History of slavery on Georgia Sea Island plantations around the Civil War. Slave descendants would later become the Gullah people.
It’s hard to believe that, in this coastal area of posh beach resorts, shopping centers and freeways, there were once thousands of enslaved Africans toiling in the fierce coastal heat. The foundation of an old plantation house or a crumbling slave cabin here and there are virtually the only structural reminders of this shameful period of history – General William T. Sherman saw to that.
Until General Sherman’s devastating march through Georgia, the Sea Island plantations, like most of the South, were heavily dependant on slave labor. Wealthy cotton and rice plantation owners valued the expertise of slaves who once farmed similar crops in the grasslands and marshes back in Africa. If it wasn’t for the slaves, the vast plantations that once lined the Georgia/South Carolina coast wouldn’t have thrived as they did.
Near the start of the nineteenth century, many slaves were being kidnaped from the interior of Nigeria and shipped down the rivers to coastal ports. The majority were members of the Ibo tribe, whose traditional homeland was in southeast Nigeria between the Niger and Cross Rivers. Their captors were mainly rival tribesmen who traded with white slave traders for currency, goods and firearms.
In the late 1700s, after a horrific voyage across the Atlantic known as the Middle Passage, the Ibos would typically be brought into ports on the Southern U.S. mainland or in the Caribbean. They were placed into pens, given plenty of food and drink and encouraged to exercise, solely to make them more attractive on the auction block. Then, after a humiliating viewing period where they were stripped, pinched and prodded, the Ibos were sold to speculators who, in turn, transported them to areas of demand.
Of course, not everyone agreed with the practice of slavery. The abolitionist movement of the late 18th and early 19th centuries succeeded in banning slavery throughout the Northern states. As early as 1749, even Georgia discouraged overt slaveholding within state lines. In 1798, it was made illegal in Georgia to import slaves from Africa.
But these so-called laws were too late in coming for an area so dependent on slave labor. Most plantation owners saw slavery as a necessary evil, and resorted to secretive tactics to keep their workforce growing. At high tide under the cover of darkness, slave holders would sneak their ships through the tidal creeks directly to the island plantations.
By all accounts, life on the Sea Island plantations was brutal for the slaves. They were given the backbreaking task of converting heavily wooded islands into cotton and rice fields. This involved draining the salt marshes, cutting down huge trees and clearing stumps. Some Ibos had accomplished a similar task in their African homeland, but never under slavery conditions.
Few slaves tried to escape the plantations. Capture was almost certain, and even if they did escape to an uninhabited island, poisonous snakes or a lack of food and fresh water usually brought them back. Escape or suicide also meant the abandonment of loved ones.
Life on the coastal plantations came to an abrupt end when the Civil War erupted over the region. As Union ships blockaded the ports of Charleston and Savannah, plantation owners took their healthiest slaves and fled the islands, leaving the sick and elderly slaves behind.
But as the Confederacy collapsed, many of these healthy slaves ran straight into General Sherman’s troops during their destructive march through Georgia. Sherman ordered the slaves to return to the islands and, after the war, issued Special Field Order #15, which ceded most of the Georgia and South Carolina Sea Islands to former slaves and forbade white settlers other than military personnel to live there.
Many slaves didn’t make it back, becoming refugees along the war-torn Southern roads. Others migrated to surrounding cities. But several did return to reunite with the older slaves left behind. In a perverse twist, many former slaves had become attached to the land they were enslaved upon, and returned to farming the old plantation grounds. Despite widespread poverty, the former slaves formed working communities that would become the nucleus of the African-American island communities found today.
In 1865, President Andrew Johnson expanded the terms of the Confederate pardon to include the return of property abandoned during the war. This meant that the white plantation owners could return to the islands and reclaim what General Sherman had promised the former slaves barely a year before. These plantation owners naturally assumed that their impoverished former slaves would be happy to come back to work for them as sharecroppers.
But this time, the former slaves resisted. They chose to live in their own communities, living on whatever they could catch from the sea or grow in tiny backyard plots. Some even formed land companies to consolidate black-owned farmlands. Individual businesses and schools also sprung up. Without a stable work force, the plantation families lost money, causing many to give up their lands for good.
Cultural ties with Africa are scattered throughtout the Sea Islands,especially on Sapelo Island, where several descendants of West African slaves live in the tiny community of Hog Hammock. Some speak a unique Creole language known as “Gullah,” which developed from the slaves communicating secretly across the islands. Because of their relative isolation from the mainland, the Gullah people have preserved West African customs, craft techniques and storytelling for future generations.
Despite their predicament, the slaves were able to preserve and expand upon many of their African traditions. Besides the Gullah language mentioned above, the more notable traditions involved death and the afterlife. The slaves would often speak about spirits from Africa, which they called “h’ants” or “fixuhs,” coming to visit their homes. To protect themselves from the bad “h’ants,” they would often paint a blue ring around their doorways. Some slaves could detect these spirits better than others, especially babies who were born with a special “caul,” or membrane, over their eyes that enabled them to see ghosts. Naturally, most of the plantation owners dismissed the slaves’ beliefs.
The slaves also had unique burial customs, some of which can still be seen on Sapelo Island. When a relative died, his or her body couldn’t be removed from the house until the preacher said a few words. After burial, the graves were kept mounded by members of the family. Favorite and symbolic objects of the deceased were placed on or around the headstone, which was kept clean and shiny to attract protective African gods. As a sign of daily recognition of their ancestors, the slaves would pour libations on the ground – a tradition that can be seen in one form or another throughout the African-American community today.
On the outside, it seems that little has changed for the African-American Sea Island communities since the early postwar days. Many families continue to live in low income housing, and opportunities are scarce. As a result, the steady migration toward the large cities has continued, leaving an aging population to subsist on the islands. Surrounding lands are slowly being gobbled up by largely white-owned beach resorts, educational facilities and preserves.
But for the time being at least, the shared wealth of these island communities is in their memories and traditions. Because of their isolation, islands such as Sapelo serve as virtual time capsules from another era. Practically nowhere else in the country are everyday West African traditions more readily on display.
It is hoped that, by returning to these islands, African-Americans will, at least in spirit, keep their connection to the Motherland alive.
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