Slaves, Slavery, and the Genesis of the Plantation System in South Carolina:
An Evolving Social-Economic Mosaic
HOW OFTEN DO SCHOLARS NOTE THAT THE SOCIAL-ECONOMIC origin of South Carolina is unique, for it is the only English colony in North America in which black slavery is introduced almost at the outset of settlement and certainly by 1671!1
Historians, professional and popular, have been studying or writing about slaves, slavery, and the plantation system for two centuries or more, and recent scholarly investigations have focused on racial attitudes, their origins and consequences. Yet historians know little about slaves or slavery in the eighteenth-century southern colonies. Ignorance of this important subject is not likely to be dispelled soon. No apology is needed, therefore, for attempting to illuminate the origins of slavery and the emergence of the plantation system in South Carolina as a case study that enriches an understanding of the social-economic mosaic in the southern colonies.2
There are two vexing problems confronting scholars when investigating slaves, slavery, and the plantation system of South Carolina. The first is the absence of internal records. For the early period, 1670–1730, there are no diaries, no newspapers, and, at best, only fugitive items of internal communication. Neither a group of plantation records nor the ongoing record of a single plantation exists for the colonial period. To discover what is happening to the colony’s economy or social system, the scholar must make imaginative use of external evidence.
The second serious problem involves an extended list of assumptions historians traditionally tend to make about colonial South Carolina: that the introduction of slavery as a labor force was somehow preordained because of the staples produced, especially in a semi tropical climate; that the Africans who arrived were ignorant and incompetent; that from the beginning white Carolinians regarded the African as inferior and incapable; that slavery and the plantation system developed simultaneously and, as a corollary, that the growth of slavery corresponded with the expansion of rice plantations; and finally, that slavery, once introduced into South Carolina, generally followed the frontier line during the colonial period, resulting in a relatively uniform social composition of whites and blacks throughout the colony with all the consequences as they relate to economic and political interests.
Without responding to each supposition, either in the order named or at equal length, it is imperative that fact be distinguished from loose or undocumented generalizations. On the issue of how, when, and why slavery expanded and the plantation system emerged, this essay will demonstrate that the assertions of previous historians have been in error.
With the perspective offered by modern scholarship, it is now possible to agree that the Africans brought to America came as immigrants, forcibly transported, and that for historians to understand them, they must be studied in the same context as peoples who came from Europe, Asia, or any other land. Africans brought their culture with them—their values, beliefs, traditions, and skills. Modern historians of Africa have demonstrated beyond dispute that the peoples of West and East Africa were gifted tropical farmers. They knew how to herd cattle, to tend rice fields, to raise grain, and to use agricultural implements. Indeed, Africans were often more familiar with the requisite farming techniques than the settlers who came from England or Europe.
There is also sufficient evidence to question whether the attitude of white settlers in South Carolina toward Africans was as fixed as recent writers have claimed, in particular, whether whites considered the blacks as inferior. From the earliest settlement until the conclusion of the Yamasee War in 1718, a period of almost fifty years, blacks were entrusted with responsibilities for defense that almost equalled those of whites. Moreover, there is positive proof that blacks were considered fully competent to serve in the militia as armed men equipped to fight. In a pamphlet published in 1710, promoting South Carolina, for which Thomas Nairne, the celebrated Carolina Indian agent, is believed to have supplied the authoritative and reliable information, the following observation is made: “There are likewise enrolled in our Militia, a considerable Number of active, able, Negro Slaves; and the Law gives everyone of those his Freedom, who in the Time of an Invasion kills an Enemey.”3
An item on Charleston dated 27 April 1708, included in The Boston News-Letter of 17–24 May 1708, reinforces the assertion of Thomas Nairne:
