Patroons and Periaguas: Enslaved Watermen and Watercraft of the Lowcountry

Patroons and Periaguas: Enslaved Watermen and Watercraft of the Lowcountry

Patroons and Periaguas: Enslaved Watermen and Watercraft of the Lowcountry

Patroons and Periaguas: Enslaved Watermen and Watercraft of the Lowcountry

Synopsis

Patroons and Periaguas explores the intricately interwoven and colorful creole maritime legacy of Native Americans, Africans, enslaved and free African Americans, and Europeans who settled along the rivers and coastline near the bourgeoning colonial port city of Charleston, South Carolina.

Colonial South Carolina, from a European perspective, was a water-filled world where boatmen of diverse ethnicities adopted and adapted maritime skills learned from local experiences or imported from Africa and the Old World to create a New World society and culture. Lynn B. Harris describes how they crewed together in galleys as an ad hoc colonial navy guarding settlements on the Edisto, Kiawah, and Savannah Rivers, rowed and raced plantation log boats called periaguas, fished for profits, and worked side by side as laborers in commercial shipyards building sailing ships for the Atlantic coastal trade, the Caribbean islands, and Europe. Watercraft were of paramount importance for commercial transportation and travel, and the skilled people who built and operated them were a distinctive class in South Carolina.

Enslaved patroons (boat captains) and their crews provided an invaluable service to planters, who had to bring their staple products--rice, indigo, deerskins, and cotton--to market, but they were also purveyors of information for networks of rebellious communications and illicit trade. Harris employs historical records, visual images, and a wealth of archaeological evidence embedded in marshes, underwater on riverbeds, or exhibited in local museums to illuminate clues and stories surrounding these interactions and activities. A pioneering underwater archaeologist, she brings sources and personal experience to bear as she weaves vignettes of the ongoing process of different peoples adapting to each other and their new world that is central to our understanding of the South Carolina maritime landscape.

Excerpt

As we motored slowly past alligators sunning on banks of the murky orangebrown Cooper River, our mission to investigate an underwater site near a plantation, my underwater archaeologist colleagues and I speculated about the origins of these remnants of boats and ships scattered on the riverbed. Who had built and used these waterlogged relics, referred to so prolifically in colonial literature as periaguas? The South Carolina frontier, from a European point of view, was a wild world where watermen of diverse ethnicities shared, adopted, and adapted aquatic skills to survive. They crewed together as an informal colonial navy in galleys guarding the mouths of the Edisto, Kiawah, and Savannah Rivers, rowed and raced plantation boats, swam proficiently, fought alligators, fished for profits, and worked side by side as laborers in large shipyards.

Historical manuscripts such as letters, logbooks, plats, probate records, photographic images, newspaper editorials, and remnants of material culture stored in museum sheds and embedded in marshes and on riverbeds yield tantalizing clues and stories surrounding these activities and interactions. Enslaved watermen built and ran away in plantation boats, boarded ships in port as crew to West Indies, and hired out to shipyards to learn shipwright skills displacing frustrated white laborers seeking employment. Enslaved patroons (captains) and their crews provided an invaluable service to planters, yet were also the linchpins for networks of river communications and illegal trade. “PS. Don’t let the boat Negroes go amongst the Plantation Negroes,” the plantation owner Henry Laurens frequently admonished his slave overseers Timothy Creamer and John Smith at Mepkin Plantation. The statutes of South Carolina reflect efforts to regulate the independence of slave boatmen. As early as 1696 an “Act to Prevent the Stealing and the Taking away of Boats and Canoes” was passed, threatening any slave who “shall take away or let loose any boat, perriager or canoe or take away any grappling, painter, rope, sail or oar from any landing or place whatsoever” with thirty-nine lashes for the first offense and loss of an ear for repetition. Yet, a petition about trade and coastal defense addressed to the . . .

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