From Barbados to Charleston

If you were a 90’s kid, you probably watched one of the best shows on Nickelodeon called Gullah Gullah Island. It was a show that celebrated the lifestyle of an island that encompassed a culture similar to that of the Caribbean. The songs, the family, and the things that were learned all gave Nickelodeon a flavor that it was missing. For me, coming from a Caribbean household, Gullah Gullah Island, was a show that celebrated where I came from, unlike other shows that focused on a purely American audience. As a child, I thought that the island was in truth a fictional island and it was all made up. Little did I know that the Gullah culture that was celebrated in the show was an actual real life culture that still exists today in and off surrounding islands of South Carolina. This culture is a mix that blends British, American, African, and Caribbean culture all into the one new culture of Gullah.

Before I read the history of the Sugar Barons written by Matthew Parker, I never understood the connection between the Caribbean and the United States which at its inception was referred to as the original Thirteen Colonies. Without the Caribbean’s success in the use of chattel slavery and agriculture, there would be no blueprint to follow in cultivating the land in the thirteen colonies to reach profits that would sustain the existence of the colonies and feed the greed of the entire continent of Europe.

In the Caribbean, sits a not so big island of Barbados, which most know as the motherland of Rihanna. It at one time was the wealthiest British colony in the New World. It gained its wealth with the cultivation of sugar from a method that was stolen and improved on by a British colonist, James Drax in the late 1620s, who secretly traveled to Brazil. Brazil was the leading sugar producer and refiner at the time. Eventually, Barbados’s success in sugar would help in pushing back Portuguese expansion into the New World. By 1670, the population of Barbados expanded to 60,000 inhabitants, with about 60% being Africans who were enslaved.

As would eventually happen in several colonies, the land in Barbardos became unfertile after many years of overuse. So what did the colonists do? They set their sights on new land. King Charles II of England, granted the Province of Carolina to his most loyal eight friends, referred to as the Lords Proprietors.

The Lords Proprietors were:

  • Edward Hyde
  • George Moncks
  • William Craven
  • Anthony Ashley Cooper
  • John Berkeley
  • Sir William Berkeley (governor of Virginia)
  • Sir George Carteret
  • Sir John Colleton

To this day, these names live on in the form of county names, towns, streets, and rivers throughout South Carolina.

Whether they were unhappy or land was not fertile enough, colonists from both Bermuda and Barbados decided to settle in the new Province of Carolina, landing near Albermarle Point, on the West Bank of the Ashley River. In 1670, Governor William Sayle, arranged for several shiploads of settlers from Bermuda and Barbados. They would name their settlement Charles Town after King Charles II. The raising of cattle and hogs was the first large scale agricultural endeavor that required the experience of herding which was known mostly to Africans. Therefore, after a short time African slaves replaced whites in herding cattle and hogs. By 1671, the new settlers declared war on the indigenous Cusabo Indians that were native to the area. Using the Indians in their alliances against one over another, the initial settlement at Albermarle Point lost its prestige and by 1680 another settlement in the Oyster Point area replaced the original Charles Town because of its strategic position and natural harbor. By 1690 the new town was the fifth largest in North America by 1690. For the first two decades the majority of the settlers came from Barbados and by the turn of the century, white settlers directly from Europe would outnumber those from the Caribbean.

With the influx of Barbadians came their influence on the political system. The political structure and leadership of the Carolina colony was based on what was done in Barbados and seven of the first 21 governors were Barbadian or had ties to Barbados. From the start, the Carolina colony’s economy was based on agriculture which in those times required slave labor. The Barbadian slave codes greatly influenced the Carolina plantation system. With the mild weather and open grasslands, the Carolina’s first large scale agriculture endeavor was cattle herding. The adult male slave population in the colony was 1,800, and nearly 1,000 of them were cowboys or “cattle-hunters.” Black cattle-hunters rounded up herds and drove them to pens where cattle were selected for slaughter. Before cattle could be slaughtered the law required that its owner first had to be identified – a problem that was quickly remedied by branding the cattle. Cattle drives, the cattle branding and cowboys were part of the colony more than 150 years before the practices existed in the American West. By 1696, the most profitable crop that Carolina produced was rice. In order to cultivate the amount of rice needed for profit, slaves who originally had more freedom tending to cattle would now be forced to work harder and longer with no constraint on discipline as they were considered property of the plantations which they belonged to. The Carolina slave codes would be the harshest in the American colonies.

Initially the colonists decided to enslave Native Americans who had inhabited the surrounding area of Charleston. From 1680 to 1720, approximately 40,000 native men, women, and children were sold through the port, principally to the West Indies, but also to Georgia and other Southern colonies. With the proceeds of their sales to other colonies, the Charleston colonists purchased African slaves to tend to their low country lands. The profitability of growing rice led the planters to pay premiums for African slaves from the “Rice Coast” who knew its cultivation. By 1708, the population in Charles Towne (the original name of Charleston) was a majority African. They first came to the town as indentured servants then as slaves. The largest slave trader in Charleston was Joseph Wragg. Of the estimated 400,000 captive Africans transported to North America to be sold into slavery, 40% are thought to have landed at Sullivan’s Island off of Charleston. Free blacks had also immigrated to Charleston from the West Indies, most of whom were considered mulattos being the offspring of white planters and their black enslaved mistresses. By the mid-18th century Charleston became the hub of the Atlantic slave trade in the Southern Colonies. Charleston would become the wealthiest colony in the original thirteen colonies.

Enslaved Africans shipped to the port came from the following areas: Angola (39%), Senegambia (20%), the Windward Coast (17%), the Gold Coast (13%), Sierra Leone (6%), MadagascarMozambique, and Benin and Biafra (5% combined).

The descendants of the enslaved africans of South Carolina can now be connected to the Gullah Nation. The Gullah nation of descendants of slaves created their own culture and language in the historical region extending from the Cape Fear area on North Carolina’s coast south to the vicinity of Jacksonville on Florida’s coast. The Georgia communities are distinguished by identifying as either “Freshwater Geechee” or “Saltwater Geechee”, depending on whether they live on the mainland or the Sea Islands. The language that was created is referred to as Geechee which may get its origin from the Ogeechee River near Savannah, Georgia. Sometimes referred to as “Sea Island Creole” by linguists and scholars, the Gullah language is sometimes likened to Bahamian CreoleBarbadian CreoleGuyanese CreoleBelizean CreoleJamaican Patois and the Krio language of West Africa. Gullah crafts, farming and fishing traditions, folk beliefs, music, rice-based cuisine and story-telling traditions all exhibit strong influences from Central and West African cultures.

So all in all, the point is that the American mainland can trace its history back to the Caribbean. Mainly through its slave routes and the mainland of America where most slaves came through the biggest slave port of Charleston, South Carolina. The descendants of these slaves created their own culture which exhibited traits of its many influences. Like the descendants of Caribbean slaves, the Gullah culture emphasizes the traditions of West Africa along with learned British traditions, with an American influence. It’s pretty interesting to know that we are all connected in different ways. And unless you go digging you wouldn’t even know that the connection could lie so deep and for so long in history.

If you would like to learn more you can view the PBS video which highlights the connection between Barbados and the Vice video which gives a more modern look on the Gullah culture today and its threat to being lost in history. Both videos are embedded below.


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