Charlstown, South-Carolina, April 27. By Letters from Jamaica we are informed, that the French and Spaniards are raising a Force of 2500 men, and ‘tis supposed they have a design to make a second attempt upon this Province; that which gives some umbrage to it is, some persons lately taken from St. Augustin, who say, that a Brigt. and Sloop were arrived there from the Havanna, which caused great acclamations of joy amongst the Spaniards. This Intelligence has caused an Embargo to be continued, and we are making all necessary preparations of Fortifying and Entrenching, to give the Enemy a warm reception; we shall have 1500 white men well arm’d, 1000 good Negroes that knows the Swamps and Woods, most of them Cattle-hunters, besides 1500 Indians.4
In the Yamasee War of 1715–1718 blacks were used not as auxiliaries but as front-line troops. The defense line in 1715 as reported by Governor Charles Craven was composed of six hundred Carolina militia, one hundred men from Virginia and North Carolina, and four to five hundred slaves and Indians. “I have caused about two hundred stout negro men to be enlisted,” he wrote, “and these with a party of white men and Indians are marching towards the enemy.” The following year the Carolina proprietors reported to the Board of Trade: “They [South Carolina] will be able upon any great Emergency to arm their Negroes and by these means they will be Impowered to resist a greater Force than the Indian Enemy will in all humane [human] probability be able at any time to bring against them.”5
A fascinating sidelight in recruiting manpower to fight the Yamasee War is that Virginia, slow to honor its pledge to aid South Carolina, demanded that one female slave be sent to Virginia for every able-bodied man sent to reinforce the fighting force in Carolina. Not only did Carolinians complain of the limited numbers and the quality of the Virginians who arrived, but they also refused to send female slaves as requested, “finding it impracticable to Send Negro Women in their Roomes by reason of the Discontent such Usage would have given their husbands to have their wives taken from them which might have occasioned a Revolt.”6
It would be foolish to claim too much for this evidence on white attitudes toward blacks, but the extant contemporary comments do not suggest that blacks were considered incompetent, inferior, or “less than men.” It should also be noted that evidence advanced to support a contrary position in white attitudes during this early period is equally fragmentary. One generalization about white attitudes toward blacks in the colony is conclusive. After the celebrated Stono Rebellion of 1739, white Carolinians lived in desperate fear of blacks and slave uprisings, a state of mind affecting every aspect of the black and white relationship.
On the question of territorial containment of slavery in South Carolina, that seldom read but pioneering scholar, Robert L. Meriwether, proved over three decades ago that the plantation system based on slavery was confined to the coastal region during the entire colonial period. The South Carolina Township System, introduced in the late 1720s and executed in the subsequent decades, set a firm boundary surrounding the low country plantations. It established, as a deliberate policy, a broad band of buffer settlements, frequently composed of non-English groups from Western Europe, in which the demographic ratio of whites to blacks was overwhelmingly white. The township system effectively fulfilled the expectations of those who planned it. As a result, plantation slavery did not penetrate the up-country until cotton became a profitable enterprise after the American Revolution.7
The genesis of the plantation system and its relationship to the growth of slavery in South Carolina has been seriously misread by scholars, in large measure because the history of the colony has been perceived from the American Revolution to its origins rather than from the initial settlement to the 1720s. The mistaken but unchallenged generalization accepts as fact that an increase in rice production with its demand for a substantial labor force, was responsible for the rapid increase of slaves and, as a parallel, the evolution of the plantation system. The fallacy of this assumption can be proven only by an analysis of the development of the Carolina economy in relation to the composition and disposition of its labor force between 1690 and 1720.
In 1690 the exports of the colony of South Carolina were negligible. Rice cultivation lay in the future, as did the development of naval stores. Only the products of ranch farming—beef and pork, pease and grain—and trade in deerskins found an outside market. Although estimates indicate that as much as half the population was composed of blacks, and almost all of them slaves, the plantation system, as historians conceive it, did not exist. The colony, therefore, represented a rare species among the British colonies in North America, having a predominately black slave labor force without the production of a significant agricultural staple for export.
