I thoroughly enjoyed Matthew Mulcahy’s Hubs of Empire: The Southeastern Lowcountry and British Caribbean. In every way, I would describe it as an Alt-South text.
The central argument of this book is that the South Carolina and Georgia Lowcountry ought to be considered part of a “Greater Caribbean” regional culture that includes Barbados, the Leeward Islands and Jamaica in the British West Indies. “Carolina in ye West Indies” was founded by settlers from Barbados who brought their culture from the Caribbean to the North American mainland.
I hate the way American history is taught today in our public schools. In the beginning, there were more than 13 American colonies and they were settled by different populations at different times and were founded for a variety of reasons. As we have seen, New England was founded by Puritans as a Calvinist religious utopia. It was radically different from the other American colonies to the south which were founded by mainstream Englishmen for commercial purposes.
In order to understand the origins of the Deep South, you have to go back to the beginning in Elizabethan England. In the late 16th century, England was a small and poor country, but a group of ambitious merchants and gentlemen known as the West Country men had a dream of creating an overseas English empire. They looked west and envisioned the conquest of Ireland and Spain’s American Empire. They were motivated by the three Ps: Protestantism, patriotism and privateering. In the words of Richard Hakluyt, their goal was “to 1.) plant the Christian religion, 2. to trafficke, 3. to conquer.”
In search of riches, Francis Drake raided the Spanish Main and Sir Walter Raleigh searched for the golden city of El Dorado in what is now Venezuela. The English never conquered the Spanish Main or found El Dorado, but their attacks forced the Spanish to prioritize the defense of the core of their empire in Mexico and Peru. The English were allowed to establish a foothold in far flung parts of the New World which were thought by the Spanish to be of little value like Virginia and Barbados.
In these footholds, the English set about planting tobacco as a cash crop which they had learned about from their voyages in the Caribbean and along the northern coast of South America. There was already an established tobacco market in Europe. In North America, Virginia was founded in 1607. In the Caribbean, the English settled St. Christopher in 1623, Barbados in 1627, Nevis in 1628 and Antigua and Montserrat in 1632. Unable to compete with Chesapeake tobacco, the West Indian colonists began to search for another cash crop and for about a decade experimented with cotton.
“It was a golden period for Brazil. By the end of the sixteenth century, a narrow coastal strip boasted more than 120 sugar mills in what had now become the richest European colony anywhere in the world. James Drax, visiting around 1640, would have seen all this: the fabulous opulence of the local planters, their tables laden with silver and fine china, their doors fitted with gold locks; their women wearing huge jewels from the East, precious fabrics everywhere and an army of slaves and prostitutes always hovering. A French visitor at the beginning of the seventeenth century has described his visit to a Portuguese sugar baron, who took his lavish meals to the sounds of an orchestra of 30 beautiful black slave girls, presided over by a bandmaster imported from Europe. All was afloat on a sea of easy profit – the Dutch estimated that in 1620, the Brazilian sugar industry made the equivalent of more than half a million pounds sterling a year, an astonishing figure.”
At the time, the Dutch were occupying Northern Brazil where the sugar industry had been disrupted in the fighting with the Portuguese planters. It was the Dutch who financed the introduction of sugar plantations to Barbados. By all accounts, James Drax was the first successful sugar planter on Barbados.
Barbados in the 1640s effectively becomes the Massachusetts of the British West Indies: the plantation complex takes root in Barbados, African slaves become the labor force, white supremacy evolves as a response to demographic change, and the plantocracy rules the island and becomes fabulously wealthy. Over the next several decades, the sugar plantations continue to grow in size and scale, which force out smaller producers from the cultural hearth who move to other islands.
Barbadians moved to the Leeward Islands where they reproduced the plantation complex. In 1655, the English captured Jamaica from the Spanish as part of Oliver Cromwell’s Western Design. There were several failed attempts by Barbadians to colonize nearby St. Vincent which was populated by Black Caribs. Barbadians settled on the northern coast of South America in Suriname, but evacuated after that colony was traded by the Dutch for New York. Many of those settlers relocated to Jamaica.
