Slaves on South Carolina Plantation, 1862. Wikimedia Commons.


Africans were imported in significant numbers from about the 1690s, and by 1715 the black population made up about sixty percent of the colony’s total population. This marked another distinctive feature of South Carolina, for it was the only colony in English North America where this proportion existed.

Africans were present at the founding of the English colony in South Carolina and within several decades became a majority. The first governor, William Sayle, brought three blacks in the founding fleet in 1670 and another a few months later. The Fundamental Constitutions (1669) envisioned slavery among other forms of servitude and social hierarchy at the colony’s inception. In fact, in their “Declarations and Proposals to all that will Plant in Carolina” (1663), the Lords Proprietors had not mentioned black slavery, merely offering land under a “headright” system for every servant transported to the Carolina coast. But the proprietors soon acquiesced to the desires of the Barbadians they sought to attract and who wanted to bring their slaves. For in plantation colonies African slaves came to be the universal solution to problems of labor when other solutions, including white indentured servitude and bound Native American labor, proved inadequate. South Carolina was distinctive, however, in that it was alone among England’s colonies in continental North America in preferring African labor to the former.

Africans were imported in significant numbers from about the 1690s, and by 1715 the black population made up about sixty percent of the colony’s total population. This marked another distinctive feature of South Carolina, for it was the only colony in English North America where this proportion existed. As in Virginia, many slaves in seventeenth-century South Carolina came from the West Indies. Although the colder winters on the coast created for them some disadvantages, they were better equipped epidemiologically (in terms of resistance to malaria and yellow fever) and pharmacologically (in terms of their ability to make use of native plants) to cope with South Carolina’s semitropical environment. In this early period of Carolina’s history, then, Africans had some advantages over Europeans. Their familiarity with tropical herbs, ability to move along inland waterways using canoes or pirogues, and skill in fishing enabled them to live off the land much more easily than their masters could. Similar outlooks toward land and nature, and comparable facets of material culture, facilitated their contact with native peoples. Both had basket-weaving traditions, and both were skilled in the use of small watercraft on inland rivers. Africans were among the first to appropriate native languages and were often used as translators. These conditions facilitated African adjustment and appropriation of local skills. Often, Africans were the mediators of knowledge between red men and white men. African expertise as well as rough pioneer conditions of a new settlement facilitated a degree of “sawbuck equality” in the seventeenth century–a term derived from the image of a slaveowner working all day sawing wood with his slave, each facing the other on opposite sides of a sawbuck. The South Carolina slave code of 1696, based on the Barbadian code of 1688, announced an end to this relatively benign period.

Beginning in the eighteenth century the colony increasingly embraced rice as a staple, and by 1740 indigo joined the grain as a lucrative but subordinate staple crop. The English colonists benefited from the knowledge of their African bondsmen, many of whom came from rice-growing regions in Africa and knew more about the cultivation of the crop than did Englishmen. Indeed, when buying slaves, Carolinians adopted a preference for people from the rice-producing Senegambia region, and this preference lasted through most of the colonial period, though the vagaries of trade prevented that region’s ethnic groups from always dominating importation statistics. Various Senegambians were associated with the African cattle complex and brought expertise in that endeavor, perhaps accentuating the planters’ regional preference. For while colonists searched for a staple, South Carolina was “the colony of a colony,” providing beef, hides, and other foodstuffs to Barbados. The practice of free grazing, night-time penning for cattle protection, and seasonal burning to freshen pastures all had West African antecedents. The historian Peter Wood suggested that the “cowboy,” prominently connected with the nineteenth-century American West, may well have found its first usage in South Carolina.

