Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The South Carolina Sea Island Slaves

As Labor Day recedes, it is worth reflecting on the meaning of labor in the United States. Because one instance from the history of labor in the United States casts a considerable degree of illumination on this subject as a whole, it is worth recounting it, even if only in outline.

About 150 years ago, in the midst of the Civil War, Union Forces were seizing control of much of the confederate states of Georgia and South Carolina. And just off the coast, in the low-lying South Carolina Sea Islands, the owners of the cotton plantations there heard these reports of Union bombardment and occupation. Deciding to flee, the owners packed away their most valuable portable belongings and abandoned the rest of their property: their land, their cotton plantations, their cotton gins and other machinery, as well, of course, as their slaves.

It ought to be noted that the slaves on the South Carolina Sea Island cotton plantations had historically been afforded a relatively high degree of autonomy. Because they were situated on islands, and escape was difficult, they did not require the same degree of management as their colleagues on the mainland enjoyed. Rather, they tended to run much of the plantations' operations with little oversight. Of course, they were still slaves and, so, were not very much able to ignore the owners' demands. However, when the owners boarded their ships and disappeared into the ocean to escape the inevitable Union invasion, the slaves found themselves with few barriers to their freedom. As a matter of fact, since the plantations were for the most part self-sufficient, there were hardly any barriers at all.

Having learned to hate the production of cotton, and seeing no more need to toil for the cash crop, the freed slaves quickly destroyed the plantations' cotton gins. Freed from not only the bonds of slavery, but from the demands of the market, they developed a subsistence economy, farming crops for personal consumption. While the weather was for the most part mild, and their crops grew, and fish in the nearby sea provided fresh sources of food, the freed slaves enjoyed their freedom. This freedom, however, would not last long.

Only a few months after the flight of their former owners, and the beginning of their liberty, the freed slaves saw the arrival of Union forces. Landing on the islands, with missionaries in tow, their orders were to reinstate the plantation economy. Cotton was a very valuable commodity, and the businessmen in the north coveted the profits it reaped just as much as the businessmen in the south did. You people may be free now, they told the freed slaves, but this land isn't. It was owned by your former owners, and now it is ours. Of course, you may continue to live here. However, you may only continue to live here if you pay us rent. You can raise the money to pay it by working in the fields picking cotton all day long.

Happy Labor Day.

No comments: