Just today’s thoughts about indigo and slavery and being an American


Eliza Lucas Pinckney brooch, Charleston Museum

There are no known images of Eliza Lucas Pinckney, but here is a picture of a piece of her jewelry. It gives you a sense of the elite, wealthy class that she occupied. To put another way — this jewel-encrusted brooch gives you a sense of what slave labor could buy. So great was the hunger for the wealth produced by a bonded population in Charleston in the 1740’s, the slave traders could barely keep up with demand (they got rich, too, by the way).  In those days, as rice cultivation was in full sway and markets remained relatively favorable, Carolina was known for as a place of  ‘easy wealth’ — which is a little like Thomas Jefferson asserting that the harder he worked, the luckier he got!


photo of photo from Charleston Museum of Charleston Harbor

Yesterday, I came across a fantastic web page about Eliza Lucas Pinckney, located on the Clemson University website.  There is a picture of one of her descendants and one of her garments. The page focuses on indigo, the African contribution to the science and success of the commodity, and includes details about a few of ELP’s bondsmen that I had yet to come across.

Two of my readers recommended Patricia Klindienst’s “The Earth Knows My Name.  Food, Culture, and Sustainability in the Gardens of Ethnic Americans.”  It looks fascinating, and I know from what reader Jacqui Holmes shared with me in an email yesterday, that it includes some specifics about Eliza’s experiences with indigo (none of which was news to me, however).
The other book that recently came to my attention is Andrea Feeser’s “Red, White, and Black Make Blue. Indigo in the Fabric of Colonial South Carolina Life.”* I’ve just ordered it.

*    *    *

On another note, I did a quick run to Salem this morning. It was a good visit and traffic was a breeze driving back, but I always come home a little spent. I really ought to walk away from the screen, drink water, and sew in front of a fan for a while, but first: a mini-rant.

My sister tried to convince me that Irish immigrants had it just as bad as African slaves. (This comes up with obnoxious frequency in various online forums, too).

No, no, and No! I answered back.

My ancestors were reviled, yes, faced prejudice and economic hardship, yes… and what the English did to the Irish during the potato famine but some accounts constituted genocide. But there are so many, many differences.

Even, knowing, as I do, how terribly the Irish were treated in the mid-eighteenth century (in many cases, by the way, by the same landowners who were abusing and exploiting their bond men and women), even having read letters by Southern mistresses asserting that they’d prefer ‘a lazy Negro to a slovenly Irish girl, any day of the week’, even having read how sometimes Southern landowners employed the Irish for brutally exhausting labors specifically to avoid working AN ASSET (i.e. an African American bondsman) to death, even learning, as I did yesterday, that Catholicism was outlawed in the colony in this period.

Not the same at all.  All one has to do is go 100 years forward to recognize how race carries a stigma unknown by any white-skinned immigrant groups.

Again (again!), I named the recent Atlantic magazine article, “The Case for Reparations” (by Ta-Nehisi Coates)  (I am thinking of making my boys’ second term tuitions contingent on reading this article).  You could not possibly digest that article and believe for a second that blacks and certain white immigrant groups got the same kind or degree of raw deals.

And speaking of being descended from Irish immigrants, two of whom were not here during the 250 years of slavery, Ta-Nehisi Coates specifically condemns taking the view that because our particular ancestors were not here during the ignominious slave years of American history, we are somehow exempt.  We are not exempt.  Half my family tree was probably near-to starving in County Cork in the antebellum years.  I am not exempt.  And even though my paternal great-grandfather fought for the Union, I am not exempt (or is it great-great?).

As a white American, how could I be exempt?

(I just ordered Coates’s memoir — big time spender here. ANOTHER reason to walk away from the screen).



* Book cover image used with permission of Clemson University

7 thoughts on “Just today’s thoughts about indigo and slavery and being an American

  1. Ginny

    It is hard to look at, much less compare suffering – of actual slaves vs indentured, of death by starvation or murder, genocide or execution. Even exempt vs guilty by association is hard to pin….what is clear is that the human world has always been a harsh, unfair, sometimes evil and mostly deadly. I look forward to your book. This research as difficult as it is to assimilate, is a very important and you should be very, very proud of this undertaking.

    Then there is the natural attraction to that very beautiful and pure color and how it fits within the puzzle pieces of suffering. What a task before you!

    I am curious too about your comment about your paternal great-grandfather fighting for the Union – when you come up for air maybe you can fill me in on what you know about him. I am very curious. 🙂

    1. deemallon

      My brother has the muster of a Pennsylvania Regiment – I never can properly remember the details but I believe it was Alice’s father…. Wm Kinney. Does that jive with what you know?

      You paragraph about suffering is very provocative, and reminds me to note that by making a distinction about the particular nature of African American suffering in this country is not to try to compare, say, starving to death with being lashed to death…. It is not to say one is easy and one is not. It is to say that there were many conditions of slavery — from the fact of human ownership and sanctification of brutality in the legal codes to the ready-identification and grouping by skin color — that make it significantly different from the kinds of prejudice the Irish suffered under.

  2. Heather

    Don’t know if you’ve had the opportunity to see a Kara Walker exhibit … I went to see her work while it was here at the Modern Art Museum. Some of us went to eat afterward, but after seeing the exhibit, I realized it wasn’t a good plan as it was definitely enough to take your appetite. She captures everything so vividly it’s like she was there … I wondered if perhaps she had a past life as a slave.

    “Absolute power corrupts absolutely,” and that’s just about what slaveowners had.

    Noelle Oxenhandler mentions in one of her books that her boyfriend made some genealogical information about one of his ancestor’s slaves available online (IIRC), and found out as a result that his ancestor was a particularly virulent slaveowner. He heard stories about him from his slaves’ descendants that were enough to turn anyone’s stomach.

    It was so, so ugly, and there’s no doubt its effects are with us still in myriad ways.

    1. deemallon

      Hi Heather — I HAD read about Kara Walker’s work, but on your prompting started my day with a wonderful 8M video about it… I was impressed and hope to write a separate post about sugar and Barbados and its close ties with early SC — which would be a great place to link to that video.

      Thanks for your long comment… I will look at the online ancestry resource you mention as well. Sounds fascinating.

      1. Heather

        Kara’s work *is* really impressive … so many different media, so arresting. She’s really prolific. Some of the silhouettes are relatively innocuous, and draw you in to the apparent quaintness associated with the form–then, boom!!

        Btw, the book Noelle mentions this in is called The Wishing Year. It’s just a side note in the book, but a very memorable one.

  3. Linda Heron

    Have you read “Someone Knows My Name by Lawrence Hill. It was called ” The Book of Negroes” in Canada, but the title changed for the U.S. (see Wikipedia for explanation. There was a chapter or so on Aminata Diallo’s ( a real person on whom the book was based) work on an Indigo plantation in S.Carolina

    Linda in Toronto, Canada

    1. deemallon

      Have not heard about this book and want to thank you for bringing it to my attention. I dyed with SC indigo on a farm west of Charleston today. Typing with blue finger nails.


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