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Money, Trade, and Power: The Evolution of Colonial South Carolina’s Plantation Society

Author(s):Greene, Jack P.
Brana-Shute, Rosemary
Sparks, Randy J.
Reviewer(s):Ryden, David

Published by EH.NET (April 2003)


Jack P. Greene, Rosemary Brana-Shute, and Randy J. Sparks, editors, Money, Trade, and Power: The Evolution of Colonial South Carolina’s Plantation Society. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2001. xiii + 399 pp. $49.95 (cloth), ISBN: 1-57003-374-9.

Reviewed for EH.NET by David Ryden, Department of Social Sciences, University of Houston, Downtown Campus.

This book is a collection of fifteen essays, most of which were presented to the College of Charleston’s Program in the Carolina Lowcountry and the Atlantic World. Thus, the bulk of the volume stresses the economic and cultural connections between this important British North American colony and other parts of the Atlantic basin. Most of the contributors are younger scholars; some taking a fresh look at very old questions and others carving-out new research paths. Economic historians interested in colonial America will find many of the individual interpretations informative and will appreciate that much of this new work is quantitatively based. There are four chapters that can be classed as economic histories, four that can be viewed as demographic studies, and seven that can be broadly described as social histories of the region.

Stephen Hardy’s “Colonial South Carolina’s Rice Industry and the Atlantic Economy” tests the hypothesis that improvements in eighteenth-century shipping accounted for the economic growth of the colonies. Comparing the aggregate value of rice exports to measures of shipping efficiency, Hardy points out that these indices were not always positively correlated; this finding was particularly true during the rapid economic growth in the decade preceding the Revolution. Thus, he concurs with historians who emphasize the importance of internal productivity gains (such as Coclanis, Menard, and Nash), while also stressing the importance of increasing European and Caribbean demand for the grain. In addition to providing this analysis, Hardy offers an extensive appendix containing important economic data assembled in thirteen tables.

R.C. Nash’s “The Organization of Trade and Finance in the Atlantic Economy” is a detailed study of how merchants and planters directed the colony’s output to overseas markets. He maintains that business decisions were based on market conditions and he dismisses any cultural causes. For example, he tells us that rice planters chose to avoid the commission system, opting instead to sell their crops in Charleston markets, because of the homogeneity of the product, the high shipping cost relative to the value, and the wide geographic dispersion of markets to which the crop was shipped. Similarly, he ascribes the merchant decision to turn to planting in the eighteenth century to be evidence of keen business acumen and not evidence of a retreat from the market economy.

Eirlys Barker’s “Indian Traders, Charles Town, and London’s Vital Links to the Interior of North America, 1717-1755″ takes an institutional view of the economic behavior of the colony’s backcountry. She outlines how the smallest peddlers and the most well-connected “master traders” conducted business with Yamasees, Cherokees, Creeks, Chickasaws, and Catawbas, exchanging manufactured goods for “deerskin and other forest products.” For a time, the largest Indian traders colluded with one another and built favorable links with the colonial government. By the second half of the eighteenth century, both the capital and political interest in the Indian trade waned, as Native Americans were regarded as a ‘barrier’ to the expansion of the plantation sector of the economy.

Gary Hewitt’s “The State in the Planter’s Service” dovetails nicely with Barker’s article by arguing that the success of the rice industry was dependent upon government policy. Far from being “a natural and inevitable process,” the domination of the rice sector grew out of the elevation of “the interest of planters into a ‘public’ interest.” The local assembly manipulated the currency, guarded against metropolitan interference, and sided decidedly with planters in their struggles with merchant creditors.

Two of the four demographic studies deal with aspects of the early settlement of the white population while the other two focus on the bondsmen who bore the brunt of the lowcountry’s economic growth. Bertrand Van Ruymbeke’s “The Huguenots of Proprietary South Carolina” pieces together from fragmentary sources the demography of these French refugees who came to the colony between 1680 and 1710. He estimates that the total number of migrants was about 650 and that most came from the urban areas in the western provinces of France. Meaghan Duff takes a similar focus in her “Creating a Plantation Province,” but limits her analysis to land warrants and land grants during the early settlement. This quantitative study sheds some light upon settlement patterns, but she explains clearly that the variation in the numbers of grants and warrants often times has more to do with bureaucratic efficiency than migration.

