Sometimes it happens that you read a book for a different reason from the one which made the author write it. In that case, when writing a critique, you must be very careful not to fault the author for not "living up to" your requirements. That is the case here. For many years, I have been intrigued by the question, "Why are states like South Carolina so different from my own state of Massachusetts when they were settled largely by people from the same country at around the same time?" I never did much about finding the answer, but some time ago I did buy this book. I have only just read it. OK, so it wasn't such a burning question ! But that is what impelled me to undertake to read COLONIAL SOUTH CAROLINA and I'm glad I did.
Weir's clearly-written history provides a detailed look at the colony, which began to emerge in the 1630s under the rule of proprietors who brought in colonists. He gives background on Spanish and French incursions and battles over the area, as well as on the various Indian peoples, who might not have been as numerous as those to the south or west. Weir's main interest, however, is political and legal---in the growth of laws, political institutions, and people in government---and how these led eventually to rebellion against Britain. For an amateur, these sections get rather detailed. I was interested in almost everything else---the relationship with the Indians, the economy (naval stores, rice, indigo), slavery, social classes, and their standards of living. Because of his focus, he begins with political developments instead of with economics and the society, which I feel is a mistake. In his way, amateurs like me can hardly grasp the motives or the players in the political game until we reach subsequent chapters.
If I have not found my answer (and maybe there is no definite answer), I got a lot of valuable things to think about. Though South Carolina was founded more for economic interests than as a refuge for a persecuted minority (like Massachusetts), both Huguenots and English dissenters played a major role in the state. There is not a clear difference there. Perhaps the tenor of life differed. Weir notes, "Not everyone in South Carolina during the early years was a scoundrel though some...suspected that was the case." (p.61) There was, however, a large contingent of adventurers, connections to pirates, and some mighty loose living. South Carolina did not develop towns with self-governing traditions, nor was there much government at the county level. Instead, large tracts were granted to individuals, and words like "barony" and "seignory" were mentioned in laws. A more feudal atmosphere then, culminating in the "Margravate of Azilia" a feudal style buffer state that was nearly founded in the wild territory between South Carolina and Spanish Florida (now mostly Georgia). Unlike New England, South Carolina suffered constant raids by the Spanish and French, a war with pirates, wars with powerful Indian tribes several times in the 18th century, hurricanes, a huge fire in the capital, and yellow fever. Despite all this, secret ballot and religious freedom flourished, the colonial government---once the proprietary relationship ended in 1719---was not less progressive than others. However, what distinguished the two regions most of all was the extent of slavery. For most of its colonial history, blacks were a majority in South Carolina. The fear of uprisings and the terror used to control the slaves set the tone of life in this, the richest of the 13 colonies. Any disunity among whites could have been fatal, thus an inordinately large amount of central control. Weir also discusses the sectional division between lowland planters and upland small farmers; the composition of white society; and questions of social stability. All these things aided me immensely in trying to answer my question.
In addition, readers will find a great amount of fascinating information in this book---how to make tar and pitch, South Carolina style---the use of indigo as currency during the Revolution---the importation of the original rice seeds from Madagascar (was it the pirate connection ?)---the development of black cowboys whose work patterns appeared over a century later in the oft-glorified West and a lot more. COLONIAL SOUTH CAROLINA is indispensable for anyone who wants an overall picture of this colony, whose history is often ignored in favor of Virginia, New York or Massachusetts. I believe, though, that I must read Judith Carney's "Black Rice" (2001) and Michael Stephen Hindus' "Prison and Plantation" (1980) for a more complete answer to my own question.
on July 13, 2000
I acquired this book while on vacation at Kiawah Island, SC. If you fancy yourself an amateur historian, this is the book for you. Prof. Weir provides a detailed review of the formation of South Carolina and its growth from proprietary colony to royal colony to free state. He blends social, economic and political history with fascinating tidbits about the geography around you. It is a little heavy on the political aspects, however, and sometimes my mind glazed over with governor-this and who owned what. But all in all, I quite enjoyed reading it as I toured the area. One of the most interesting parts was the extensive information he included about the interactions between the colonists and the native American populations which they ultimately destroyed or enslaved.
on October 2, 2006
Colonial South Carolina played an undervalued role in early American history. New England and Philadelphia had a corner on European shipping routes, but South Carolina played just as a significant role in the very lucrative Caribbean trade. University of South Carolina history professor, Robert Weir, has admirably filled in a lot of gaps in the public's mind regarding early American with his excellent Colonial South Carolina: A History. Considering South Carolina's preeminent role in British America south of Williamsburg, VA, the role that the colony played extended far beyond its natural borders, which were set by the mid 1700's.
