Editor’s note: This is the 21st installment in a serialized history of Charleston to commemorate the city’s 350th anniversary.
By all outward appearances, Charleston had completely recovered from the devastations of war by 1793.
The city’s docks were busy again, a branch of the First Bank of the United States had opened at the corner of Broad and Meeting streets and in February the reconstituted South Carolina Jockey Club held its first races at the Washington race course. Life, and the social season, were returning to normal.
But the refugees made everyone in Charleston nervous.
The first of them arrived in September 1791: white planters, slaves and even some free African Americans. They were fleeing the Saint-Domingue insurrection, in which self-liberated enslaved people rebelled against French colonial rule.
The refugees’ stories of violent rebellion in the Caribbean sounded a little too much like Charleston’s greatest nightmare, fears that dated back before the Stono Rebellion.
As a second wave of refugees arrived in the summer of 1793, the city was consumed by rumors of a local slave uprising inspired by the violence in Haiti … and, ironically, the colonists’ own revolution.
A series of local fires was attributed to these insurrectionists and, by September, as Walter Fraser Jr. reports in “Charleston! Charleston!,” a mob “stormed the home of a prominent free black looking for weapons.” Within months, the state legislature prohibited any African Americans, free or enslaved, from coming into South Carolina.
The state legislature had extended the prohibition on importing any slaves two years earlier. The debate had focused, in part, on morality, but fears of an uprising played a role. Whites knew they were outnumbered. The nation’s first census in 1790 revealed there were 8,089 white residents in the city, and 8,831 African Americans. Countywide, black residents outnumbered whites 3-to-1.
But Charleston was about to learn that neither fear nor religion was more powerful than economics.
When the British withdrew from Charleston, local planters found their fields overgrown and in ruins. This led some to a new system of cultivating rice near riverbanks and on marshy tidal plains.
Hayden Smith, a professor of history at the College of Charleston and author of “Carolina’s Golden Fields: Inland Rice Cultivation in the South Carolina Lowcountry, 1670-1860,” says the Lowcountry rebuilt its rice industry with a focus on the efficiency of scale inherent in tidal rice crops, and the popularity of a locally developed strain of rice.
Slaves built these new rice fields in swamps far enough inland to avoid saltwater. They cleared the marshland of cypress and oak trees, digging canals, building earthen banks and dikes and flood gates to control the flow of water. It was the recipe for success.
“With the development of Carolina Gold, planters had a new strain of rice that was extremely popular, especially in European markets, and they no longer had to sell through the British,” Smith says. “Soon, the bigger plantations bought up more land. There were fewer small farms. Through consolidations and marriage, some of these families became incredibly wealthy.”
Charleston, Smith says, was built on the rice and cotton industries that flourished in the decades after the American Revolution. In the years before the war, Charleston exported about 30 million pounds of rice annually. By 1830, that figure would more than double to 74 million (it would surpass 117 million pounds per year by the middle of the 19th century).
At the same time, cotton replaced indigo as South Carolina’s other dominant cash crop. The British had subsidized the price of Carolina indigo but stopped after the war. Planters found that cotton grew quite well on the same land. With the invention of the cotton gin, South Carolina’s market exploded. In 1791, 1.5 million pounds were exported from Charleston. By 1800, planters would ship out more than 20 million pounds of cotton.
All this newfound economic activity required much more labor. So when the prohibition on slave importation expired in 1803, planters used their political muscle to make sure it was not renewed.
Between 1804 and Jan. 1, 1808, when the United States’ constitutional prohibition on slave imports began, Charleston brought in 40,000 enslaved Africans. Within a decade, South Carolina’s population would mirror Charleston’s: The number of enslaved residents would be greater than the total of whites and free blacks combined.
South Carolina’s economy depended on such ratios, but some Charleston residents were determined the slavery debate was only beginning.