The demographic disproportion continued. Of 17,000 people in South Carolina in 1720, 12,000 were black; by 1740 only 15,000 of the 45,000 people in South Carolina were white. It is no wonder, then, that a Swiss immigrant remarked in 1737 that “Carolina looks more like a Negro country than a country settled by white people.” Although the proportion was not as great as that in the West Indies, where blacks sometimes outnumbered whites by as many as ten or more to one, the disequilibrium was more than sufficient to make the colony unique on the mainland. In 1765 blacks outnumbered whites by more than two to one (90,000 to 40,000), and Charleston imported more slaves than did any other North American port.

These surroundings could not help but affect the perceptions and attitudes of white South Carolinians, and these and other circumstances relate them more closely than other British North Americans to their compatriots in the West Indies. The extent of African diversity in South Carolina did not prevent but may have inhibited the thinking about Africans in solely racial terms. English ethnocentrism was such that the English assumed superiority in the face of practically everyone they met, and Africans were no exception. But if a distinction can be made between ethnocentrism and racism, then it might be suggested that eighteenth-century attitudes toward Africans partook as much of the former as of the latter.

Reacting to the Stono Rebellion, the colony in 1740 passed its most comprehensive slave law, which made it illegal for more than seven adult male slaves to travel together except in the company of a white person. The 1740 code was the basis for all slave laws subsequently passed in the colonial and antebellum eras. During the second half of the eighteenth century, and especially during the Revolutionary crisis, racial attitudes in South Carolina hardened. This harsher attitude can be seen in the increasingly restrictive laws passed to regulate the slave and free-black population. Burglary, arson, and running away, inter alia, were all capital offenses punishable by death. Slaves were not to be away from a plantation between sunset and sunrise and at no time without the permission of the master or they could be taken up and whipped.

In the early years South Carolinians grew rice on dry upland soils, but planters soon switched to inland swamps. At the end of the eighteenth century rice cultivation was adapted to the tide flow, and rice fields were constructed out of low-lying regions fronting rivers. For slaves, this meant that the workload was increased. These fields required the building of massive dikes, levees, and canals by hand with picks and shovels, working in the mud with snakes, alligators, and other vermin. Slaves worked much harder under this new system, especially when new plantations were being formed, though they had less weeding to do once the plantations were established. Moreover, these constructions had to be maintained. All of these things meant that the external attributes of slavery in South Carolina were harsh.

Psychologically, though, slaves in Carolina may have had an easier time than those in, say, Virginia because they were much more ethnic groups. Thus, slaves could provide each other with moral, spiritual, and sometimes cultural support. In addition, the greatest number of Africanisms surviving in British North American can be found in the Carolina region–in the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina and Georgia. One historian suggested that early South Carolina was effectively bilingual, with slaves speaking a patois or dialect that masters could not understand. The pidgin English concocted as a means of communication between and among masters and various African ethnic groups became more regularized and evolved into a separate Creole language among Gullah and Geechee speakers along the coast.

Few African material artifacts survived the middle passage intact, but African artistic and functional values found material expression in African-made pottery and the work baskets and other implements that accompanied rice cultivation. Africanisms more often abided in underlying assumptions about life–in folkways, folktales, and a cosmology that placed greater emphasis on kin–and extended family relationships were no doubt strengthened by the fragility of family life under slavery. Extended kin, fictive or otherwise, helped ease the burden of children separated from parents, of wives removed from husbands. Naming practices, particularly sons after fathers (and less often daughters after mothers), served to memorialize connections that might easily be physically sundered by forces over which those enslaved had no control.

Natural increase began in the decades between 1710 and 1730, though it was interrupted by increasing imports into the lowcountry after 1720. The growth of a Creole, or native-born, population signaled formation of a Creole culture that was neither African nor European but contained elements of both, modified by the attributes of a new environment and the input of Native Americans. In many parts of South Carolina these Creole slaves had the critical mass to develop societies apart from whites.

