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.

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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