Jennifer Lyle Morgan’s “‘This is ‘Mines'” and William Ramsey’s “‘All & Singular Slaves'” explore some demographic aspects of the slave population. Ramsey turns to a sample of wills and probate inventories that offer demographic data on the Indian slave population, tracing their declining importance in the early decades of the eighteenth century. Morgan’s piece, on the other hand, is an analysis of the sex ratio of black slaves in both Barbados and South Carolina. In doing so, she places a great deal of weight on the cultural influence of the early Barbadian settlers to South Carolina. Her primary focus is on the attitudes planters had toward their female slaves, arguing that “Slave owners in both Barbados and South Carolina worked to capture women’s reproductive capacity, link it to the growth and development of their individual estates, and thus bolster their entire colonial venture.”

Several of the social history chapters in this book explore the issue of white efforts to control the slave population. For example, Max Edelson’s “Affiliation without Affinity” is an analysis of the relationship between skilled slaves and their owners during the eighteenth century. Edelson argues that planters gained more power in South Carolina’s society as their slaves increasingly entered skilled professions, displacing white workers. Ironically, planters were simultaneously forced to make concessions to those very same skilled slaves, offering them more autonomy. Two additional studies that address the management of South Carolina’s slaves include Robert Olwell’s “‘Practical Justice'” and Mathew Mulcahy’s “‘Melancholy and Fatal Calamites.'” While Olwell outlines how the slave court operated and serviced the planter class, Mulcahy’s focus is on the white response to the threat of slave uprisings after the Charleston fire of 1740 and the hurricane of 1752.

G. Winston Lane’s “Economic Power among Eighteenth-Century Women of the Carolina Lowcountry” and Elizabeth Pruden’s “Investing Widows” explore the relatively unknown world of female economic activity in South Carolina. The two take separate, but complementary approaches to the topic. Lane’s study analyzes the family history of four generations of Middleton women. Based on these life histories, he finds that the married women in later generations were less likely to be active economic agents as compared to the first-generation of Middleton brides, while Middleton widows “enjoyed economic power, though to varying degrees.” Pruden’s statistical study of 532 women comes to a similar conclusion: based on her analysis of wills and probate inventories, Pruden reconstructs the investment behavior of both poor and rich widows, noting how these strategies changed over time. Although it is unclear if widow investment had a significant affect on the local economy, it is clear that many women were dependent upon on the developing bond and mortgage market in eighteenth-century South Carolina.

The two remaining essays also focus on white society, but are perhaps of less interest to economists than the other thirteen. Thomas Little’s “‘Adding to the Church Such As Shall Be Saved': The Growth in Influence of Evangelicalism in Colonial South Carolina, 1740-1775″ discusses the effect the Great Awakening had on the region’s religious orientation, while Edward Pearson’s “‘Planters Full of Money': The Self-Fashioning of the Eighteenth-Century South Carolina Elite” explains how planters constructed their genteel world as a means of solidifying their grip on society.

This collection of essays has been thoughtfully assembled and will be an important resource for many years. The contributors have collectively shown that the research area of South Carolina colonial studies is thriving and that we can look forward to a number of important monographs. My criticism of the book is limited to the fact that some of the tables and charts could have benefited from closer scrutiny and better formatting. Other than this small point, I have nothing but praise for the editors. It is hoped that similar collections of essays from the College of Charleston will appear soon.

David Ryden’s Ph.D. dissertation from the University of Minnesota’s Department of History, “Producing a Peculiar Commodity: Jamaican Sugar Production, Slave Life and Planter Profits on the Eve of Abolition, 1750-1807,” was a finalist for the Economic History Association’s Alexander Gerschenkron Prize. Recent publications include, “Does Decline Make Sense? The West Indian Economy and the Abolition of the British Slave Trade,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History (2001).

Subject(s):Servitude and Slavery
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):18th Century