Lowcountry South Carolina was distinguished by the task system of labor organization, which allowed slaves time to work for themselves after completion of their daily assignments and permitted some to accumulate property. Partly as an offshoot of the task system, slaves organized an internal marketing system. Goods they acquired or produced in their spare time they sold or exchanged with other slaves and with whites. As in Africa and the West Indies, these markets were dominated by women. They sold everything from oysters to peaches, cake to cloth and were not above organizing to control prices. Masters acquiesced to slaves participating in this informal economy because it would have been difficult to prevent and the existence of a market for fresh vegetables and slave-made crafts provided a convenient and relatively cheap source for food and other goods. It is perhaps true that many masters resented the self-confidence and relative independence such a system permitted and that some were more successful than others at limiting the slaves’ possibilities, but all masters made concessions.

South Carolina was an anomaly to other continental colonies in British North America in that it was the only one where slave concubinage was almost instituted in open practice, in imitation of English customs in the West Indies. Race mixture occurred in every colony where people of different races met. Distinctions developed in terms of the degree to which it was embraced. In the islands, the black population highly outnumbered the white population, and there an English planter was practically expected to take a black mistress.

There was some degree of public opinion in the colony opposed to such liaisons. When miscegenation occurred, it was usually a one-way affair involving a white man and a black (slave) woman. The white woman was put on a pedestal and was expected to stay there. The historian Winthrop Jordan argued that in perhaps no other area was the prohibition on interracial sex involving a white woman and a black man so early and strictly established and maintained. This attitude is thought to be related to the sex ratio and the density of the black population. Where there was a great disproportion of blacks to whites, black concubinage seemed to be more often acceptable. In areas where the black population was less dense, the practical result was more equality between white males and females in terms of miscegenation, although it was never entirely acceptable, and nearly everywhere white females were punished by the eighteenth century.

Along with rice, cotton was also planted in colonial South Carolina, but mostly for domestic consumption and often by black slaves. During the Revolutionary period when protest and war hindered commercial production, many plantations were given over more fully to food crops for domestic consumption and to cotton for local textile manufacture. In this era of unrest, plantations were often run entirely by slaves for their own use. Planters were entirely satisfied with this arrangement if it encouraged the slaves to stay put.

In the aftermath of the war, as the economy slowly recovered, planters produced cotton for export. Eli Whitney’s 1793 introduction of an improved cotton gin led to the rapid extension of cotton production into upland South Carolina and elsewhere. As transportation improved, more land was given over to cotton and less to foodstuffs, which could be imported. The mechanics of cotton production were closer to those of tobacco than to those of rice. Cotton production was not as labor intensive as rice production and could be carried out by a man and his family. These considerations facilitated the spread of slavery by making it more accessible to the successful farmer. He could start off slowly and gradually acquire bondspeople to expand cultivation. This process could be seen clearly in South Carolina, where people who settled the upcountry did not have the wherewithal to compete in the coastal rice economy. In 1790 these upland counties operated essentially in a free-labor society, fifteen thousand slaves amounting to no more than a fifth of the population. The onset of cotton production contributed to a substantial increase in the slave population, and by 1830 the slave population was almost equal to the white population. This was in contrast to the lowcountry, where blacks had outnumbered whites since the beginning of the eighteenth century.

The expansion of slavery throughout the state led to the full maturity of the slave society in South Carolina. By 1860, 45.8 percent of white families in the state owned slaves, giving the state one of the highest percentages of slaveholders in the country. During the antebellum era the majority of slaves lived on plantations claiming more than twenty slaves, while the majority of slaveholders owned far fewer than twenty slaves. Largely concentrated in places such as the rice regions of the lowcountry and fertile cotton regions such as Sumter District, slaves created communities shaped as much by their own interactions as by their relationships with whites. Slave cabins on large plantations were often built in rows on either side of dirt roads or “streets” relatively close to the fields but some distance from the masters’ houses. This arrangement provided both physical and to some extent psychological distance between masters and slaves, allowing slaves some autonomy once the workday was over, a luxury that was often denied house servants and those living on small farms. The slave family was generally made up of a mother and a father living in a cabin with their children and perhaps extended kin.

