Hicks: Drama in 1720 Charles Town

Hicks: Drama in 1720 Charles Town

A woodcut of a slave sale in Charleston

The Carolina colony’s long, acrimonious divorce from the Lords Proprietors, chronicled in Sunday’s installment of the history serial, was not the only drama in 1720 Charles Town.

Soon after the Proprietors’ government was replaced with an Assembly loyal to the crown, Walter J. Fraser Jr. writes in “Charleston! Charleston!” that rumors of a “wicked and barbarous plott” spread through the city. The colonists were terrified.

Reports held that enslaved people from just outside the city were planning to “destroy all the White people in the country and then to take the town.”

In the early 18th century, and for a long time after, that was Charles Town residents’ greatest fear. Among other things, that was fueled by a population disparity that resulted from the growing demand for slave labor.

By 1720, there were nearly 12,000 African Americans living in Carolina, compared to 6,500 whites. Charles Town’s population was 5,000 at the time, about half of those people enslaved. The ratio would change considerably in the coming century.

The “plott” was quickly foiled, if it was ever a real threat. Most escaped slaves only wanted to flee the colony, often to Florida. Fraser says, however, that as a result of the rumors some escaped slaves were caught, blamed for the “plott” and “burnt … hang’d [or] banish’d.”

When a similar rumor surfaced the next year, it led to much more stringent policing of the colony’s slave population. The city hired watchmen specifically to monitor their movements, which according to Walter Edgar’s “South Carolina: A History,” were surprisingly significant.

In the early 18th century, rice plantations slave worked on a “task system.” Once they had completed the daily tasked forced on them, many spent the rest of their day unsupervised. But after two rumors of revolt in such a short time period, and stories of slave uprisings in the Caribbean, that changed.

In 1722, the Assembly merged the watchmen with the colony’s militia and passed the “Negro Act,” which Fraser writes “stipulated that slave conspirators caching ammunition would be executed immediately as examples to other slaves.”

Carolina’s economy was growing increasingly dependent on enslaved labor, and it would grow into a massive enterprise over the next century. But it would be almost two decades before the colonists saw, first-hand, what a true revolt would look like.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com.