundary through which spiritual communications occurred.”

Water was a medium that allowed slaves to escape white vigilance, to control a significant part of their lives and to link urban, coastal and plantation blacks. They were the pilots who intimately knew Charleston’s treacherous bars and currents; they were the fishermen who supplied the city’s seafood and enjoyed the collateral right to own their vessels; and they navigated the harbor boats and the schooners that conveyed produce, supplies, mail, newspapers and gossip up and down the coast and to the waterside plantations. They were an important conduit for communication and intelligence among slave communities throughout the lowcountry and the coast.

Another identifiable class of blacks was the women with whom “respectable” white men openly consorted. South Carolina seems to have been unique in this respect among the southern colonies. Given that black and mixed-race women vastly outnumbered black men in Charleston, it is not surprising that white men exploited their availability. What is notable is that interracial liaisons were conducted in plain view and generally accepted within white society. . . .

Whites do not appear to have bothered themselves with how blacks perceived the sexual license on display or the implicit exploitation. However, at least one young African—whose puberty coincided with his early days in Charleston—was shaping his opinion. As an adult, Kizell would exhibit a strong animus toward an anomalous class who represented, to him, the worst in each race. He probably had already inherited in Africa his people’s antipathy toward those of mixed race. They were, after all, the principal slave traders. . . . His distrust of mulattoes would only have deepened during his formative years in Charleston.

Finally, there was the tiny population of free blacks—another anomalous presence—who numbered just two dozen in 1770 in a city of nearly eleven thousand souls. Several were women and mixed-race individuals who had purchased their freedom. A few had been manumitted by their owners. Some were free-born. . . .

Such then was the diversity of Charleston’s African-American community on the threshold of the Revolution. The operative word is community. If black society appeared opaque, cacophonous, and threatening to most whites, to blacks it provided a means to assimilate newcomers, to exercise remarkable control over their lives, to assert identities that contradicted their enslavement, and to sustain the essentially spiritual-magical coherence of their African cultures. Kizell’s transformation into an African American had begun.

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