Barbados and the Roots of Carolina, Part 2

Let’s continue our conversation about the connections between South Carolina and the Caribbean Island of Barbados with a bit of review to refresh your memory.

Barbados and the Roots of Carolina, Part 2


At the turn of the seventeenth century, England was very keen to get involved in the European real estate bonanza in the New World.  By that time, Spain and Portugal had already claimed nearly the entire continent of South America, the southern parts of North America, and most of the islands known as the West Indies, or Caribbean Islands.  Then, in a burst of colonial activity between 1607 and 1640, English settlers established colonies in Virginia, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Maryland, Bermuda, Barbados, and a few other tiny islands in the Caribbean Sea.  This creative burst was followed by a relatively brief lull, however, in which England’s colonial aspirations ground to a halt.  Between 1642 and 1659, the English nation was too preoccupied with domestic turmoil to think about initiating any new colonial ventures.  This was the era of the English Civil War, followed by the Commonwealth, and then the Protectorate.  With the restoration of the English monarchy in 1660, however, a renewed spirit of optimism compelled many English investors to look back to the New World for new opportunities for profit and expansion.

The turbulent years between 1642 and 1660 were a difficult time for folks back in England, but that same era of roughly eighteen years witnessed a remarkable agricultural and commercial revolution on the small Caribbean island of Barbados.  Despite the political and military disturbances back home in England, or perhaps because of the uncertainty caused by the Civil War, Barbadian planters of the 1640s began concentrating their efforts on the cultivation of sugarcane.  As they perfected their production techniques, some Barbadian planters imitated their Portuguese neighbors in Brazil and began replacing indentured white laborers with enslaved people brought from West Africa.  These elements soon coalesced into a new business model that yielded huge profits and caught on very quickly.  As the free white population of Barbados decreased in the 1650s (from its all-time high in 1647), the island’s population of enslaved people of African descent increased from less than 1,000 people around 1640 to approximately 27,000 in 1660.  And their numbers kept going up and up.  Like the Portuguese in Brazil, the English planters of Barbados became addicted to slavery.

The lure of sugar profits drove English planters in the Caribbean to the point of obsession, but they were quickly running out of real estate and natural resources.  To maintain and even expand their profit margins, Barbados and its neighboring sugar colonies needed to expand their supply chain.  As I mentioned in the first part of this story, many Barbadian merchants and planters of the early 1660s were on the hunt for a cheap, limitless supply of timber for wood products and land for cattle grazing and planting provision crops.  Their desires led to the creation of a new English colony on the North American mainland, a place called Carolina.

It was Barbadian planters and investors who convinced Anthony Ashley Cooper and his friends to ask King Charles II for the grant of a new mainland colony that became Carolina in 1663.  It was principally Barbadian planters and investors who hired Captain William Hilton in 1663 to explore the North American coastline just above Spanish Florida.  Hilton’s discoveries, published in 1664 under the title “A Relation of a Discovery Lately Made on the Coast of Florida,” represented a sort of scouting expedition on behalf of Barbadians who were looking for room to expand.  In May of 1664, a group of Barbadian adventurers established Charles Town on the Cape Fear River, in what is now North Carolina.  That settlement was abandoned for lack of support in 1667, however, during a time of warfare back in England (the Second Anglo-Dutch War).  Meanwhile, Sir John Yeamans in Barbados was busy campaigning for a new effort to colonize the southern part of Carolina, around the area of Port Royal and Hilton’s Head (described by William Hilton in 1664).

The Charter granted by Charles II to the Lords Proprietors of Carolina in 1663. From the collections of the North Carolina Office of Archives and History.

The Charter granted by Charles II to the Lords Proprietors of Carolina in 1663. From the collections of the North Carolina Office of Archives and History.

Every good South Carolinian knows that English settlers landed on the west bank of the Ashley River in the spring of 1670 to create the first permanent settlement in Carolina.  Most people forget, however, that the first settlement at what is now Charles Towne Landing State Park, was the fruit of several years of planning, and men with experience in Barbados were, in many ways, the driving force behind the effort.  It was no coincidence, too, that the first fleet of Carolina settlers who departed England in 1669 sojourned in Barbados before completing their voyage in 1670.

