Exploring Charleston

Saxon Blue's Blog
Harvey Jones and Andrea Stokes
Wed 1 Dec 2010 19:13
Tuesday afternoon
We set off from Washington DC yesterday morning with frost on the ground and our breath pluming - although stories from home give it even colder in the UK with snow. We endured the dreadful conditions in Ronald Reagan Airport and departed for Charleston, South Carolina. The airports in the US are the worst I've ever been in. I honestly think they're worse than the ones in India and compared to the ones in Asia, they're a disgrace.
Anyway, the flight was only just over an hour and I could watch the country going by below. We looked out over the whole of the Chesapeake, then we could just see land and then the Atlantic and the swamps and waterways of South Carolina. We wandered out of the small, tidy airport and past the signs on the doors which say "No Concealed Firearms" and out into the warmth of the South. I was down to my T-shirt by the time we were met by our new crewmate, William Ransom Haynie III - hereafter referred to as Bill. His name is passed down from grandfather to grandson which seems to me a wonderful image of a name skipping down the generations especially as Bill II is so supportive of Bill III's nautical ambitions.
Bill set to telling us all about the area as he drove us into town with a mixture of history and anecdote - we later found out that he'd worked as a cycle rickshaw driver and tour guide in the City. We stopped at the Battery on the end of the peninsula to have a look out over the harbour and Bill was doing such a good job of telling us about everything around us that some other tourists sidled up so they could earwig. Bill should have asked for a tip - everyone else seems to.
Our hotel is right in the old City and we've got a couple of rooms in a separate annexe so we have a front door onto the street and our own sitting room. The bed is the highest one I've ever seen and we actually have a set of steps so we can get into it. It's got some fancy mattress and it is comfortable but I nearly bang my head on the ceiling when I sit up. Andrea has been joking that she can still feel the pea underneath the mattress but she must be making that bit up as she's certainly no Princess.
Pausing only for lunch, we set off with Bill for a walk around the City. It's very compact, being built on a peninsula between two rivers. It was founded very early on in the Colonial period but by Aristocrats rather than the religious dissenters who created the northern colonies. It has a wonderful natural harbour and good access to the interior via the rivers so soon became incredibly wealthy, particularly when plantation owners from Barbados arrived, bringing their plantation agricultural practices and slaves with them.
By the time of the Revolution, Charleston was rich and certainly didn't want to be a Colony any longer. Several signers of the Declaration of Independence are from here and the State played a big part in the war against the British. The Brits realised the strategic importance of Charleston harbour and set out to secure it for the Crown. They sent a powerful fleet against the locals who were busy building a fort on one of the outlying islands. The Royal Navy were in no hurry and watched the Americans build their puny fort from the local Palmetto trees which are half-way between a coconut palm and a Yucca plant. When the warships finally unleashed their broadsides, they were astonished to see the shot get absorbed by the fibrous trunks rather than create the expected showers of leathal splinters, as it would have against proper English oak.
Using the traditional Naval alternative to local knowledge (ie arrogance), they despatched a couple of ships to get around behind the Americans and launched a force of Marines to teach them a good lesson. Sure enough, the ships ran aground and the Marines landed on an island not connected to the one with the fort on it. Realising that they'd totally cocked it up, the fleet retreated and the Palmetto tree has been the State symbol ever since - it's even on their flag.
Anyway, all this maritime activity has left the City with lovely 3-storey houses and Palmetto lined streets although precious little open space It feels very like a sub-tropical version of Southsea but with a clear dividing line between the elegant old City and the surrounding areas with cheaper housing and an almost entirely Black population. There is a covered market that's reminiscent of France and, in fact, we're in the French quarter of town. The French who came here were Huegenots and we seem to have been finding evidence of them ever since Nova Scotia. Charleston also has a military college, The Citadel, where Bill's ancestors went, as did the Confederates who fired the first shots of the Civil War.
We went out for dinner with Bill and were chatting about history and stuff while he was eating and we were tasting some of the local cuisine. I still can't quite get my head around Grits (lumpy wallpaper paste) although I must admit that it's better here than in Annapolis but I'll have to give it another try as I suspect Bill will be making a lot of it on our passage to the Caribbean. Gumbo was good, however, as was She Crab soup. Our hotel serves Biscuits and Gravy for breakfast so I suppose I'll have to try that as well. Bill and Andrea have already had a dispute about whether HobNobs are biscuits or cookies but, as it actually says "biscuits" on the packet, he had to concede defeat on that one.