The presence of such a large proportion of blacks in relationship to the total population without an overwhelming demand for their labor appears to be almost accidental. In the process of migrating to South Carolina, individual Barbadians transported a few slaves. Although the total number was relatively modest, the scarcity of white colonizers automatically heightened the percentage of blacks.8
However fragmentary the record, there is no reliable evidence to suggest that from the earliest settlement to 1690 black slaves were imported separately as distinct from being part of the white migration which owned servants and slaves. As late as the first half-decade after 1700, annual slave importations failed to reach twenty-five, a figure apparently greatly exceeded by the export of Indian slaves, mostly to the West Indies and New England, not to mention their employment in Carolina where it is estimated they comprised one fourth of the slave labor force as late as 1708. It can be inferred, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, that the number of blacks in South Carolina in the 1690s was principally the result of natural increase.9
As to the export of Indian slaves, the records are not sufficiently consistent or complete to present them graphically, but as late as the year 1712–1713 no less than seventy-five Indian slaves were shipped out of Charleston. Even though the capture of Indians caused ill will and often encouraged warfare between tribes—which scarcely served the ends of the deerskin trade because warriors do not have time to hunt—a rationale, involving convoluted and misconceived concepts of humanity, is offered in a memorial written by Thomas Nairne, dated 10 July 1709: “Some men think that it both serves to lessen their [the Indian] numbers before the French can arm them, and it is a more effectuall way of civilising and instructing [them], then all the efforts used by the French missionaries.”10
Given the unusual situation governing black and Indian slaves about 1690, an assessment of the significance of the deerskin trade during the early stages of South Carolina’s economic development is particularly enlightening. The Indian trade was the swiftest way to achieve success, yet virtually no slave labor was needed for it to flourish. In 1705 Nairne, who served as the Commons House of Assembly’s first official representative in Indian country, described the trade as “the main Branch of … Traffick,” meaning the most lucrative commercial activity, because, in absolute numbers, far more people were engaged in ranch farming. John Lawson, a contemporary frontiersman, reinforced Nairne’s conclusion when he observed that those men engaged in the Indian trade had “soonest rais’d themselves of any People I have known in Carolina.”11
As Figure 1 indicates, the number of deerskins shipped out from Charleston between 1698 and 1723—only in the northern colonies was fur an important article of Indian trade—fluctuated widely. In 1699, 64,000 deerskins were exported, but the following year this figure was reduced almost two thirds to 22,000. In 1707, with the domestic turmoil of the Church Establishment issue settled and the Indian Trade Act adopted, 121,000 deerskins were shipped, a number not equalled for several decades. In dramatic contrast, in 1716 during the Yamasee War only 4,000 skins were sent to market. This erratic behavior in the pattern of the export of deerskins did not arise from changing competitive conditions but because of Indian wars, internal policies affecting the trade and similar disruptions.
Although the quantities of deerskins exported are known, their value is not. Commodity price lists are not available until the 1730s, so estimates can be made only by indirection. Between 1708 and 1715 the average number of deerskins exported was approximately 50,000. During this same period, the value of all exports to Great Britain—which served as the principal market for deerskins—averaged, according to British customs records, about 23,000 pounds sterling. In 1717 the Carolina Commissioners of the Indian Trade offered 2 shillings 6 pence, apparently sterling, or its equivalent in goods, for each deerskin. Taking this figure as an approximation, the average value of the export of deerskins amounted to one fourth the value of the total exports to Britain. But this percentage would seem to understate seriously the importance of the trade in deerskins not only as an export but also as a source of funds to build a fortune. For example, as late as 1750 a report by Governor James Glen stated that deerskins constituted 20 percent of the value of all exports to Britain. Certainly in the period 1690–1710 deerskins must have contributed up to one half the value of exports to Britain. The answer to the discrepancy between 25 percent or 50 percent of the value of exports probably lies in transportation costs and other charges incurred in bringing deerskins to market. These costs must be added to the Carolina price to obtain a figure equivalent in kind to the customs values given in England.
Figure 1. Number of Deerskins Exported, 1699–1724
Source: Verner W. Crane, The Southern Frontier, 1670–1732 (December, 1928) pp. 328–329.
A final indicator of the role of the Indian trade in the economic activity of South Carolina was the value of the importation of trading goods from Britain. Verner Crane, the outstanding authority, quotes a contemporary to the effect that the value of such goods by 1715 was 10,000 pounds sterling annually. The evidence suggests that this figure is overstated. The value of all British exports to South Carolina in 1715, according to official records, was 16,000 pounds sterling, and in no previous year had the value exceeded 28,000 pounds sterling. Over the period preceding 1715 it averaged less than 20,000 pounds sterling. That one half of all exports from Britain were Indian trading goods is questionable. If accurate, the figure exceeds by 100 percent the value of deerskins as exports. Even if the approximation of the value of the deerskins exported is in error by 100 percent, the importation of trading goods would merely equal the value of deerskins exported. This, too, seems highly unlikely.12
As the earliest staple commodity to emerge in the South Carolina economy, the deerskin trade contributed to capital accumulation, providing one means of obtaining money and credit to buy land and slaves. But the evidence is not available to establish such a correlation. What records exist do not indicate either that an increase in the number of slaves coincides with the prosperity of the Indian trade or that the number of slaves relates to the fluctuations of the trade. It is possible that over a period of decades individuals engaged in the Indian trade enlarged their slave holdings, but this assertion must be regarded as speculative rather than factual.
