I’ve lived in Charleston, South Carolina since the fall of 2004, and in those years it has found its way deep into my blood. The city and the wider region, often called the Lowcountry, possess a rich (often dark) history and a landscape with seductive power. The local writer Pat Conroy has said that “You can be moved profoundly by other vistas, by other oceans…You can even forsake the lowcountry, renounce it for other climates, but you can never completely escape the sensuous, semitropical pull of Charleston and her marshes.”
The romance of this claim has always moved me. And yet, as if to prove him wrong, in the year 2016 I fell in love with another region—one with a similarly storied (often dark) history and a landscape with a breathtaking beauty all its own, if quite a different one from the Lowcountry with its sinuous creeks, dripping Spanish moss, and hunched-over live oaks. That region was the Caribbean. I was—still am—dazzled by its brilliant azure beaches, the ramshackle colonial architecture, the familiar creole notes of its culture and food, and the serene blissfulness of tall, swaying palms.
Later I found out just how deeply connected these two regions are. So closely connected and in a such a variety of ways that this might not be an exception to Conroy’s rule, after all. It may just be the exception that proves it.
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Geographically, the Caribbean is usually thought of as containing the many chains of islands in the Caribbean Sea, as well as parts of Central and South America. If defined culturally, though, it might extend northward into parts of the American South, especially Charleston, South Carolina. Ian Sanchez, a preservationist living in Charleston and a descendant of Barbadians, has remarked that, “From a historic perspective, you really can’t completely understand the Carolinas unless you understand the culture of Barbados and where it came from.”
Though true of the Carolinas in general, this is particularly true of Charleston, whose foodways, language, folklore, art and architecture, and history are all evidence of a connection with the Caribbean that arguably shaped not only Charleston’s own course as a city, but also that of the entire South as a region.
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While many obvious differences exist between Lowcountry and Caribbean foodways, there are also numerous parallels and connections between the two. One clear link is the early drinking culture of Charleston, which Nic Butler calls “an extension of the influence of the Bajan rum industry.” Rum first came to Charleston with Barbadian settlers in the colonial era, during which it dominated distilled alcohol culture in America. Not only was Caribbean rum heavily drunk, it was also incorporated into Charleston foods, especially main dishes and fruit-based desserts.
Another rum-related connection to Charleston is Planter’s Punch, a mixed drink that achieved fame in the 19th century and was consumed by all social classes in the city. The story often goes that it was invented in the (now closed) Planters Hotel on Church Street. However, Robert Moss, who traces the drink’s origin as far back as 1878, has shown that it was first mixed in Jamaica.
In terms of food, the cooking cultures of Charleston and of the Caribbean share similar philosophies, both of which are expressed in terms of “making do,” which Lynn Houston, in describing Caribbean foodways, defines as “using whatever is on hand or whatever can be found and using everything that is available.”
This approach allows Caribbean cooks and eaters to maintain a closer, more holistic connection to the natural landscape, an approach that is closely mirrored by Gullah communities in the Charleston area. Josephine Beoku-Betts similarly writes about the Gullah people’s “deep understanding of their coexistence with other living things” which is based on their dependence on nature for the ingredients in their foods.
Both cultures depend heavily on rice, without which even the heaviest foods are only considered snacks in Gullah culture. One common dish in both cuisines is rice and peas or rice and beans, of which every region in the Caribbean has a variation of its own, and in Charleston is famously known as Hoppin’ John. In Guyana, there is even a Caribbean analogue to Hoppin’ John — “cookup rice,” a dish of rice and peas as well as certain vegetables and meats, which is eaten on New Year’s Eve, the day when Hoppin’ John is famously eaten in Charleston, and for the same reason of inviting good luck.
One-pot dishes are also common in both traditional Charleston and Caribbean cuisine. In the Charleston Lowcountry, gumbos, pilau, and the aforementioned Hoppin’ John are all made in a single pot, a practice that stems from African foodways. This African tradition was also re-emphasized in the Caribbean by similar indigenous people’s practices, so these one-pot dishes such as stews and soups are common for both smaller and larger meals among the lower and middle classes on many islands.
