This poster is an advertisement for a slave sale, held in 1760 in Charleston, South Carolina. The poster would have been displayed weeks before the sale, on public bulletin boards, in the windows of local businesses, and in newspapers and pamphlets.
Slaves from this ship (the Bance-Island) would have been of particular interest to South Carolina plantation owners, because they hailed from the "Windward and Rice Coasts." The Windward and Rice Coasts lie along Africa's central Atlantic shoreline, and include the present-day nations of Sierra Leone, Liberia, Cote d'Ivoire, Ghana, Togo, and Benin.
Slaves from the Rice Coast were valuable to South Carolina farmers because they were familiar with growing and harvesting the colony's cash crops, rice and indigo. Slave traders who saw African farmers cultivate rice along the Rice Coast immediately recognized the potential for growing the crop in the "Low Country" of South Carolina, which shares a similar geography and climate: flat, tidal streams and flood plains; barrier islands; humid summers; and forested inland areas.
Africans brought to colonial America as slaves helped establish the rice-based economy of South Carolina. African slaves knew how to regulate irrigation with levees, flood gates, and drains. Their knowledge contributed to the shift of rice cultivation from inland swamps to tidal flood plains. By the time of the American Revolution, the crop was second only to tobacco in terms of economic value to the new nation.
Slaves were also instrumental in indigo production. Indigo is native to tropical Africa, and communities along the Windward and Rice Coasts had hundreds of years' experience cultivating the plant and producing its valuable dye. In particular, Africans knew the complex chemical process needed to transfer the blue color to fabric—the dye is not water-soluble. In 1744, Eliza Pickney, a white woman, and unnamed African slaves cultivated a new strain of indigo that flourished in South Carolina. It soon became the colony's other cash crop.
Slaves sold at Charleston auctions like this one were immediately put to work, mostly in indigo and rice plantations. The work was exhausting—backbreaking labor in flooded fields susceptible to harmful microbes and mosquitoes. More than a third of slave children died before their first birthday, mostly due to malaria and malnutrition.
Colonial travelers to South Carolina's plantations called the rice and indigo fields "charnel houses."
More slaves were imported to colonies in the American South (such as South Carolina) than the North. Why?
In the 1760s, South Carolina plantation owners were, on average, wealthier than landowners in other American colonies. What were the other 12 colonies?
Busy as Charleston's slave market was, it was dwarfed by the slave trade in the Caribbean. In what industry do you think Caribbean slaves worked?
The journey from Africa to the Americas is known as the Middle Passage of the Atlantic slave trade, often called the "Triangle Trade." Where were the other two "passages," and what was their primary cargo?
Geographer Bob Janiskee calls Charleston's Sullivan's Island a "macabre Ellis Island." Why?
- Until the early 1800s, many English-speaking areas used the "long s" in written communication. Long s letters were loosely based on ancient Roman writing, and often looked like lower-case fs. The long s was not always used. In this advertisement, "Tuesday" and "Ashley Ferry" look like "tuefday" and "Afhley-ferry." "Charles-Town," however, looks familiar.
- Charleston, South Carolina, was named by British colonists in honor of their king, Charles II, in 1670. The city was officially known as Charles-Town until 1783, after the American Revolution. This slave sale took place in 1760, when South Carolina was still a British colony.
- Charleston (or Charles-Town) was the busiest, most lucrative slaving port in colonial America. Between 1706 and 1775, about 98,000 slaves were imported to Charleston. By 1740, well before this sale, more than half of South Carolina's population was made up of African and West Indian slaves.
- Charleston was an ideal port for international slave traders. Unlike ports in the shallow, winding Chesapeake Bay (such as Baltimore, Maryland, and Norfolk, Virginia), Charleston was a deep, natural harbor located directly on the Atlantic coast. In addition, Charleston was flanked by two broad rivers, the Ashley and the Cooper. Large ships could easily navigate and dock, and smaller boats could take purchased slaves to locations further inland. This slave sale, for instance, was scheduled at the large ferry on the Ashley River in Charleston Harbor.
- This slave ship, the Bance-Island, was named for its place of origin in Sierra Leone. Bance (now called Bunce) was in many ways Charleston's twin on Africa's Rice Coast. It was a major slaving port, sitting in West Africa's largest natural harbor and at the mouth of a major river (the Sierra Leone). Unlike other African slaving ports (such as James Island, Gambia, or Accra, Ghana), Bunce did not supply many slaves to the thriving plantations in South America, the Caribbean, or the Chesapeake. Nearly all slaves shipped from Bunce went to Charleston.
- Henry Laurens, one of the businessmen publicizing this sale, had a unique connection to Bunce. Richard Oswald, the British executive who managed the slave trade at Bunce, was his business partner. Three or four times a year, Oswald would send a shiploaded with ivory, camwood (an exotic lumber), and slavesto Laurens in Charleston. Laurens would sell the goods and reload the ship. If loaded with rice, South Carolina's leading cash crop, the ship would sail for London, England. If loaded with shipping supplies (masts and sails), it sailed directly back to Bunce.
- Laurens was one of the wealthiest plantation owners and slave traders in South Carolina. South Carolina landowners were generally worth more than six times their fellow landowners in the other American colonies.
- Laurens and other slave traders sold entire shiploads of slaves (about 250-300 people) within one or two days during the peak trading period between May and October. No deals were struck before the day of the sale, and discounts were not offered for bulk purchases. Discounts were offered for prompt payment, however. (Buyers, who usually had four to six months to pay for their human purchases, rarely paid cash up-front.)
- Slaves sold for varied prices, depending on their health, age, and sex. Slave traders could sell healthy young mentheir most valuable commodityfor as much as 200 pounds sterling (about $25,000 in today's money). The local trader (Laurens, for instance) made about 10%-15% of that, and the rest went to the trading company (Oswald, back in Bunce).
- As this poster advertises, slave traders took the "utmost care" to prevent smallpox from reaching their human cargo. Ships like the Bance-Island regularly quarantined slaves on Sullivan's Island in Charleston Harbor. Today, as many as 40% of African Americans trace their ancestry to Charleston, leading geographer Bob Janiskee to call Sullivan's Island a "macabre Ellis Island."
- This poster actually documents South Carolina's "second wave" of slave trading. The "first wave" primarily imported slaves from Angola and Kongo (today, areas of the Republic of Congo, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola, and Gabon). These slaves were responsible for clearing land and tending to the livestock of "absentee landlord" owners in the "Wild West" of South Carolina. In fact, some historians say a racist, derisive term for these slaves created one of the most familiar, respected words for their responsibilities. They were "boys" who tended cattle: cowboys.
For Further Exploration
- National Park Service: Park Ethnography Program—Africans in the Low Country
- SCIWAY: The African Slave Trade and South Carolina
- The Gilder Lehrman Center: The Gullah—Bance Island in Sierra Leone
- University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill: Documenting the American South—The Experience of a Slave in South Carolina
Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry cash crop Noun
agricultural product raised to be sold for goods and services, not consumed by the farmer.
charnel house Noun
place where dead bodies are kept.
people and land separated by distance or culture from the government that controls them.
Encyclopedic Entry: crop cultivate Verb
to prepare and nurture the land for crops.
system of production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services.
study of places and the relationships between people and their environments.
Encyclopedic Entry: geography irrigation Noun
watering land, usually for agriculture, by artificial means.
Encyclopedic Entry: irrigation malaria Noun
infectious disease caused by a parasite carried by mosquitoes.
lack of a balanced diet.
large estate or farm involving large landholdings and many workers.
person who is owned by another person or group of people.