The English Sugar Islands and the Founding of South Carolina

By Dunn, Richard S. | South Carolina Historical Magazine, April 2000 | Go to article overview

The English Sugar Islands and the Founding of South Carolina


Dunn, Richard S., South Carolina Historical Magazine


EVERYONE WHO HAS EXAMINED THE FOUNDING OF SOUTH

Carolina agrees that planters from the West Indies played a major role-- some would say a decisive role-in shaping the new colony. The most recent historian of colonial South Carolina, Eugene Sirmans, argues that settlers from Barbados, congregating at Goose Creek a few miles above Charleston, formed the dominant political faction in the first generation of settlement. Sirmans labels the opening section of his book spanning the years from 1670 to 1712, the age of the Goose Creek men.l

Sirmans may exaggerate the prominence of West Indians in early Carolina, but not by much. Agnes Baldwin has just published a list of 684 settlers who came to Carolina between 1670 and 1680. In this list, half the settlers whose place of origin she can identify came from the West Indies.2 And if we examine the backgrounds of the governors of South Carolina between 1669 and 1737, it turns out that nearly half-eleven out of twentythree-had lived in the islands or were sons of islanders. Seven of the early Carolina governors had Barbados backgrounds.3 Hence the Goose Creek men are indeed crucial to our understanding of early South Carolina.

Who were these Goose Creek men? Why did they leave the Caribbean islands at a time when the sugar industry was booming there, in order to face unknown challenges in the Carolina wilderness? What sort of colonizing expertise did they bring with them from the island colonies? And what social habits did they introduce to Carolina? Such questions have hitherto gone unasked and unanswered, because no one has examined the social structure of the English sugar islands in the late seventeenth century. Now a number of scholars are exploring aspects of Caribbean history which bear directly upon the founding of South Carolina. Many puzzles remain. But I believe that a social analysis of Barbados and Jamaica, circa 1670, does tell us something about the Goose Greek men and the thrust they imparted to South Carolina.

In 1670, the several English island colonies were at quite different stages of development. Barbados was the richest, most highly developed, most populous, and most congested English colony in America, with a thriving sugar industry and 50,000 inhabitants, including 30,000 Negroes. The Leeward Islands of St. Kitts, Nevis, Antigua and Montserrat were considerably less prosperous and well settled than Barbados, though by mainland standards they were very crowded and intensively cultivated. In these four islands the sugar industry was not yet fully developed; most of the Leeward planters were still small farmers with few or no slaves. Jamaica, a far larger place than Barbados or the Leewards, and potentially the most valuable English sugar producer, was in 1670 a raw and boisterous frontier outpost, best known as a buccaneer s lair. The Jamaican sugar industry was growing fast, but most of the land on the island was still untamed jungle. In Bermuda and the Bahamas, by contrast, there was little potential for further growth. Both of these island groups were economically stunted, for they lay too far north for sugar production. Bermuda-the oldest and smallest English colony-was an overcrowded, isolated, bucolic community of small tobacco farmers and fishermen. The Bahaman archipelago sheltered a few squatters who cut braziletto wood and gathered ambergris.

Settlers were drawn to South Carolina from all of these islands during the late seventeenth century. The tie with the Bahamas was especially close, since the Carolina proprietors also governed these islands, or tried to. The Earl of Shaftesbury ordered the ragged island squatters to adopt his pet institutional scheme, the Fundamental Constitutions, but his effort to staff the Bahaman Grand Council with titled manor lords failed even more spectacularly than in South Carolina. Jamaica was of course some distance removed from Carolina, but it sent a number of settlers, including Thomas Pinckney, founder of a famous family, who arrived in 1692 on a Jamaican privateer. …

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