One particular Caribbean one-pot dish, callaloo soup, has a clear Charleston analogue. Houston describes callaloo as being “made from okra, salt pork, crabmeat, and callaloo greens.” This recipe is very close to one described by Kendra Hamilton as she recalls the ingredients her mother and other community members in the Charleston area used in making okra soup: okra, onions, tomatoes, crab legs, shrimp, beef bone, and a pork product, as well as several greens.
Further significant connections are the use of meat less as a distinct food item of its own, but rather to provide flavoring, as well as the eating of barbeque, which has Caribbean roots both linguistically and as a food preparation technique.
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Another touchpoint between Charleston and the Caribbean is their spoken language. Although the subject is controversial among linguists, at least one, Frederic G. Cassidy, places Gullah — the language used by enslaved Black people and their modern descendants in Charleston and the surrounding region — “in the same line of derivation as Sranan and Jamaican Creole, all three beginning in Barbados and going their separate ways.”
The linguist Thomas B. Klein points out several similarities between Gullah names and ones used in the creole dialect of Middle Caicos, noting that the latter’s Bellely, Phoebe, and Mamodic are analogues to “the Gullah male name Bilali…the Gullah female name Fiba…[and] the Gullah male name Mamadi.”
He also notes the use by both languages of reduplication, “the grammatical doubling of roots for semantic effect” such as “true true” to mean very true or “bitter bitter” to mean very bitter. Warren Alleyne and Henry Fraser also describe numerous similarities under the headings of linguistic structure, phonology or pronunciation, particular mispronunciations that have specific meanings, idioms, and proverbs.
There are also connections in the toponymy of Charleston to certain parts of the Caribbean. Some of these are due to the historical links between Charleston and Barbados, to be discussed later. Colleton County, an adjacent county to Charleston County, is named after John Colleton, one of the Lords Proprietors, whose son Peter, a planter in Barbados, led the Corporation of Barbados Adventurers who originally pushed for the colonization of Carolina. The nearby Hilton Head Island is similarly named for another Barbadian, William Hilton, an explorer who wrote a pamphlet that described the province in glowing terms in 1664 during the leadup to the colonization of Carolina.
In addition to these historical name origins, nine of the eleven parish names of Barbados would eventually be reused for parishes in Carolina (Edgar 36), eight of them in Charleston itself: Saint Andrew, Saint James, Saint Thomas, Saint John, Saint George, Saint Michael, Saint Philip, and Christ Church.
Charleston also has many street names in common with Barbados. Broad Street, for example, was named by Barbadian planter John Yeamans when he became governor of Carolina in 1672, and essentially recreated Barbados’ own Broad Street in the city of Charleston.
While on a trip to Goose Creek, a native Barbadian woman reflected on visiting St. James Anglican Church, that “Many of the legible names [on the gravestones] were reminiscent of similar names found in churchyards in Barbados.”
Whether in terms of place names, accents, or linguistic features, spoken language is evidence of a deep link between the Lowcountry and the Caribbean islands.
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The spiritual landscape of Charleston bears resemblances to that of the Caribbean as well, especially in terms of its folklore. Both areas have traditions of root doctors, called “obeah men” or “obeah women” in certain Caribbean islands. These men and women administer to the needs of people in their communities by commanding spirits. In both areas, graveyard soil (called “goofer dust” in Charleston) is believed to hold power over the spirits for root doctors and obeah men and women.
Walter Rucker writes of an enslaved Black preacher named Philip, one of Denmark Vesey’s co-conspirators, who “was born with a layer of skin known as a caul covering his face,” considered “a sign that an infant will eventually be able to communicate with ghosts and predict future events”, a belief that is nearly identical in Guyana, Jamaica, Haiti, and other parts of the Caribbean.
Ideas about these ghosts and spirits (called “haints” in the Charleston area, and “duppies” in Jamaica and other parts of the Caribbean) also have several parallels. In Jamaica, there is a belief that spirits can be trapped in glass bottles, mirroring the Gullah practice of erecting blue bottle “trees” to capture haints.