If you look at various history books and journal articles about the early history of Charleston and South Carolina in general, you’ll find plenty of references to men and women who migrated from Barbados to Carolina in the early years of this colony’s existence.  Most of our early governors and statesmen gained valuable colonial experience in Barbados before transferring to Carolina, and most of the early Carolina settlers at least passed through Barbados during the first several decades of our existence.  We could talk at length about the important roles played by Anglo-Barbadian families such as the Colletons, Yeamans, Middletons, Gibbes, Moores, and many others, but you’ll find all that already written in the books on our library shelves.  I’d rather talk about the bigger picture, however, and trace the outline of the spirit of Barbados that was stamped into the DNA of South Carolina.

Even before the first settlers set sail for Carolina in 1669, the Lords Proprietors devoted a great deal of energy to drafting a detailed set of instructions for governing the new colony.  These “Fundamental Constitutions,” as they were called, contained a mix of old and new philosophical ideas about the nature and structure of government, but they were never officially set in motion in the Carolina colony.  Today, the Fundamental Constitutions are often treated as a rather obscure footnote in the grand narrative of South Carolina history, but it’s important for the present conversation because it’s part of our Barbadian legacy.

The Fundamental Constitutions of 1669, which is actually a list of 120 articles describing the proposed government of Carolina, contained ideas that embodied both the legacy of feudalism as well as some new concepts of social mobility.  In short, they were at once old-fashioned and conservative as well as idealistic and impractical (at least for a fledgling colony in the wilderness).  Into this mix, the Lords Proprietors injected a drop of the essence of Barbados.  Article number 110 specifies that “every freeman of Carolina shall have absolute power and authority over his negro slaves, of what opinion or religion soever.”  Up to this point, the various English colonies in the New World had merely dabbled in the use of enslaved labor.  By the mid-1600s, Portuguese planters had already accumulated vast profits by transporting hundreds of thousands of African captives to work in the sugar cane fields of Brazil.  By way of contrast, indentured white servants provided the bulk of the labor in the English colonies on the North American mainland, while African slaves formed a very small minority of the population.  Everything changed in the wake of the Great Sugar Revolution in Barbados, however.  In the 1650s Barbadian planters and investors learned that huge profits could be made through the large-scale exploitation of captive Africans who, unlike indentured servants from Europe, were held as slaves for life.  This horrifically unjust and violent business model, honed to perfection in the cane fields of Barbados, was exported to the other English sugar colonies in the West Indies, and it was protected by law in the Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina in 1669.  Unlike any other of the former colonies that now form part of the United States of America, Carolina was stamped with the scourge of slavery before the first colonist set foot on our shore.

Free white indentured servants were certainly present in the early decades of Carolina, but the use of enslaved labor quickly became the “normal” in South Carolina.  While the New England colonies saw thousands of free white families cultivating relatively small farms, planters in the South Carolina Lowcountry imitated their Barbadian peers by assembling hundreds, even thousands of acres into plantations that relied on the large-scale use of forced labor.  The profitability of sugar led Barbadian planters to focus almost all of their efforts on that one crop, to the point that the small island could not be self-sufficient.  In the Lowcountry of South Carolina, our early planters also preferred to focus their energies and resources on a cash crop for export–first rice, and then sea island cotton–to the point that South Carolina, like our Caribbean neighbors, wasn’t self-sufficient either.

In the early decades of the eighteenth century, other English Colonies in North America, like Virginia and Maryland, soon adopted the trend of increasing their dependence on enslaved labor, but South Carolina’s fervent commitment to slavery set us apart from our neighbors on the mainland.  At the same time, this obsession with profits and exploitation identified us as an extension of Barbados.  Before the nineteenth century, Charleston and the Lowcounty of South Carolina had much more in common with the island of Barbados than any one of our neighbors in these United States.