Certainly, the deerskin trade strengthened the role of Charleston as a commercial port, because it became the terminus for a web of trails winding thousands of miles into the Indian country. Charleston also became more colorful as rough-and-ready traders from the frontier—“Those sparkes make little of drinking 15 or 16£ at one Bout in Towne”—jostled shoulders with those settlers engaged in more traditional occupations. Occasionally an important Indian chief accompanied by his retinue and decked out in ceremonial dress added to the tableau.13
Figure 2. Number and Value of Deerskins Exported, 1699–1719
Sources: Number of deerskins exported: Crane, Southern Frontier, pp. 328–329; value of deerskins exported: Hazard’s U.S. Commercial and Statistical Register (Philadelphia, 1840), p. 4.
The full importance of the Indian trade can be understood only in the perspective of international rivalries, domestic politics, and finally the close relationship of Carolina’s exports of deerskins to the total value of the trade to Great Britain until 1712, as represented in Figure 2. Indeed, 1712 is a key year, and the period from 1710 to 1720 is a critical decade in an analysis of how and why plantation slavery suddenly flourished in South Carolina.
Ranch farming offered the first opportunity to make effective use of a slave labor force. Blacks became cowboys in proprietary South Carolina long before they appeared on the Great Plains in the nineteenth century. Until the emergence of commercial ranch farming, a labor supply was in search of an agricultural staple, a dramatic contrast to the customary condition in most English colonies in North America in which the development of an agricultural staple became the first step in an increased demand for a labor supply.
As early as 1682 Samuel Wilson reported that “Neat Cattle thrive and increase here exceedingly, there being perticular Planters that have already seven or eight hundred head.” Almost thirty years later, A Letter From South Carolina (1710) reconfirmed that observation. “South Carolina abounds with black Cattle to a Degree much beyond any other English colony.” Samuel Wilson also indicated that the feeding of hogs flourished, bringing in sufficient profit to encourage the purchase of servants and black slaves. “That there are many Planters that are single and have never a Servant, that have two or three hundred Hogs, of which they make great profit; Barbados, Jamaica, and New-England, affording a constant good price for their Pork; by which means they get wherewithal to build them more convenient Houses, and to purchase Servants, and Negro-slaves.”14
Conditions favored raising livestock. Comparatively speaking, in producing a marketable agricultural staple, ranch farming required a minimum investment in capital and labor. Moreover, many Barbadians who migrated to South Carolina were experienced in this type of farming. The mild climate of the colony also reduced the need to store fodder and construct shelters, important considerations in employing a labor force most efficiently. Herding cattle also tended to be less seasonal than other types of farming. Although ranch farming was practiced throughout proprietary South Carolina, its stronghold was in Colleton County, southeast of Charleston, and the slender evidence available seems to indicate that the flow of black labor was toward that region.
Production of livestock quickly outstripped local consumption, and beef and pork became one of Carolina’s earliest exports. The best evidence of this trade is an enactment of 1691, later invalidated by the proprietors, which attempted to introduce a degree of regulation. After declaring that “beefe and porke are two of the principal commodities” of this part of the province, the act proceeded to specify the type and size of barrel that were to be used in packing and how the barrels should be marked. It provided for an inspection system with penalties for “deceits” where “bull’s flesh, boare’s flesh, or any other unmerchantable or corrupt meate” was mixed with good beef or pork. No unmarked barrel was to be permitted on shipboard. This law, reenacted later, indicates how well developed the trade in meat products had become.15
These provisions were marketed primarily in the West Indies. The evidence as to the specific quantity and value of beef and pork is sparse. A report presented in England to illustrate the importance of South Carolina to the mother country listed among the exports of Charleston from June 1712 to June 1713 beef in the amount of 1,963 barrels and pork in the amount of 1,241 barrels.16
In 1715 the disruptive Yamasee War wiped out the ranchers. Their territorial expansion southeast of Charleston represented a direct threat to the Indians. Ranches were overrun and buildings and possessions burned. Crops were destroyed in the fields, and the livestock taken or slaughtered. Contemporaries estimated that in 1716 alone one half the land being farmed was of necessity abandoned. Until the 1730s, when ranch farming reappeared in a different location and under different conditions, it never fully recovered from this destruction.17
Ranch farming, much like the Indian trade, placed its stamp upon proprietary South Carolina. Problems arose resembling those of the cattle frontier in the second half of the nineteenth century. Identifying marks and brands were used, and registration of the brands was required by law. Unmarked livestock could not be slaughtered—obviously because such license would open the way to poaching and fraud—until ownership was determined. Early in the eighteenth century Carolina had its roundups in which cattle were driven into a cowpen, usually a wooden pen constructed by the planter or a location where two streams converged. Fencing, the transfer of ownership of livestock, and the problems identified with ranch farming became part of a familiar pattern in the everyday life of most settlers.
