Arrival of Englishmen in North Carolina, 1585. From Richard Hakluyt, The Discourse Concerning Westerne Planting (1585), reprinted in Old South Leaflets (Boston: The Directors of the Old South Work, 1906).
Last night my friend Shelia and I discussed Carolina colonial history over dinner in an Italian restaurant in North Charleston. Shelia is earning her master’s degree in history at the College of Charleston, and studies the experiences of enslaved women during the colonial era in Carolina. She noted that sometimes people ask her why, as an African American woman, she would want to study antebellum and colonial history, as she quoted a friend pointing out to her — “Nothing good happened for us then!”
First, we laughed over how studying history can sometimes seem to translate to wanting to go back there. My brother also once asked me what historic period I would want to go to if I could time travel, assuming as a history nerd that I would see it as fun adventure. I quickly responded, “Are you kidding? None! The future!” My experience with studying history is that it gives me a healthy, often awestruck respect for the struggles of the past, and appreciation for moving forward. Though in an earlier post I noted that “time travel” can be an effective historic interpretation strategy, actually going back does not sound fun to me at all.
But saying this, Shelia and I both noted that we found colonial history in Carolina to be fascinating. New World encounters between European settlers, American Indians, and enslaved as well as free Africans were full of conflict, exploitation, and suffering, but also unexpected alliances, personal relationships, and cultural exchanges. Laws surrounding race and enslavement were forming, but still murky, in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. As historian Ira Berlin explains, for early generations of enslaved Africans in the United States, the “Charter Generation,” this meant that racial boundaries were less rigid than they would become for future generations of enslaved African Americans in North America. This early generation often came from coastal trading areas of Africa and were already familiar with European social structures, so that even under bondage in the Americas, they were able to begin the work of “incorporating themselves into those societies . . . establishing families, accumulating property, and employing their knowledge of the law to advance themselves and secure their freedom in remarkably high numbers” (“Coming to Terms with Slavery,” Berlin, 2006). Unfortunately in colonies like Carolina, the growth of plantation-style agriculture and cash crop production in the eighteenth century soon meant that planters required more labor, more rigid laws to control enslaved people and enforce coerced labor, and more limited access to individual freedom, which they increasingly defined as a racial barrier between blacks and whites.
What is fascinating about this time period is that it reveals how slavery formed and changed, and would continue to change over time, for the enslavers and the enslaved. Nothing was ever really set in stone or would be– instead people kept struggling and fighting. As Berlin noted about the history of slavery, “race’s ever-changing character suggests its malleability. That it could be made in the past argues that it can be re-made in the future — a prospect that provides all the more reason to come to terms with slavery ” (Berlin, 17). This ongoing change (sometimes from bad to worse, but then sometimes the other way around) is what makes this early history fascinating for history nerds like Shelia and myself, and worth discussing over an Italian dinner in 2012. But the promise of change, and the unexpected forms that change took in the past and could take in the future, is also what makes public history about even painful historic subjects such as racial inequalities and slavery so crucial, and why I look forward to making information about this history accessible through APLA.