It is important to recognize that the early colonists in South Carolina never officially ratified the Fundamental Constitutions of 1669.  Even after the Lords Proprietors back in England made several revisions and concessions in the 1670s and 1680s, the men governing the colony on the ground in Charleston preferred to pick and choose elements from the Fundamental Constitutions that suited their goals and ideals.  Again, this fact has its roots in Barbados.  Many of our history books mention the existence of a political faction known as the “Goose Creek Men,” a group of prominent planters with ties to Barbados who wielded significant influence over the government of South Carolina in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.  The real significance of the “Goose Creek Men” is often lost on readers, however.  Because of their experience with the ruthless and violent exploitative business practices developed in Barbados, the “Goose Creek Men” sought to derail the semi-traditional English style of government envisioned by the Lords Proprietors in favor of something much more profitable.

Intoxicated by the lure of Barbadian-style profits, the “Goose Creek Men” steered the early government of South Carolina down a path that accepted slavery, exploitation, violence, and racial discrimination as normal parts of our society.  By 1707, if not a few years earlier, there were more captive Africans coming into the port of Charleston than free white settlers.  That terrible trend continued for many decades, and people of African descent continued to form the majority of our local population well into the twentieth century.  If Barbadian planters had not wholeheartedly embraced slavery in the second half of the seventeenth century, during our state’s gestation period, however, the early history of South Carolina and of Charleston would have followed a very different path.  Our community’s history would have been less opulent, less influential, but also less discriminatory, and more humane.

The official seal of the Carolina colony, as depicted on a map published in 1711 by Edward Crisp (available from the Library of Congress).

The official seal of the Carolina colony, as depicted on a map published in 1711 by Edward Crisp (available from the Library of Congress).

Fast-forward three hundred years.  Here in the twenty-first century, people in the island nation of Barbados and in the Lowcountry of South Carolina are searching for ways to use the past to help us understand the world in which live.  History books tell us that we have shared roots, so we get together and compare notes.  Yes, many of the early governors of Carolina were men who gained valuable experience in Barbados.  Yes, thousands of English-speaking immigrants and African slaves passed through Barbados on their way to Carolina.  Yes, the names given to our Lowcountry parishes were largely borrowed from the parishes of Barbados.  Yes, Barbados continued to be a valuable trade partner with Charleston even after the American Revolution.  There are indeed many similarities between our climates, our cuisines, our architecture, and our ways of speaking, but there’s a deeper, darker truth that we must acknowledge.  Barbados and South Carolina both live in the long shadow of the legacy of slavery.  The institution of slavery, and our founders’ addiction to slavery, is at the root of our relationship and of all our shared traits.

I know that some folks don’t like to talk about slavery, and some people will go out of their way to avoid the topic, but I believe it is important to acknowledge the elephant in the room.  I’m not suggesting we should all dwell on the tragedies of the past, however.  Rather, I’m hoping you’ll join me in acknowledging and celebrating the heritage we share with our neighbors in Barbados.  The greedy obsession with slavery that turned the island of Barbados into a major “culture hearth” nearly four hundred years ago became an odious birthmark on the shores of Carolina. If we try to hide from this dark past, we become blind to the vestiges of slavery that poison our society today.  By acknowledging the fact that our forebearers wrestled with the monster that is slavery, and by acknowledging their mistakes and their triumphs, we gain the strength to persevere and to heal.  Our community’s diversity is a visible legacy of slavery, but today that diversity is our greatest asset.

The ancient connections between Barbados and South Carolina are more than dusty facts.  Our people, culture, and commerce have been linked for centuries, and those links are very much alive today.  Why not come to the library to learn more about this beautiful Caribbean island, or check out the “Barbados and the Carolinas Legacy Foundation” on Facebook, or have a bite of cou-cou at Cane Rhum Bar on East Bay Street?  Let’s do more research and connect more dots.  Let’s travel and experience our respective cultures.  Let’s sample new foods and dance to new beats.  Let our conversations about the past help strengthen our communities.  That’s my mantra here at the Charleston Time Machine.