Both haints and duppies generally take human form, but can also appear as animals, although usually with an added or missing feature. Roger Pinckney describes a type of haint, the plat-eye, appearing as “a six-legged calf or a headless hog,” while folklorist MacEdward Leach reports duppies taking the form of “a dog with red eyes [or] a three-legged horse.” A type of duppy called a “rollin calf” also bears striking resemblance to the Gullah belief in “conjure horses and spirit bears,” both of which appear at night and chase travelers while breathing fire.
Duppies and haints also have a weakness for numbers, and can be evaded by forcing them to count something — haints by counting the holes in “a colander or a sifter hung over the doorknob,” and duppies by counting the grains of “peas, rice, sand cast before a pursing duppy.”
Leach also describes a creature called the “sea mahmy,” which he calls a mermaid adopted by Jamaicans from English folklore. Leach is clearly wrong, though, as “sea mahmy” is obviously an alternate form of the name “mami wata,” which exists in Gullah folk belief as a water spirit who often appears as a mermaid, and whose many related names all indicate “water mother.” Mami wata and the sea mahmy both originate from African deities, not from English folklore, and are part of the Afro-Atlantic heritage that is shared between the Caribbean and the Charleston area.
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Art & Architecture
This heritage is also displayed in the art and architecture of the Caribbean and Charleston Lowcountry. This is especially true of Barbados, whose capital city, Bridgetown, has “almost exactly the same layout [as Charleston, and] the same charming cobblestone streets lined with crape myrtle trees and bright, colonial buildings,” in the words of Kenya Downs.
Though Downs rightly calls these buildings colonial, Jay Edwards argues that certain of their architectural features are drawn not from Western European architecture, but from that of the Caribbean, notably the living gallery or piazza, the raising of buildings a foot or more above the ground, and the widespread use of detached kitchens. One Barbadian plantation, St. Nicholas Abbey, even features a pineapple finial on a pillar — a common sight on downtown Charleston homes.
The most notable of these affinities are the use of the piazza, and of the architectural form known as the Charleston Single. The external piazza, lining the entire side of a building, is typical of late seventeenth century houses in Speightstown, Barbados as well as other locations in the West Indies, and was probably imported to Charleston in the early eighteenth century.
Though the piazza came here from the Caribbean, it can ultimately be traced back to Africa, where it appears in drawings of Portuguese feitorias, or trading posts, of the fifteenth through eighteenth centuries. Edwards makes it clear that these buildings were not Portuguese in design, but incorporated “a number of local indigenous features” such as “floors elevated above the ground, full-length a painters, or piazzas…and separate buildings used for kitchens…all [of which] are alien to contemporary European domestic architecture.”
The Caribbean, then, was the medium in which several African architectural styles were allowed to blend with those from Europe until they combined to form new and unique styles that were ultimately imported into Charleston.
As for the Single House, Charleston’s most notable architectural form, there is textual, pictorial, and linguistic evidence that this style was imported from Barbados, and that it performs in Charleston the same functions that inspired its origin in the Caribbean. Though few houses of this form survive in Barbados today, it was once a dominant form in Bridgetown, as shown in Samuel Copen’s panoramic illustration of the city as viewed in 1695, long before these wooden buildings would be destroyed by fires.
Richard Ligon’s book A true and exact History of the Island of Barbados also describes the island’s “tropical house designs,” among which were the “single house” — a term that exists nowhere else except in Charleston. One of the Single’s unique features, Ligon writes, was its ability to minimize direct exposure to sunlight, since these houses were built on an east-west axis, just as most of them now are in Charleston. This unique form originated in Barbados and survived solely in Charleston.
There are actually surviving Single Houses in Barbados that share common features with Charleston Singles, including their single-room width, their entrances being on the long side, their gables facing the street, and their piazzas on both floors.