Between 1710 and 1715 the economy of South Carolina changed fundamentally. The dimension of this transformation is best revealed in the available export figures. They can be succinctly summarized as follows:
First, during this period the correlation between the volume of the deerskin trade and the value of exports to Britain ends, the curve of the former descending precipitously and that of the latter sweeping upward. From this evidence a scholar must conclude that the deerskin trade, although it continues to be significant, has been superseded in importance by other staples for export.
Second, simultaneously, the export of provisions achieved its zenith, declining abruptly in 1715 with the wholesale destruction of the assets of ranch farmers by hostile Indians at the outbreak of the Yamasee War. The decline in beef and pork exports continued for several decades.
Third, between 1700 and 1712 the production of rice increased swiftly, but after 1712 it gradually declined and then held steady until 1720.
And finally, from 1710 to 1720 the manufacture of naval stores rose sharply, coinciding with two other crucial developments, the incremental rise of the value of exports to Britain from 17,000 pounds sterling in 1713 to an excess of 60,000 pounds sterling in 1720, an expansion of 250 percent, and a dramatic augmentation in the importation of black slaves, from less than 100 annually in 1712 to 600 annually in 1720. Of these striking alterations, the last two developments require an exploration in depth in order to provide the background as to how, when, and why the South Carolina plantation system emerged.
The story of the introduction of rice into Carolina by a ship’s captain from Madagascar who touched in at Charleston in 1694 because his ship was in danger of sinking, thus providing a small bag of that commodity to a prominent planter, has long since been revised by the findings of scholars. Experimentation with rice cultivation along with silk and cotton had been attempted early in the colony’s history, but it was not an immediate success. Rude conditions in the early years of settlement discouraged the type of intensive agriculture which rice growing represented at the same time encouraging ranch farming and the trade in deerskins in which manpower problems were minimized and where the market was assured. Confidence in an attractive financial return for other commodities tended to preclude any large-scale shift to planting rice.
Producing rice for market began in the middle 1690s, yet it only reached an export level of 2,000 barrels by 1700. According to the most reliable figures available, between June 1712 and June 1713 the export of rice was 12,677 barrels and 200 bags, an increase of 600 percent over 1700. At this stage in the analysis, its cultivation would appear to be the vital ingredient in explaining an emerging plantation system and the growth of slavery.18
But suddenly and surprisingly rice exports declined after 1712–1713, a fact historians have tended to obscure. Exports fell immediately from about 12,000 to 9,000 barrels, 25 percent, and then leveled off for the remainder of the decade, when a contemporary observer reported that a fresh spurt raised exports to 13,000 barrels. The behavior of rice production from 1710 to 1720 reveals that it bore little relationship to slave importation between 1695 and 1713 and none after 1713.19
Cultivation of rice began to flourish in South Carolina in the moist, almost swampy lowland country, adjacent to freshwater streams and rivulets that periodically overflowed. These requisite soil properties ultimately—but not as early as 1713—placed a natural limit upon the territorial expansion of rice production. In 1706 and again in 1707, 24 and 22 slaves, respectively, were imported during those years, no doubt some of them being purchased by rice planters. A Report to the Board of Trade in 1708–1709 suggests that approximately 500 Negro slaves, 300 males and 200 females, were brought to Charleston during the previous five years. The same report indicates a substantial percentage of the labor force was made up of Indian slaves. From 1708 to 1711 the number of slave importations increased markedly, from 53 for 1708 to 170 for 1711, and then declined abruptly to about 75 in 1712. (See Figure 5.) Unquestionably, some of these slaves did serve as the labor force in rice fields, but, strangely, there is no contemporary evidence to indicate that large numbers were imported for the production of rice as a deliberate policy, a contrast to the conscious effort to bring in slaves to expand the manufacture of naval stores beginning in 1713.
The value of 10,000 barrels of rice exported, compared with other staples marketed, is difficult to determine. No price schedule exists. Those provided by a buyer at a given time and place cannot be checked to ascertain whether they are representative. On the premise that the prices of 1710 are the equal of those about 1720, 2 shillings per hundred weight, the value of rice exports would be approximately 10,000 pounds sterling annually from 1710 to 1720.
