We’re not going to have the big birthday bash Charleston had planned for today, but not even the coronavirus pandemic should keep us from remembering how English colonists arrived here 350 years ago and began writing one of the most remarkable chapters in U.S. history.
The landing of these 130 free men, indentured servants and slaves in April 1670 is worth celebrating in spirit, even if the anniversary events have been postponed, even if we need to stay at least 6 feet apart, and even as the Charles Towne Landing State Historic Site remains shut down.
In fact, the current pandemic provides some perspective on the hardships and adversity faced by everyone aboard the Carolina as it sailed across the Atlantic Ocean to what they would later name Charleston Harbor, the Ashley River and Albemarle Point. They had it far worse.
True, the settlers didn’t have to worry about social distancing: The Lords Proprietors had been granted all the land south of Virginia and north of Florida — all the way to the Pacific Ocean. That’s a lot of room.
But the settlers faced a very difficult voyage. As The Post and Courier’s Warren Wise notes in his story today, it took them five months to get here from Barbados, and the Carolina was the only one of three ships that made it. The fleet endured serious storms, a shipwreck, unscheduled stops in the Bahamas and Bermuda and a near revolt by indentured servants who wanted to turn back.
And both the settlers and their descendants would later endure a host of other existential challenges, from Spanish and French enemies to the south to hostile inland Indians to powerful hurricanes — and yes, even to epidemics that would claim a far greater percentage of their population than COVID-19 will claim even under today’s worst-case scenario.
Today’s observance will be muted, limited to a few online offerings, which can be found on the city’s Facebook page: facebook.com/chs350/. The city’s church bells will ring in unison at noon, followed by a livestream of Mayor John Tecklenburg reading a proclamation. More events are expected after the pandemic passes.
Mayor Tecklenburg’s proclamation notes that the settlement “was rooted in the corrupting institution of slavery,” which would grow in scale and eventually lead to large plantations that produced vast wealth — wealth that helped make Charleston the nation’s richest and most cosmopolitan colonial city by many measures.
His acknowledgement of that difficult history is part of the city’s modern resurgence, as it embraces not only its longevity and its historically influential role in the United States, but also the contributions from all its peoples, especially those whose stories previously have been glossed over due to the uncomfortable realities of slavery and the Jim Crow era.
Some historians also might note the irony of a virus interrupting this year’s 350th anniversary, since it was European colonization all across America that, more than anything else, killed off many American Indians by unintentionally introducing contagious diseases to which they had little immunity.
“Our 350th birthday comes with the promise that we will overcome the challenges of the past and engage our community to honor Charleston’s rich heritage, unique customs, and diverse cultures, so that together we can set the stage for the next chapters in our shared history,” the mayor’s proclamation reads.
The birthday also comes with the promise for those of us worried about the significant health and economic repercussions of this pandemic. History shows how our predecessors overcame their own imposing challenges and ultimately survived and even prospered and triumphed. We should draw inspiration from them — and follow their lead.