I had a good night's sleep on our high-rise bed - probably as a result of the limited amount of oxygen up there - and then it was round to the main bit of the hotel for breakfast and then off to the Charleston Museam, the oldest in the USA. It was absolutely great. They had a timeline exhibit about Charleston which combined text, objects and videos so well that we were entranced for ages and learned loads. It turns out that this area got rich on rice. The area is low-lying and warm so ideal for rice growing and the slaves were brought from West Africa and already knew how to cultivate it. Charleston ended up providing about 90% of the early US rice harvest and the Plantation owners grew fabulously rich on it.
Much of the exhibition was given over to showing how the rice crop required unrelenting toil from those producing it. A massive amount of labout was required, along with a high degree of organisation to create and maintain the waterways which kept the fields productive. All the labour, of course, was from Black slaves and I think the museum was presenting this as a key argument for why slavery was wrong but I think this is falling into a bit of a trap. The work was certainly hard, hot and poorly rewarded and the substantial profits were siphoned off by an idle aristocracy but is that any different from what was happening in England at that time? In fact, it doesn't seem to me to be very different from the situation of agricultural labourers up until about the 1950s. If you're arguing against slavery on the basis that it was bad for slaves, I think you're opening yourself up to the counter argument that it was better for them than some of the alternatives. I think you have to oppose it just because it's wrong - precious few people will suggest that it's right.
The thing is with slavery, it's still very much a live issue down here. The Civil War wasn't very long ago and, as Bill told us, some people in Charleston still refer to it as "The War of Northern Aggression", laying the blame for it on the Union. Even the museum deliberately calls it "The War Between the States" which makes it sound like a legitimate war between independent entities rather than one within a single Country. The issue of slavery is central to the whole thing but it's not so clearcut as you might think. To some southerners, the Union's failure to free all the slaves at the outset is proof that slavery wasn't really the issue, rather the North coveted the South's natural resources and resented their lifestyle. However, the proclamations issued by the Southern States as they left the union specifically refer to their right to keep slaves as a cause of secession. So, even if the abolition of slavery wasn't a Union war-aim, it's preservation was clearly a significant motivation for the Confederacy.
It can end up being an argument about whether the slaves were better off before or after their emancipation. This is complicated because the North deliberately destroyed the economic infrastructure of the South during the conflict so you're trying to compare being a slave in a functioning economy with being a free man in a post-war wasteland. I think the problem is that neither side had any idea of what they were getting into when the allowed themselves to go to war. The Union didn't appreciate quite how hard it would be to subjugate the Confederacy or how much destruction would result. The South knew they were fighting a rearguard action for their way of life but maybe underestimated the North's implaccable resolution to maintain the Union at any cost. The result was awful. 10% of the young men in the Union were killed during the war but, in the South, 30% of the young white men lost their lives.
The fact is that people are still debating the rights and wrongs of this terrible war which happened over a Century ago. In this country where being killed in battle is seen as the ultimate validation of patriotism, it's still not clear what cause those hundreds of thousands of dead sanctified. The south can't fully mourn their loss or celebrate their culture without revitalising the ghost of slavery. The North can't bring themselves to admit that waging total war on their fellow countrymen was neither a justified nor reasonable response to their demand for independence, no matter how valid the cause of abolishing slavery was claimed to be later.
We walked past a house earlier today which had a plaque on it commemorating the first legal inter-racial marriage in South Carolina. It took place in 1969. That's right, almost 100 years after the end of the Civil War and within my lifetime. That boggles my mind. If the North were really so bothered about equality, how come blatant racism was still allowed to persist in the Union they'd wreaked such destruction to defend? If the South were really just fighting to preserve a way of life and not a system based on race, how come they were allowing such discrimination in the same year as Americans first walked on the moon? It seems to me that neither side comes out of the Civil War episode with much moral credit and that the central issue of institutionalised racism wasn't solved by the war, has only recently been tackled atall and has yet to be resolved.