A few other architectural connections are worth mentioning. The colors of the Charleston houses on East Bay Street known as the Rainbow Row are inspired by tropical, pastel island colors used in the Caribbean. Tabby, a type of concrete made of oyster shells, sand, and ash, is used in vernacular buildings in the Charleston area as well as in plantation ruins in Middle Caicos, where it is called by the same name.
Nathaniel Walker believes there is a link between the decorative ironwork seen in Charleston’s gates and fences, and similar ironwork traditions in Caribbean islands, though he admits that these connections often remain intangible, due to the inherently uncredited nature of slave labor. There are, anthropologist John Vlatch also insists, “distinct subtleties” such as “African designs and spatial philosophies,” to these ironwork pieces that stem from the reinterpretation of European motifs by Black artisans.
The source of these African elements can be traced not directly back to Africa itself, but rather through the Caribbean. The Black traditions that went into these gates were brought here (as well as to New Orleans and other places) by Haitian refugees who Vlatch notes were known for their skill in “the forging of wrought iron gates, balconies and fences.” In other words, Charleston’s iron fences and gates are not mere replications of European designs but are the result of blending African and European sensibilities, a blending which came to Charleston by way of Haiti.
Caribbean connections are also seen in other art forms in Charleston, notably in pottery and sweetgrass baskets. A distinct form of ceramic vessel used historically in Charleston called “monkeys” or “monkey jugs,” are almost exactly identical to a form still being made and used in rural Barbados, also called “monkeys.” The function of these jugs in both places is not only to carry but also to cool water.
And in a rare example of the cultural connection flowing the opposite way — from Charleston to the Caribbean — Black refugees from the Lowcountry, fleeing from Carolina after the Revolutionary War along with their British loyalist masters, brought coiled basketry to the Bahamas. To this day, fanner baskets in Middle Caicos are used for winnowing corn which are close in design and function to those made by Gullah Geechee artisans in the Charleston area.
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As mentioned before, most of these connections stem from two historical moments: Carolina colony’s roots in Barbados, and the exodus of black and white refugees after the Haitian Revolution of 1791. It is in these historical roots that the most meaningful, most consequential connections between the two areas can be drawn.
The arrival of Haitian refugees—both Black and white, since many slaveowners fled as well as free Blacks who had been loyal to the landowning whites (and of course many of the fleeing slaveowners’ own slaves)—made a mark on the culture of many Southern areas, including Charleston, which held a strong attraction due to the presence of French Huguenots.
This wave of immigrants had important historical consequences, aside from the artistic influences already mentioned above: because many of these Haitians had knowledge of and experience with revolution many of them Black—Charlestonians feared the influence that they could have on the local slave population.
In fact, there is evidence that an entire “band” among Denmark Vesey’s co-conspirators were French-speaking St. Domingans who had seen Toussaint L’Ouverture’s slave uprisings firsthand, and who used a form of French creole language to plot together in secret. Vesey also reportedly read newspaper accounts of the Haitian Revolution aloud to his fellow conspirators in order to inspire them.
Of course, Vesey himself was not a native Charlestonian, but was born on the Caribbean island of St. Thomas. When his failed uprising was quashed in 1822 before it could even occur, it must certainly have confirmed the fears that white slaveowners in Charleston had had just 30 years earlier when South Carolina became the first state to abolish the importation of slaves—not because the slave trade was inhumane, but to avoid the influence of revolutionary fervor that might inadvertently be brought to its shores.
This Caribbean connection to slavery goes even deeper, all the way back to the very first days of Charleston’s existence. As the easternmost of all the Caribbean islands, Barbados was a prime candidate for colonization by Britain. Formed mainly of coral, it was low-lying, not mountainous at all — very like the Charleston Lowcountry. This made it ideal for farming as well. At the time of the founding of Carolina colony, Barbados had become “the wealthiest English colony in the Americas” due to the planting of sugarcane begun around the 1640.
