Previously, we have seen how the colonial government of Carolina enacted legislation to discourage miscegenation among the lower classes of White servants and Indian and Black slaves. And we’ve seen how the government sought to prevent free Blacks from living in the colony and weakening the evolving racial caste system. These acts were largely successful and the number of free Blacks was kept to no more than 1% of the total African population and the mulattoes tended to be absorbed back into the larger Black population rather than becoming an independent social caste. This served to protect the White minority of the colony and preserve their racial purity.
Racial consciousness among Whites continued to grow slowly throughout the early 1700s as Carolinians increasingly turned to rice cultivation and imported more slaves directly from Africa (whereas previously most had come from Barbados). Dr. Peter Wood in his book Black Majority: Negroes in Colonial South Carolina from 1670 through the Stono Rebellion (1974) states that “in the face of a distinct majority of blacks, the apprehensions felt by white colonists gradually deepened. Concern stemmed first from a simple awareness of numbers, but it spread out to encompass a variety of ambiguities concerning the identity of the colony and the tenuous position of the Europeans who were ostensibly its masters.” Wood points out that “Not even straightforward population awareness came easily.” This reminds one of the mentality of most Whites today in Europe and North America – they somehow seem able to lessen in their minds the danger posed by alien populations in their midst. But Wood notes that gradually awareness grew as the plantation system took root. And as it did, “The diminishing white fraction of the populace, which controlled the colony’s government and economy ever more securely with time, bound the Africans increasingly tightly to their servile status.”
Another aspect of the developing consciousness among Carolinians was a new appreciation for White men as the defenders of the colony. Previously, some Black slaves had been part of the militia. But Wood writes that increasingly there arose the “tendency to measure white male adults against the entire black population.” He states:
This statistic took on increasing importance for European colonists as they felt themselves physically threatened by the number of Africans, and numerous population estimates after 1720, contrasting men on the muster rolls with all adults and children in the slave quarters, reflect the emerging concept of white manhood opposing a preponderant race. This explains why Von Reck stated in 1734 that “There are five Negroes to one White.” It also helps make understandable (although not correct) the assertion of a European in 1737 that “In Charleston and that neighborhood there are calculated to be always 20 blacks … to one white man,” as well as the claim of another visitor five years later that “the heathen slaves are so numerous here that it is estimated that there are fifteen for every white man.”
Even after framing the disproportion in its starkest form, white colonists faced the added realization that the slave population was being augmented annually while their own numbers scarcely rose. Indeed, an Anglican minister noted in 1725, “we have some reason to believe that we rather decrease than increase in the small number of Christian white inhabitants.” He went on to explain candidly, “As matters stand with us we make use of a wile for our present security to make the Indians and negros [sic] a check upon each other lest by their vastly superior numbers we should be crushed by one or the other.” Slaves, who had generally been taken as an asset in the thinly settled proprietary colony, were now viewed in part by whites as a liability.
Indeed, in 1720, it was declared that the colony was in “great disorder” and that the “whole Province was lately in danger of being massacred by their Own Slaves, who are too numerous in proportion to ye White Men there.” We have yet to explore this, but the colony provided incentives during this time to bring in more colonists (including Germans to help settle places such as Orangeburg, SC) and offset the growing Black population.
Taken as a whole, the early 1700s represented a time in which the colony was coming into its own as the plantation society its Barbadian founders had intended for it to be. As this occurred, the demographics of the colony shifted as more Africans were required to work the rice plantations along the rivers of the Lowcountry. This resulted in a growing sense of racial consciousness among the Whites of the colony as they sought to outlaw miscegenation and banish free Blacks. During this time White men were appreciated as never before since the colony depended upon their strength of arms for its survival.
It is easy to see how these trends contributed to the sense of racial consciousness commonly found among Southerners. Some of this consciousness has survived even into the current age. In future posts we will continue to look at how racial consciousness developed in Carolina and how these trends contributed to development of the Southern world-view.