In 1670, a fleet of three ships – the Port Royal, the Three Brothers, and the Carolina – arrive in North America bringing settlers from England and Barbados to found the colony of Carolina. It is the Deep South’s equivalent of the Mayflower except that these pilgrims had come from the Caribbean. They set out to recreate the slave society that they had left behind in Barbados, not to create any “City on a Hill” which couldn’t have been further removed from their intentions.
The Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina which was co-authored by none other than John Locke guarantees at the outset that “every freeman of Carolina shall have absolute power and authority over his Negro slaves.” It envisions “the creation of an aristocratic society in the New World, complete with titled nobility and “leet-men,” agricultural laborers tied to the land in a state of neoserfdom. Aristocrats were to control two-fifths of all the land, while the rest was reserved for freemen.”
As was the case in Barbados, there were property requirements for all offices in South Carolina: voters had to own 50 acres and members of parliament had to own 500 acres. The preamble of the Fundamental Constitutions states the intention was for Carolina “may avoid erecting a numerous Democracy.” Even on the eve of American Revolution, members of the South Carolina Assembly had to “own 500 acres of land or more, at least 10 slaves or other property, and belong to the Anglican Church.”
In Hubs of Empire, Mulcahy methodically takes the reader through the historical, social and economic development of reach sub-region of the Greater Caribbean from the time of settlement until the American Revolution: Barbados, the Leeward Islands, Jamaica and the Lowcounty. He notes how Greater Caribbean residents faced common challenges like a severe disease environment, hurricanes, earthquakes and the threat posed by slave rebellions, race war and foreign invasions. Greater Caribbean became by far the wealthiest region of British America. Jamaica was the wealthiest colony in the West Indies while South Carolina was the wealthiest North American colony.
The Greater Caribbean world was far more secular, individualistic, materialistic and hedonistic than New England. The Great Awakening of the mid-18th century seems to have had little impact on the region. Nominally Anglican in religious orientation, the Lowcountry and West Indies was a country of gentlemen who enjoyed drinking, gambling, socializing, playing cards, etc. Instead of building common schools, they stocked their homes with luxury items and hired private tutors or educated their Anglican children in Britain. The most successful Carolinian and West Indian planters became absentees and returned to Britain to live as country gentry in huge mansions like the Beckfords.
There were some major differences within the Greater Caribbean: South Carolina and Georgia (which was overrun by South Carolinians after slavery was legalized in 1751) has a subtropical climate. Rice became the agricultural staple of the Lowcountry which stretched from the Lower Cape Fear region in southeastern North Carolina to the Altamaha River in Georgia. The sugar plantations used gang labor. The rice plantations used a task system. Overall, the Lowcountry had a much less intense slave system than the West Indies and wasn’t nearly as wealthy. There was also a Backcountry filling up with White settlers which led to different racial demographics and politics than in the Caribbean.
The American Revolution artificially split the Lowcountry from the British West Indies. The planters in the West Indies sympathized with the Americans and wished to avoid conflict, but they were in no position to revolt against the Crown. They were too dependent on the British Navy for their security and too vulnerable to slave insurrections that Britain incited in the South during the American Revolution. What’s more, they were dependent on the British market to export their sugar. In contrast, the Lowcountry planters exported their rice to consumers in continental Europe.
In such a way, the Lowcountry ended up in the United States with the East rather than in a more natural union with the British West Indies. Later, short staple cotton was developed as a new crop after the invention of the cotton gin. The Cotton Kingdom exploded west from the South Carolina Backcountry to East Texas. King Cotton laid the cultural foundation of the Deep South in the same way that sugar had spread out of Barbados and through the Caribbean and northern South America.
That’s a story for another day.