Why rice production failed to increase from 1713 to 1720 is not easily explained. The effect of British regulation, though profound, was a constant factor. In 1690 Parliament laid a tax on rice of approximately 3 pence a pound sterling. Two years later an ad valorem duty of 5 percent was added. In 1705 rice was placed on the enumerated list, which meant that it must, like tobacco, be sent first to England before it could, after paying the appropriate custom duties, be reexported. The duties were burdensome and the enumeration a serious handicap because the Iberian peninsula represented a principal market. Despite these handicaps, against which the colonials protested vigorously, rice output increased until 1712 when, inexplicably, it declined. Perhaps instability on the frontier inhibited opening additional land for cultivation or the price of rice fell, a theory that cannot be verified. Certainly, for a few years the Yamasee War ended almost all production, but by that date rice exports had already declined.
The final step in the transformation of the economy of South Carolina took place between 1712 and 1720. The key ingredient was the development of naval stores which formed the base for a full-fledged plantation system based on slave labor. Again, the export-import figures serve as the indicators of this profound internal change. These statistics indicate (1) the sudden spurt in the value of exports to Britain during this period coincides with the acceleration in the manufacture of naval stores; (2) the rise in marketing naval stores marks an abrupt departure in the relationship between the value of exports to, as compared with the value of imports from, Britain; (3) the rapid expansion in the importation of slaves, more than 300 percent, correlates with the increasing exports of naval stores and signals the flowering of the plantation system based on slave labor. Furthermore, naval stores acted as the catalyst which, in the second decade of the eighteenth century, brought prosperity to the white population of South Carolina and converted a fundamentally subsistance economy to one of boundless commercial growth.
The relationship of the development of naval stores to the economy of South Carolina and especially to the emerging plantation system has seldom been fully appreciated. As early as 1699 Surveyor General Edward Randolph, after visiting the colony, recommended that soldiers be dispatched to protect its exposed frontier, asserting that the troops could readily maintain themselves by planting Indian corn and by making pitch and tar as a marketable product. He also observed that the basis of Carolina’s economic strength was “Pitch, Tar and Turpentine, and planting rice,” a coupling of equals which historians have not always recognized.20
The production and export of naval stores from South Carolina expanded rapidly after 1705 when Great Britain, eager to limit its dependence upon the Baltic countries for these indispensable goods and disturbed over a sharp rise in prices, offered a bounty of 4 pounds sterling per ton for pitch (each ton to contain 20 gross hundreds in 8 barrels), 4 pounds sterling per ton for tar (each ton to contain 8 barrels of 31½ gallons each), and 3 pounds sterling per ton for turpentine (20 gross hundreds in 8 barrels). In the following decade further encouragement was provided by appointing a “surveyor of woods” who was to instruct the colonists in the best methods of manufacturing naval stores and the establishment of a fund to employ skilled workmen and to supply tools for this purpose.21
The appointment of a surveyor of woods was prompted by the criticism leveled against the quality of naval stores from Carolina. Its products, it was asserted, did not compare favorably with those from the Baltic countries, especially in pitch and tar, which retained, as described by one observer, a “heating” quality. This complication developed apparently because Carolina settlers used dead rather than live trees in making pitch and tar. Francis Yonge, a contemporary who appraised the problem, declared that no one could recognize the appropriate pitch or lightwood pine in a forest of timber. As many as twenty trees, he continued, would have to be cut down before one or two could be found worth putting into a kiln. Such waste of manpower in a region where labor needed to be employed most effectively was, of course, considered intolerable. Moreover, a green pine tree yielded only one third that of “old wood,” again adding to the costs. In view of these factors, it is not surprising that the Carolina settlers continued to follow their own methods.22
It is possible that the complaint about the character of South Carolina pitch and tar was overdrawn. In 1717, when productivity in South Carolina was booming, the Board of Trade was informed not only that the Carolina products were widely used but also that no objections were raised as to their quality.
