Silk Hopes in Colonial South Carolina

By Marsh, Ben | The Journal of Southern History, November 2012 | Go to article overview

Silk Hopes in Colonial South Carolina


Marsh, Ben, The Journal of Southern History


IN 2002 A BEAUTIFUL SOUTH CAROLINA PROPERTY SET AMID THE "pine woods, open pastures and old rice fields" along the eastern branch of the Cooper River was offered for sale. The estate retained its original 1689 plantation name, "Silk Hope," a name that had looked optimistically forward even as most colonial plantations' monikers harked back to English origins, proud family names, or Native American labels. Although the realtor's brochure noted that the property "embodied significant history," it completely overlooked this plantation's actual connection to the silk of its name, a reflection of how attempts to produce silk in colonial South Carolina have rarely registered in the region's history. (1) Yet these efforts to grow silk also embodied significant history, and silk hopes were fashioned out of several connected forces oriented toward self-advancement: British imperial patronage, Carolinian planter investment, and continental European opportunism. Together these forces shaped innovative legislative activity and encouraged persistent efforts on the ground, mobilizing the labor of a rich mixture of people of different sexes, races, classes, and national origins. Although never coming anywhere near to fulfilling its proponents' lofty ambitions, the production of raw silk nonetheless deployed the labor of many hundreds of colonists and developed Carolina's transoceanic and transnational linkages. (2)

Although historical scholarship has rightly described sericulture in colonial South Carolina as a commercial failure, this article contends that there is much to be rescued from this failure, which has been inadequately documented and understood. One might liken the exercise to salvaging a shipwreck: the goal is not to attempt to refloat the vessel but rather to locate valuable materials. Perhaps the first thing to be rescued involves the methods that were employed to advance silk, which included extensive public incentives (at both imperial and colonial levels) and considerable private investment (of both capital and labor, including slaves). A second point relates to the numerous ways that silk production intersected with the colony's domestic affairs, such as the geography of settlement, intellectual and social currents, gender relations, and the imperial crisis. Finally, a survey of the remains allows for a fuller appreciation of the amount of silk that was actually produced in Carolina. This negligible output arguably assumes a different significance when magnified according to the difficulty of production in the colonial environment. This article treats these three corresponding salvage operations in turn, but first let us establish how colonial South Carolina's silk hopes have been characterized since their wreckage and briefly explain why the ship sank.

In the scholarship of the last half century, colonial sericulture, if mentioned at all, is frequently relegated to references in quirky footnotes or dismissed as a utopian fantasy that was entertained only by metropolitan propagandists and armchair imperialists. Surveys of colonial history, especially, tend to describe how plans to grow silk "quickly disappeared" or "failed miserably," drawing a rather teleological distinction between commodities that had no hope of success and those that were destined to be "developed" by settlers. (3) Rice, indigo, and cotton are often plucked out from a long list of target exotic commodities that contemporaries anticipated in the late seventeenth century. As Robert M. Weir observes, "Silk, olives, wine, oranges, and lemons might do well, it was thought, but they never worked out." (4) Yet evidence of long-standing interest and wide-ranging investment in sericulture across the colonial era indicates that Carolina silk production constituted much more than, in Converse D. Clowse's words, "experimenting" that "did not lead to anything." (5)

It is telling that the early historians of Carolina, far from overlooking silk production, often exaggerated it: they viewed it as a noteworthy subject because it lent credence to the silk hopes of subsequent centuries. …

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