Books like this, covering a large time period from before recorded history to roughly 1775 in a few hundred pages are by nature very selective. Weir does an admirable job of describing South Carolina's history before European colonization. His main goal is to describe the land and the native people's in relationship to how they affected and altered the English attempt to establish a colony south of Virginia.
What made Carolina different, for it was just one colony at the time, was that it was settled by business leadership from the island of Barbados. So total was the Barbados influence, that Carolina could be said to be the only mainland location that was settled from the Caribean, rather than the other way around. The story that Weir tells of South Carolina is that of a trading colony that remained a transitional land between the raw commercialism of the Caribean islands and the settled little British communities of the rest of British North America.
Carolina's growth, and by extenstion, eventually the deep South's growth and culture had its origin's at the very start in the late 17th century. Relationships with native tribes were seen as potential trading partners, and due to clan warfare, as the first slaves on some of the early populations. Weir's presentation of Carolina as an extension of the British aristorcracy, even to the famed eight Lord Proprieters led by Lord Anthony Ashley Cooper, fits into the cultural model of Carolinians being aristocratic, yet demanding fairness and equity.
Weir's history of the Carolina colony can be divided into three sections:
* Founding by the Lord Proprietars and early settlement, including the division of the two Carolina's
* Revolt against the investors and establishment of direct royal rule
* Growth of an independent South Carolina culture that attempted to be more English than native England
Along the way, Weir does an excellent job of describing the rising three different South Carolina's, the Charleston aristocracy that quickly established themselves as a new power with new traditions more powerful than across the Atlantic, the growing African slave population designed to provide the ease of life that the Charlestonians were becoming used to, and the small, but growing backcountry settlements from Scotch-Irish and Germans who came South from Virginia and Pennslyvania.
While the history of colonial South Carolina can be easily put into the context of the Atlantic, British, Caribbean world of the mid-18th century; Weir's book excels at describing the culture of early South Carolina. The economy, the hopes of the first generation settlers who hacked their homes out of the wilderness, the decaying relationship to the Indian tribes that coalesced into just a handful of opposition groups are placed in the context of not only how it relates to the rest of the British Empire, but how individual factions in South Carolina shaped the society for generations to come.
The rising arguments and disagreements that led to the Revolution had a distinct South Carolina influence. Wrapping up the book, Weir builds his case of how the distinct and at times factional South Carolina added its own flavor to what was a New England led (at first) revolt against Great Britain. It can be argued that were it not for the commercial and equity concerns of South Carolina, by far the most populous of the three colonies south of Virginia, the American Revolution might have remained a local concern of New England, rather than the opportunity to establish a continent long nation.
Weir's story is a fascinating look into how a factionalized, aristocratic, backwoods, slave-based coastal colony grew to be special and unique land, part Caribean, part English, part frontier. Colonial South Carolina, A History, is a defnitive modern work for establishing the role of the origins of the Southern half of the United States.
on February 19, 2009
My wife purchased this book as a Christmas gift for me. I had asked for a book about colonial South Carolina that was comprehensive, but not overwhelming, scholarly, but still readable. This book covers those points beautifully.
A professor at the University of South Carolina, Dr. Weir is equally skill at writing as he is at history. The book flows with a graceful narrative, instead of the harsh staccato of a history textbook. It is the effective prose that draws in the reader and makes the book hard to put down, yes I know about a history book. Yet, the Dr. Weir maintains a scholarly standard that makes the book full of facts and connections between historical events and their reasons and consequences.
I had two minor issues with the book:
1) slightly out-of-date material. The book was written in 1983 and not extensively revised since then to include newer material.
2) too few maps/diagrams. I enjoy looking at things so although the book contains about 5 maps, I want two or three times as many.
If you want to learn what life was like in South Carolina before the revolution, I can't image a book better covering the topic.