Whether or not the criticism of South Carolina naval stores was valid has no bearing upon the startling growth of naval stores and its significance in the emergence of the plantation system in South Carolina. Although few reliable estimates exist for the earliest years, 2,037 barrels of tar and 4,580 barrels of pitch, a total of 6,617 barrels, were exported from South Carolina between June 1712 and June 1713.23 By 1717 the export of tar amounted to 29,594 barrels, that of pitch 14,363, a total of 43,957 barrels. In 1718–1719 the export of tar was 32,117, that of pitch 20,208, a total of 52,215. These figures represent an increase between 1712 and 1719 in excess of 800 percent.24
This upward thrust in the commercial life of the colony induced by the development of naval stores corresponds with the steeply inclined curve measuring the value of imports from South Carolina to Britain (see Figure 3). Between 1712 and 1719 the total export of Carolina to Britain, in terms of value, increased from 29,000 pounds sterling to 50,000 pounds sterling. This statistic minimizes rather than maximizes the trend. If the range of years is extended from 1711 to 1720, the value of exports to Britain grew from 11,000 pounds sterling to 60,000 pounds sterling. Although the 1711 figure is slightly out of line on the downside, the 1720 figure properly reflects the swiftly ascending curve measuring the value of exports. In view of the constant or declining export of rice and deerskins, only the acceleration in the rise of naval stores can account for this rapid increase in the value of exports.
Figure 3. Value of South Carolina Exports and Imports, 1697–1730
Considered as part of the total inflow of naval stores into Britain from 1711 to 1718, the contribution made by South Carolina is striking. In 1712, according to Board of Trade statistics, 5,624 barrels of pitch and tar were imported from all the colonies and the following year 4,825. Exports of pitch and tar from Charleston alone, during the period June 1712 to June 1713, was 6,617 barrels, which suggests that Carolina could produce the total amount imported into England from all its colonies and still export a quantity to other markets.
From 1715 to 1718 British imports of pitch and tar from its colonies rose from 5,000 barrels to 82,000 barrels per annum, twice the figure imported from Sweden in any year after 1700. Moreover, by 1718 the importation of Swedish pitch and tar to Britain, according to Eleanor Lord, had been reduced to zero. Of the 82,000 barrels, South Carolina provided 52,000, over 60 percent, presumably all dispatched to Britain because of the subsidy. It is amusing, and somewhat ironical, that Eleanor Lord, who provides the total figure, neglected to discover the respective sources. As a result her entire discussion is focused on New England with scarcely more than a line on Carolina, the chief supplier.
One of the puzzling questions is why, between 1705 and 1713, especially in view of the rapid increase after 1713, the British subsidy encouraged such a modest increase in the production of pitch and tar, from 400 barrels to 6,000 barrels. The answer cannot be easily or finally determined. Perhaps land and labor could be more effectively employed in ranch farming and rice; perhaps the internal political quarrels affected individual judgments. More probably, the time limit set when the subsidy was adopted—its original life was to extend nine years, to 1714—inhibited planters from making long-term investments in an enterprise heavily dependent upon British subsidization, but who, when the subsidy was renewed for eleven years beginning 1714, no longer felt restrained.
Figure 4. Volume of Naval Stores Imported into England, 1701–1718
Source: Eleanor Lord, Industrial Experiments in the British Colonies of North America (Baltimore, 1898), Appendix B.
Whether the prospect of the renewal of the subsidies for naval stores served as the most significant incentive cannot be finally settled, but two new factors enhanced the attractiveness of manufacturing naval stores. The first of these was the conclusion of the War of Spanish Succession, with the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. The war, which affected every major country in the Western World and its New World colonies, disrupted commerce and communication. The sharp rise in the Carolina export of naval stores in 1714 coincides with the first year of peace. A second factor which reinforced rather than caused the upswing in naval stores was the outbreak of the Yamasee War in 1715, which reduced ranch farming and rice production but left the pine tree with its potential yields of tar and pitch unimpaired and ready for exploitation. Slave-owning planters who needed to find profitable employment for their labor force could and did respond to the most enticing commercial enterprise instantly available, the manufacture of naval stores.25
After 1712 slave importation boomed, rising from less than 100 persons annually in 1712 to 600 in 1720, interrupted briefly in 1715 and 1716 by the Yamasee War. The consequence was the final step in the permanent establishment of the plantation system in South Carolina based on slavery.
The statistical correlation between the rise of naval stores and the rapid increase in slaves is corroborated by contemporary observers. Governor Robert Johnson, responding to queries posed by the Board of Trade in 1720, reported:
Figure 5. Number of Slaves Imported into South Carolina, 1706–1724
Source: Elizabeth Donnan, Documents Illustrative of the History of the Slave Trade to America, 4 vols. (Washington, D.C., 1930).
