Rice, resistance, and forced transatlantic communities: (re)envisioning the African Diaspora in Low Country Georgia, 1750-1800.

Author:Bell, Karen B.
Position:Essay
 
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[T]he Negro business is a great object with us, it is to the Trade of this country, as the Soul to the Body, and without it no House can gain a proper stability, the planter will as far as in his power sacrifice everything to attain [N]egroes and those who have the disposal of them, will always command their Crops, which is everything to a Merchant; the prices with us are tempting to the adventurer, until importation takes place directly from the Coast, many will be sent in from the West Indies ... but this is not the [channel] we would wish to attain them though--tis from the Coast only we wish to receive them. --Joseph Clay, Savannah Merchant. (1) On 27 July 1768 the Georgia Gazette posted an advertisement from John Mullryne for two runaway enslaved Africans, Carolina and John. Both men had run away from the Thunderbolt province in Savannah. Carolina, a newly imported African from the "Guiney Country," had run away several times before and "bore the mark of an old offender." (2) His co-conspirator John, "a mulatto" who spoke "bad French," may have been a forced labor immigrant who came to Savannah through the inter-Atlantic trade with the French Caribbean. (3) Both John and Carolina were very keen men whom Mullryne believed could "pretend to be free." (4) Georgia's colonial slave codes were the main reasons enslaved Africans and "mixed-race" people of color would "pretend to be free." The colony's 1765 slave code granted several citizenship privileges to immigrating free people of color and provided them a measure of independence. The development of statutory restrictions on the free black and mixed race population evolved slowly in the years following the legalization of slavery in Georgia in 1750, but the colony lacked the organization for physically monitoring the increasing number of enslaved Africans. Moreover, Africans and mulattoes who ran away successfully transformed the inland areas of Savannah into havens for fugitives of the slave system. The Gazette's description of these two runaways provides important cultural and ideological insights into African origins and ethnicity, resistance, and freedom in Low Country Georgia. (5)

The legalization of slavery in Georgia in 1750 and the concomitant emergence of the transatlantic slave trade shaped the evolution of communities among enslaved Africans and African Americans in the late 18th century. In Low Country Georgia, as well as in other parts of the Diaspora, enslaved Africans perceived themselves as part of a cultural community that had distinct ethnic and geographical roots. Randomization was not a function of the Middle Passage. Although slave ships traversed the coast of Africa to secure captives, in some instances their cargoes were drawn from only one port. Principal ports included Goree, Bonny, Calabar, Elmina, and those on the Biafaran coast; consequently, the ethnic and cultural composition of captive Africans transported to the Americas reflected great homogeneity. (6) Slave ships bound for Georgia included captive Africans who shared a similar linguistic heritage such as the Malinke and Serer who spoke the Mande language. To a large extent, the transatlantic Middle Passage defined and shaped the New World consciousness of captive Africans and informed their perceptions of kinship, ethnicity, and community. Unfortunately, given this context, the voices of captive Africans have been difficult to hear. (7) With but a few exceptions, their words and thoughts are absent from extant archival records. However, commercial and business records on the transatlantic slave trade to Georgia reveal the geographical dimensions of the trade, and the ethnic groups dispersed throughout the region. We also learn much about the various forms of resistance recorded in these materials, thus providing an important historical frame of reference for "hearing" the voices of enslaved Africans. (8)

Physical and cultural resistance to enslavement became an integral element in the formation of African diasporic communities. As discrete communities based upon shared experiences, African diasporic communities were linked by regional origins, American destinations, and New World cultural exchanges. By examining materials as divergent as slave ship manifests, slave narratives, plantation records, and journals, a composite picture of the enslavement, forced migration, and cultural resistance of enslaved Africans emerges which, in turn, illuminates the extent of the transference of African cultural practices and knowledge systems in the Low Country. Three interrelated factors help to explain how and why enslaved Africans in the Georgia Low Country retained much of their African cultural identity: the ratio of the African and African American population to the white population remained disproportionately high in several Low Country counties by 1790, and this pattern continued throughout the era of slavery (see Table 1). Second, the continued importation of new Africans in the years following the 1808 ban on the slave trade persisted, which reinforced African cultural traditions and reduced assimilation; and third, the Low Country environment, with its string of barrier islands, separated the island communities from the mainland white population, which reinforced Africans' collective identity and consciousness (see Figure 1). (9)

