Sunlit Water

January 27, 2008

Actually, Many Things Could Be Finer

Filed under: Culture,Politics — by teofilo @ 12:08 am

To expand on my cryptic comment here, South Carolina really is by far the weirdest state in the nation and always has been.  It was founded in 1670 by wealthy sugar planters from Barbados, but it’s too far north to grow sugar, so for the first few decades of the colony’s existence plantation agriculture was not really feasible on a large scale.  Instead, the colonists took advantage of their more southerly location to compete with New England in supplying food and lumber to the British West Indies (which imported almost all of their necessities, since sugar cultivation was so lucrative that sugar plantations covered every inch of fertile land).  This was fairly profitable, especially since the Carolinians could use their slaves to tend cattle and cut wood.  It was not, however, profitable enough to support the colony entirely.  The real money was in the slave trade.

Not, however, the slave trade we are most familiar with these days.  These slaves weren’t coming into Charleston from Africa, they were leaving it for the West Indies, along with all that lumber and beef.  And they weren’t even African at all, but Indian.

When the Carolinians arrived in 1670, the land they occupied was quite distant from existing European settlements, lying between the tobacco plantations of Virginia to the north and the small Spanish missions and fortresses in Florida to the south.  The local Indians, therefore, had difficulty obtaining guns, which were becoming increasingly necessary for both hunting and war, and some were enthusiastic at the prospect of having a European colony of their own to serve as a steady source of weaponry.  Realizing their advantage, the colonists were quite willing to provide guns, but in exchange they wanted commodities that could fetch them a quick profit.  To some extent deerskins, which were much in demand by the English leather industry, served as a decent commodity to accept, since the Indians hunted and dressed them themselves and all the Carolinians had to do was load them onto ships.  Slaves, however, were much more lucrative both for the Indians, who needed only to capture them in war and hand them over to get their guns, and for the colonists, who could either use them themselves in their own endeavors or (more commonly) ship them to the Caribbean for a quick profit.

Because the Carolinians could make so much money off of Indian slaves, they were constantly turning one native group against another and fomenting wars to produce more and more lucrative captives.  This resulted in the near extinction of several of the nearby tribes, even those that had at first helped the colonists by enslaving other Indians but had later become victims of the slave raids when the English found other, more powerful tribes to trade with.

While slave trading was lucrative, it was also an unstable and dangerous business, so the colonists also kept up their other economic ventures and tried to find a lucrative cash crop that they could grow under plantation conditions with slave labor, the same way they had grown sugar in Barbados.  Around the turn of the eighteenth century, they found it in rice, which grew quite well in the swampy coastal lowlands and which their slaves knew how to grow since they had grown it in Africa.  Rice production soon made South Carolina into a wealthy but extremely inequitable society, with a small planter elite presiding fearfully over an enormous mass (eventually a majority) of black slaves, necessary because growing rice is very labor-intensive.

The profitable slave raids continued, however, until the Yamasee war in 1717 when Carolina’s Indian allies suddenly rose in rebellion against the abusive treatment they had received from the colony’s grasping and manipulative traders.  Though the Carolinians eventually won the war, the destruction it caused led to an effective end to the trade in Indian slaves and the economic reorganization of the colony around the (by now very lucrative) cultivation of rice.  It was only then that the South Carolina we know so well from the nineteenth century, with its decadent, indolent and overwhelmingly powerful planter elite and its insane politics based on the preservation of slavery and the threat of secession, began to form.



  1. Huh. That’s fascinating, and I hadn’t known 90% of it.

    (But come on, weirdest state? Louisana’s legal system alone has to help bump it up in the rankings.)

    Comment by Witt — January 27, 2008 @ 9:43 pm |Reply

  2. There are certainly other weird states, but I think taking into account the entire historical record South Carolina comes out on top.

    Comment by teofilo — January 27, 2008 @ 9:48 pm |Reply

  3. At least they sent people to the constitutional convention. Unlike a certain other state. *cough*Rhode Island*cough*

    Comment by eb — January 27, 2008 @ 10:16 pm |Reply

  4. Granted, but come on. Nullification? Secession? It’d take an awful lot to beat out that kind of weirdness.

    Comment by teofilo — January 27, 2008 @ 10:20 pm |Reply

  5. And they make barbecue with mustard.

    Comment by Matt W — January 28, 2008 @ 7:53 am |Reply

  6. And they make barbecue with mustard.

    South Carolina wins.

    This was a fascinating post, Teo.

    Comment by jms — January 28, 2008 @ 2:00 pm |Reply

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