Slave men and women were often married and lived in monogamous relationships, although strictures against premarital sex were often not closely adhered to in the slave communities. Despite the real possibility that a husband or wife could be sold, large numbers of slave couples lived in long-term marriages, and most slaves lived in double-headed households. When suitable husbands could not be found on plantations, masters often allowed “abroad” marriages uniting men and women from neighboring plantations. It was in a master’s financial interest to allow these unions because the more children a slave woman had, the more slaves the master could claim as his property. The average age of child bearing among slave women in the antebellum South was nineteen years old, while the average age for white women was twenty-one.

Once weaned from their mothers, and sometimes even before, slave children on large plantations were usually cared for and watched after by older slave women while their mothers went back to work in the fields. Children were initiated to work at the age of five or six, learning how to take orders and fulfill small tasks, and on cotton plantations they helped with the labor-intensive job of picking cotton. By the age of ten or twelve they were fully initiated into the world of adult work, although they were not expected to do the work of a full hand until about age sixteen.

While the slave’s work regime was intensive, slaves by no means passively acquiesced to the whims of masters. The many ways that slaves resisted the institution of slavery have been major themes of historical literature over the years. Over time, slaves negotiated rights and customs that allowed them to build close-knit communities and develop family bonds. These informal customs were recognized by masters who wanted to keep slaves as productive as possible. Everyday forms of resistance such as work slowdowns and breaking tools were used by slaves in this complicated negotiating system. Slaves customarily received part of the day Saturday and all day Sunday off from work in the fields, using this time to cultivate their own provision grounds, worship with family and friends, and court the opposite sex, among myriad other activities.

The most extreme form of resistance, open revolt, was not common in antebellum South Carolina, but slave violence against whites was a common occurrence, despite the fact that slaves convicted of committing such acts faced extreme punishments ranging from death to severe whipping. Slave runaways, those who in effect stole themselves, were numerous, as the ubiquitous advertisements in antebellum newspapers posting rewards for their capture attest. The goal of many was to escape to the North and freedom, but this was a difficult journey that only the fittest and most determined successfully completed. Many runaways fled temporarily, hiding close by with the support of the slave communities, in order to escape punishment or to protest actions taken by their masters.

Freedom came for all slaves in South Carolina as a result of the Union invasion of the state during the Civil War. The hard times associated with the slave regime did not end with emancipation for the state’s freedmen and freedwomen, but the family and community bonds forged during slavery proved invaluable assets during the Reconstruction era.

Ball, Edward. Slaves in the Family. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998.

Ferguson, Leland. Uncommon Ground: Archaeology and Early African America, 1650–1800. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992.

Jordan, Winthrop D. White over Black: American Attitudes toward the Negro, 1550–1812. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1968.

Joyner, Charles W. Down by the Riverside: A South Carolina Slave Community. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984.

Koger, Larry. Black Slaveowners: Free Black Slave Masters in South Carolina, 1790–1860. 1985. Reprint, Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1995.

Littlefield, Daniel C. Rice and Slaves: Ethnicity and the Slave Trade in Colonial South Carolina. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1981.

Olwell, Robert. Masters, Slaves, and Subjects: The Culture of Power in the South Carolina Low Country, 1740–1790. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1998.

Ramsey, William L. “A Coat for ‘Indian Cuffy’: Mapping the Boundary between Freedom and Slavery in Colonial South Carolina.” South Carolina Historical Magazine 103 (January 2002): 48–66.

Wood, Peter H. Black Majority: Negroes in Colonial South Carolina from 1670 through the Stono Rebellion. New York: Knopf, 1974.

Citation Information

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  • Title Slavery
  • Author
  • Website Name South Carolina Encyclopedia
  • Publisher University of South Carolina, Institute for Southern Studies
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  • Access Date July 24, 2024
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update August 23, 2022
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