“Not surprisingly,” Peter Wood observes, “the most direct initiative for colonization [of Carolina] came from crowded Barbados.” It was the Barbadians who had the Carolina coast explored and mapped by William Hilton in 1663, and who published pamphlets advocating the it for colonization to the Lords Proprietors in England, who came to believe that the area could be profitable. These Lords ultimately decided that experienced settlers from Barbados would be the most desirable colonists to appeal to; though of course some of the colonists would be English as well.
The three ships that began the first permanent settlement at Charleston came not directly to Charleston itself, but first to Barbados, where they picked up Sir John Yeamans, who was to become Carolina’s governor in 1672, and several other Barbadians. From there, after weather forced them to pause in several other Caribbean islands, they eventually landed in what is today Charleston, South Carolina.
The next few waves of settlers arriving in Charleston would bring increasingly more Barbadians (who of course brought with them their slaves)—among them such prominent Charleston families as the Middletons and the Draytons, whose plantations still survive in some form to the present day. While later waves of settlers would come mostly from England and other European countries, the people and culture of Barbados dominated Charleston in its crucial first two decades.
It was this culture—a unique intersection of English traditions adapted to life on tropical Caribbean islands, and of African traditions adapted to a brutal life under enslavement—that not only gave Charleston many of its unique foodways, arts, architectural details, linguistic features, and folklore — but also determined the course of the American South as an entire region, and in many ways the United States as a nation.
This cultural intersection was different from those that arose in New England and the Chesapeake, where slavery had to that point been only a small portion of the total labor strategies used by colonists in America. In Barbados, slavery was not simply forced labor, but had been developed and perfected into an extractive system which sought to squeeze every drop of labor possible from its victims in the service of producing wealth, leisure, and pleasure for the owner class.
It was this version of slavery which was planted in Charleston, and it was sown by Barbadians. The outrageous profits that this new system afforded first Barbados, and then the planter class in Charleston, ultimately made this the most attractive economic strategy available for Americans as they developed first into colonists and then into citizens of a new nation.
Had it not been for this connection to Caribbean culture and economics, Butler argues, “Our community’s history would have been less opulent, less influential, but also less discriminatory, and more humane.”
Without the unique role played by Caribbean people and culture in Charleston, it is uncertain whether slavery would have grown to occupy the central role in the economy of not just the South as a region, but of the United States as a whole. By the same token, it is uncertain whether racism would have infiltrated the region and the nation as thoroughly as it has.
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Yet as the beauty of Rainbow Row, the deliciousness of okra, the eeriness of Gullah folklore, and the exquisite craftsmanship of the Sword Gate all might hint, much beauty and pathos made its way to Charleston along with the horrors and terrors of chattel slavery.
To some, it may seem problematic to call attention to these elements—especially food, folklore, and the “lighter” art forms discussed above—as good things that came from slavery, and I can certainly sympathize with that position. Yet slavery did happen, and these things did undeniably result from it.
It is nearly impossible to imagine the sheer horror, despair, alienation, and heartbreak experienced by enslaved people in Charleston and in the rest of the South. But to only dwell on those experiences is yet another way of reducing enslaved people to victims whose main and only function is to suffer. These were people who, in the midst of their dehumanized lives, nonetheless produced beauty and meaning that is deepened, not diminished, by their blood, sweat, and tears.
Nor was the intersection of cultures in the Caribbean or in Charleston merely a case of imposing European power structures onto helpless Black people. As Charles Joyner observes, “Initiation of the whites into the ways of the blacks was as inevitable as the other way around.”
Much that is rich, beautiful, meaningful, and unique about Southern culture is a product of this mingling and cross-pollination of cultures. For better or worse, the South today would be unrecognizable without the pathos, art, courage, perseverance, agony, ecstasy, that is African American culture.
That agony began in the Caribbean, and it spread first through Charleston and then to fill Southern towns and cities, fields and river valleys, and ultimately the entire United States. And with it came a unique sort of still-heartbroken ecstasy that still sings in Black voices, lilts in Gullah accents, is stirred into Lowcountry cooking, and gleams in our region’s art. One might imagine it to be the sinister beauty of the Lowcountry, or the soul of the South, or perhaps, the unquiet dream of the nation.