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Table 1: Population of Low Country Georgia, 1790 Slave/Free Black White % Black Population Chatham 8,313 2,426 77% Liberty 4,052 1,303 75% Glynn 220 193 53% Camden 84 221 27% Source: United States Population Census, 1790. There were 112 free blacks in Chatham County; 27 in Liberty County; 5 in Glynn County; and 14 in Camden County. By 1820, Camden County's population was 65 percent black. The fifth Low Country county, McIntosh County, separated from Liberty County in 1793. By 1790 three principal transatlantic diasporic communities had emerged in Georgia's Low Country: the Savannah-Ogeechee district, located between the Savannah and Ogeechee rivers, contained Chatham County; the Midway district, located between the Savannah and Altamaha rivers, contained Liberty and McIntosh counties; and the Altamaha district, which stretched from the Atlantic between the Altamaha and St. Mary's rivers, which included Glynn and Camden counties. These communities served as "watersheds," the land area which contributes surface water to a river or other body of water. Thus, settlement in watershed areas involves participating in a complex and evolving ecological environment. (10) The region's five large rivers--the Savannah, Ogeechee, Altamaha, Satilla, and St. Mary's--were vital to the growth of rice and served as the focal point for settlement. (11)

The arrival of over 13,000 Africans in Low Country Georgia led to the development of the distinct Gullah/Geechee language, an English-based Creole dialect with West African origins. This shared language made possible the establishment of a sense of community in the new territory. The cultural identity of these forced transatlantic communities emanated from shared African traditions and experiences, and intersecting social relations and linguistic connections. (12) Building on both their African background and American experience, Africans in Low Country Georgia retained much of their African culture and used it to mount physical and cultural resistance to their enslavement. Cultural resistance represented a salient form of opposition to their legal and religiously sanctioned enslavement. As we shall see, the establishment of rice plantations along the coastal and inland areas of Georgia in the 18th century produced a unique environment for enslaved Africans to re-create social and cultural institutions. Functioning within the constraints of an inhumane system, Africans and African Americans established familial bonds, preserved agricultural techniques, re-created artistic expressions, maintained Islamic practices, and syncretized African religious concepts with Christian beliefs and practices.

THE COLONIZATION OF GEORGIA

Historians have generally perceived colonial Georgia as sui generis because of its small size and unique Utopian intentions. Although James Oglethorpe was following a charitable impulse in founding the colony, its underlying purpose was to guard the British colonies' "southern frontier" with Spanish Florida. Georgia's trustees exaggerated about the abundance of natural resources in hopes that the European settlers would pursue alternatives to enslaved African labor. Georgia's colonizers billed it as "The Promised Land," and they offered land and the possibility for economic fulfillment to those who were willing to work hard. Prohibitions against slavery and drinking served the militaristic purposes of the colony, which included preparing soldiers for clashes with the Spanish. Colonial Georgia, like most of colonial North America, underwent significant demographic and cultural change due to immigration, forced migration, and Native American displacement. (13)

The earliest attempt to grow rice in colonial Georgia was in 1739 by German settlers from Salzburg, but this was soon abandoned. Most of Savannah's European settlers came to believe that only West Africans could withstand the environmental and health hazards associated with the "swamp work" required for rice production. However, in colonial South Carolina by the 1750s, the planter-merchants there realized that they overestimated the relative ability of West Africans to withstand intense heat and labor; and they needed to identify West African ethnic groups from rice growing regions. These regions included Senegambia the area in West Africa north of Sierra Leone; and the Windward Coast, the area from Sierra Leone to the west of the Rio Assini, including the Ivory Coast. Many of the planter-merchants who established rice plantations in the Savannah region had migrated from South Carolina, and they brought their...

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