South Carolina’s origins are so closely tied to the British West Indian colony of Barbados that it has been called a “Colony of a Colony.” The historian Jack Greene has called Barbados the “culture hearth” of the southeastern, slavery-dominated plantation economy. Surprisingly little is yet known of the origins of South Carolina’s early leaders. Although the Barbadian influence has probably been overstated and South Carolina’s plantation owners never became absentee landlords to the degree of the West Indian sugar planters, South Carolina did come to more closely resemble the West Indies than did any of the other English mainland colonies.
Initially settled by the English in 1627, Barbados had become an exceedingly wealthy, sugar-dominated economy by the time of South Carolina’s settlement in 1670. Sir John Colleton, who probably led the effort to gain the Carolina charter for eight English noblemen, had become a Barbadian planter after the defeat of the royalist cause in the Puritan Revolution. Anthony Ashley Cooper, later the first earl of Shaftesbury and the leading proprietor in the settling of South Carolina, had also owned a Barbados plantation. First Shaftesbury, who had other strong Caribbean interests, and then the Colleton family provided the leadership for the settlement’s owners until almost the end of the seventeenth century.
Initially the Lords Proprietors hoped to populate their colony with settlers from Barbados and other New World colonies rather than from England. A group of “Barbadian Adventurers” sent an exploratory expedition in 1663, obtained concessions from the proprietors, and attempted to establish a settlement at Cape Fear. Although the Barbadian settlement at Cape Fear was abandoned in 1667, the subsequent successful 1669 settling expedition from England picked up some Barbadians on its way to Carolina. Much of the shipping from England in the early years came via Barbados, and substantial numbers of Barbadians, both white and black, immigrated to the Carolina lowcountry.
Barbados has a total of only 166 square miles of land, and by 1670 most of it was tied up in increasingly fewer and larger sugar “factories.” South Carolina offered both opportunities for younger sons and smaller farmers and the prospect of provisions to feed the Barbadians. Although the emigration of freemen, indentured servants, and slaves from Barbados was large only in South Carolina’s early years (and has been inflated by misidentification of persons only passing through the West Indies on their way to Carolina), the ties between the colonies remained strong. Provisions and barrel staves were among South Carolina’s earliest profitable enterprises and remained a substantial portion of exports even after large rice plantations cultivated by slave labor came to dominate the colony after the 1690s. Lowcountry parishes with slave populations of more than eighty percent and appalling mortality rates even shared the names of parishes in Barbados. As late as 1766, the South Carolina Commons House of Assembly appropriated £785 to help those who had lost their homes in the great Bridgetown fire.
Proprietary South Carolina’s powerful Goose Creek political faction contained Barbadians. Their efforts to circumvent the proprietors’ prohibitions against selling Native Americans into slavery and dealing with pirates plagued the colony’s owners for years. Sir John Yeamans, who abandoned the earlier failed Barbadian settlement at Cape Fear and arranged the murder of his paramour’s husband so that he could marry her, has been cited by the historian Robert Weir as “in many ways the archetype of the aggressive Barbadians” and “a pirate ashore.” While serving as South Carolina’s third governor from 1672 to 1674, he infuriated Lord Shaftesbury by making profits selling to Barbados provisions that were desperately needed in Carolina. Proprietary South Carolina had two other Barbadian governors: James Colleton, a brother of the man who then held the Colleton family share in the enterprise; and Robert Gibbes, who bribed his way into the governor’s office in 1710.
Rice became as important in South Carolina as sugar was in Barbados, but Carolinians never relied on a single crop to the same degree that their island counterparts did. South Carolina’s slave code, modeled on that of Barbados, was the harshest on the continent. Whatever the proportion of Barbadian influence, South Carolina’s small white elite faction became exceedingly wealthy. The ties between the two colonies were closer than those between some other parts of the Atlantic world, but by the mid-eighteenth century Charleston had become South Carolina’s cultural center.
Campbell, P[eter]. F. Some Early Barbadian History. St. Michael, Barbados: by the author, 1993.
Greene, Jack P. “Colonial South Carolina and the Caribbean Connection.” South Carolina Historical Magazine 88 (October 1987): 192–210.
Lesser, Charles H. South Carolina Begins: The Records of a Proprietary Colony, 1663–1721. Columbia: South Carolina Department of Archives and History, 1995.