The … Money Granted by Act of Parliament of Great Britain for the importing Pitch, Tarr, Masts and other Navall Stores has been of great encouragement to the Plantations in Generall to export Navall Stores, so this Plantation in particular has Surpassed all America besides in Supplying Great Britain. Accordingly with great quantities of Pitch and Tarr, there have been Exported in one Year by Computation above fifty Thousand Barrells of both which great exports of Navall Stores not only have Occasioned the greater Consumption of British Manufacturers but encouraged the merchants abroad to import into this Province great Numbers of Negro Slaves from Africa and brought a great concourse of ships to this Port to load our bulky commodities…. To this bounty Money wee chiefly attribute the Cause of our Trades increasing very Considerably within these Ten Years our Planters having by means thereof been so enriched as to Purchase great Numbers of Negro Slaves the labour of which has incredibly increased the Produce and Manufacture of this Province.26
Joseph Boone and John Barnwell, agents for the colony in England, confirmed the Governor’s view. “Yet the number of Blacks …,” they stated, “have very much increased for the Pitch and Tar Trade prodigiously Increasing have occasioned the Inhabitants to buy Blacks.”27
The growing prosperity of South Carolina as suggested by these contemporaries can be confirmed by statistical evidence. Taking into consideration free persons, white servants, and slaves, Indian as well as black, the value of exports per capita in 1708 is less than 1 pound 10 shillings. Stated in terms of slaves alone, including slave children, the value of exports is less than 3 pounds 8 shillings per capita. In 1721 exports to Britain per capita were approximately 3 pounds 2 shillings. Stated in terms of slave population alone, exports per capita were 5 pounds 4 shillings. Therefore, the gross value of exports in Carolina per capita doubled between 1708 and 1721. Stated in terms of the number of slaves, it increased 150 percent.28
The transformation of the Carolina economy between 1710 and 1720 is starkly revealed in Carolina’s contribution to the total value of goods exported to Britain by all the continental colonies. In 1700 Carolina’s share was 3 percent. In 1710 it was 5 percent. In 1720 it was 13 percent. The value of South Carolina’s imports from Britain, relative to the total imports from Britain to the continental colonies, reveals a different story. In 1700 it was 3 percent. In 1710 it was 5 percent. In 1720 it remained 5 percent.
These figures indicate that capital accumulation was taking place—largely in the form of slaves. Importation of 500 slaves at 20 pounds sterling for each slave, for instance, amounts to 10,000 pounds sterling, approximately the value of the exports in naval stores. The rigidity which this type of investment introduced into the economy was foreseen in an informative pamphlet, A Letter from South Carolina, for which Thomas Nairne reputedly prepared the materials. It indicated the expenditures a planter could anticipate in order to get started in South Carolina on a major scale:
Figure 6. South Carolina’s Share of Total Value of Exports to and Imports from Great Britain
Figure 7. Investment Required to Settle an Estate of 300 Pounds Per Annum
Source: [Thomas Nairne], A Letter from South Carolina (1710)
On the basis of the evidence provided in this essay, the following conclusions are warranted:
One, the issue of white attitudes toward blacks in early South Carolina is an open rather than a closed question, with the period 1715–1720 serving as the transition years.
Three, slavery and the plantation system were confined to the Carolina low country during the colonial period.
Four, the production of naval stores played the decisive role in the development of the plantation system in South Carolina.
Five, slave importation as the base of the plantation system correlates with the rise of naval stores.
Six, all elements associated with the plantation system—the plantation family as a social institution, the role of white and black women within the family and society, and the place of the family in the political-economic-social life of the colony, to list obvious examples—were affected by the development of naval stores as a commercial product for which slave labor was imported.
Seven, increased slave importation introduced an inflexibility into the South Carolina economy—in terms of capital assets as well as productive capacity—which historians recognize but tend to understate.
Eight, the gross importation of slaves triggered by the rising production of naval stores increased the fear of black power—“to the great endangering to the Province” wrote the agents of South Carolina—and led to the political response of the 1720s to propose and execute a township system to contain the territorial limits of slavery, thereby attempting to moderate its social-economic effect.
Nine, South Carolina’s prosperity made it an increasingly opportune target for a takeover by the royal government and each of its major exports—deerskins, rice, and naval stores—fitted neatly into official British mercantile policies.
What does this external evidence fail to reveal? It does not tell us about the makeup or development of a single plantation or a group of plantations. It does not reveal the fabric of the family. It does not indicate the role of parish or colony politics. It provides no insight into the function of the church. It does not even suggest the distribution among whites of the increase in productivity and income. Yet the external evidence tells us much more about the internal society than we would otherwise know, and it reinforces the thrust of these essays that, underlying all the variances of the colonial South, is a central theme, the southern mosaic.