Slavery in South Carolina

By 1790, there were nearly as many black slaves in South Carolina as there were white citizens. Following the Revolution, South Carolina found itself short of labor as many slaves fought for the patriot cause and were freed or ran away during the war, reaping financial ruin on the state’s economy. Though most people, including the framers of the Constitution, believed that the era of slavery would simply end of its own accord, it did nothing of the sort and continued to thrive well into the nineteenth century, as it did in South Carolina. The tremendous growth of slavery through the 1780s can be primarily attributed to the labor-intensive rice industry that powered South Carolina’s economy.

As the economy suffered in the wake of the Revolution, slave prices rocketed. The battles fought in South Carolina during the Revolution destroyed many farms and plantations, most importantly, those producing rice. Thus, it was more expensive to plant and harvest rice, rendering slaves a rather expensive commodity. Slaves were still purchased in large numbers, however. Though rice was indeed labor-intensive, it had high yields in the coastal climate of South Carolina and was incredibly profitable. Consequently, countless slaves were shipped to America and sold in South Carolina in order to repair rice fields and allow the economy to thrive once again.

As an indirect result of the increased slave force, there was an obvious decrease in the numbers of freed slaves. There were very few free blacks to speak of. Though the number of free black men and women was never high in South Carolina, the dire need of labor decreased their numbers even further. By the end of the 1780s, slaves comprised a mere 3 percent minority of Charleston’s population (this number was disproportionate with smaller communities in the countryside, however). The white population resented this minority of freed slaves, not only because of inherent racism, but also because they felt that the freemen stole employment opportunities from them when their work was to repair the vital rice industry.

As rice fields returned, slaves were continually in high demand. They worked on a task system and were thus allowed a life outside of work if they finished their daily labor. They were granted a nutrient-lacking diet of mostly plants and few other provisions, like clothing and blankets, and personal possessions were few and far between. They endured the same punishments as slaves everywhere; they were beaten, raped and humiliated, and in severe cases, killed.

Slavery encompassed years of brutality and exploitation; and in South Carolina, the case was no different. There were few free black men in a society dominated by slave labor. In fact, there was at least a 65 percent majority of slaves in the state by 1780. Rice motivated slave labor in South Carolina in particular, and slaves in the state fared as well as slaves in other states; they were pricey commodities that were abused harshly physically and mentally, but rarely killed. It is certain, however, that without the African slave trade, South Carolina’s economy would not have thrived as it did.



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