Academic journal article South Carolina Historical Magazine

Slave Demography in the Lowcountry, 1670-1740: From Frontier Society to Plantation Regime

Academic journal article South Carolina Historical Magazine

Slave Demography in the Lowcountry, 1670-1740: From Frontier Society to Plantation Regime

Article excerpt

IN THE MAJOR PLANTATION REGIONS OF THE AMERICAS, AS Philip Curtin has observed of the sugar-producing colonies, "demographic history tended to fall into a regular pattern over time."1 That pattern reflected differences between newly arrived African slaves and their American-born offspring. African immigrants were predominantly male and they suffered high rates of morbidity and mortality when introduced to a new and volatile colonial disease environment. The few women among them, furthermore, were often well into their childbearing years when they crossed the Atlantic; furthermore, frequent illness and prolonged lactation may have lowered their fertility. Those women thus had too few children to offset the impact of the male surplus and high mortality on the rate of reproductive increase. American-born slaves, by contrast, possessed a more balanced sex ratio, suffered lower (although often still frightful) death rates and began having children at earlier ages and, perhaps (if less often ill and less committed to lengthy breast feeding), at higher age-specific rates.

The changing balance of Africans and natives thus dictated the reproductive performance of the population. Early in the history of plantation regimes, following the introduction of new staple crops when output expanded rapidly, each region relied heavily on new workers from Africa. The resulting high ratio of immigrants to natives produced a surplus of deaths over births. This, in turn, led to continued high rates of immigration both to make up the deficit and to provide the booming export sector with more workers. Eventually, however, as regions approached full production, the need for new workers diminished, the proportion of native-born blacks rose, the ratio of deaths to births fell, and the slave population began to grow

through reproduction.2

While this model is compelling and well-established in the literature, several mysteries remain. Not the least of these concerns the demography of slavery at the beginning of the process, when the plantation system was first articulated. In particular, the model fails to address regions that became slave societies (or at least had sizeable slave populations) before they built plantation regimes. South Carolina is a case in point, for it acquired a substantial slave labor force in the seventeenth century, when the economy turned on farm building, subsistence agriculture, and the production of provisions and wood products for sale in the sugar islands. During these years most planters ran small units worked by themselves or with the help of a few servants and slaves. What was the composition of the slave population in the early years of the lowcountry frontier? Did Carolina blacks achieve reproductive increase before the export-boom of the early eighteenth century swelled the proportion of Africans among them? How did the composition of the population and its reproductive rate change as the emerging gentry built their great plantations?

While the focus of this essay is on African Americans as a population, the topic has implications that extend beyond technical questions in demography to issues of labor, culture, and identity. Demography-the vital rates and population structures slaves endured and created-formed fundamental parameters which set limits and opened possibilities for the way slaves lived and worked. This is especially true of reproduction, crucial to creating kin networks, building relationships of trust and affection, making communities and achieving solidarity, learning and articulating a new Afro-Carolinian culture. I do not mean to assert a naive demographic determinism: population processes were part of an interactive system and were shaped by slave work routines and by the way slaves viewed themselves and understood their world. Nevertheless, demography is a useful point of entry into slave life, particularly during the early years of lowcountry settlement. It asks precise questions, it facilitates comparison over time and with other slave regimes, and it makes good use of the thin and seemingly intractable evidence now available. …

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