Black Resistance and Slave Politics in Lowcountry Georgia


W. E. B. Du Bois, Collector. African Americans standing outside of a church. Georgia, 1899. [or 1900] Photograph. (NYPL)
Within Lowcountry Georgia, enslaved Africans expressed a determined political will to resist enslavement and maintain dignity. Their dislocation reinforced the tragedy of the slave trade and simultaneously fostered cultural resistance to enslavement, which began during the Middle Passage and continued upon arrival in Georgia. The cross-current of events that promoted the acquisition of rice and grain coast slaves transformed the landscape of Lowcountry Georgia. As enslaved Africans altered the physical environment, African socio-cultural practices such as kinship, religion, and cultural processes transformed New World slavery. They kept a collective memory of West Africa, which survived across the Middle Passage and created a distinct African identity shaped by the North Atlantic.   Their “cultural politics” was a form of slave politics, or the politics of the unfree, that found expression in the thought, actions, and culture of the enslaved, according to historians Van Gosse and David Waldstricter.

The arrival of over 13,000 Africans in Lowcountry Georgia led to the creation of a new language structure, the Gullah/Geechee language, which had a common semantic and stylistic form. This shared language made possible the reclamation of a territory to establish a sense of place. The cultural identity of these forced transatlantic communities emanated from shared traditions, perspectives; and intersecting relations and languages. Building on both their African background and American experience, Africans in Lowcountry Georgia retained their African culture and established cultural resistance to their enslavement. Cultural resistance represented a salient form of opposition to federally sanctioned enslavement. The establishment of rice plantations along the coastal and inland areas of Georgia in the eighteenth century created a unique environment for enslaved Africans to re-create social and cultural institutions.

Functioning within the constraints of an inhumane system, Africans and African Americans established familial bonds, preserved agricultural techniques, re-created artistic expressions, maintained Islamic practices, and syncretized African religious beliefs with Christianity.

The legalization of slavery in Georgia in 1750 and the concomitant expansion of the transatlantic slave trade shaped the evolution of African slave communities in the Lowcountry. The demand for African slave labor increased with the establishment of rice and Sea Island cotton plantations during the late eighteenth century. As rice became a profitable export crop in coastal Georgia, merchants in Savannah imported Africans from the Rice and Grain Coast of West Africa, which extended from the Senegambian region to Sierra Leone. From 1755-1767, 53 percent of slaves imported into Savannah originated from the Caribbean, while 35 percent came directly from the Rice and Grain Coast. Comparatively, during the intermediate period from 1768-1780, 68 percent of slaves imported into Savannah originated from the Rice and Grain Coast. From 1784-1798, West African captives from rice growing regions accounted for 45 percent of slaves imported to Savannah.

Within transatlantic communities, the oral narratives of escaped Africans, which reveal acts of strategic resistance, were central to the expression of human agency.  The belief that the enslaved could transcend their physical oppression by returning to Africa symbolized a reversed transatlantic migration to escape an abhorrent reality. Oral narratives of flight back to Africa preserved as intergenerational narratives within transatlantic communities, underscored the persistence of Africa in the consciousness of the enslaved. Illustrative of this is Ryna Johnson. A persistent memory of her as an enslaved woman on Hopeton plantation in the Altamaha district (as well as several others in the St. Simons Island and Sapelo Island communities), was the legend of Butler’s Island Africans who, resentful of the overseer’s lash, flew back to Africa.

The narratives of Prince Sneed, Serina Hall, and Solomon Gibson, whose ancestors labored on St. Catherine’s Island, also revealed a parallel flight migration to Africa.  The metaphor of returning to Africa expressed a determination to dream of and hope for a better life literally and symbolically beyond their present situation in slavery. The historical re-envisioning of returning to Africa remained a persistent theme in the consciousness of African Americans who lived within the Georgia-South Carolina Lowcountry continuum. Phyllis Green, a former slave in Charleston, South Carolina, described a similar event that took place on James Island in which Africans who refused to submit to the “seasoning” process feigned accommodation, and began their flight back to Africa. These oft-repeated oral narratives were represented as actual lived experiences, underscoring several forms of resistance such as refusing to assimilate, plotting return back to Africa, pretending to accommodate, and flying home to freedom.

In a similar vein, oral narratives of freedom through death provided the theoretical underpinnings for an alternate conception of historical reality. On St. Simons Island, newly purchased captive Africans (sold to John Couper and Thomas Spalding by the Savannah firm of Mein and Mackey), endured a second “voyage through death” down the coast from Savannah in 1803. Their confinement below deck created the conditions which led to a revolt against the crew and Couper’s overseer. Landing near the marshlands, the Igbos began singing and wading through the waters of the Altamaha River, where twelve drowned in an attempt to reverse their forced migration.

The historical memory of the descendants of enslaved African Americans provides an important window in which to examine their traditions in the discourse and cultural logics of the slavery era. The emergence of a dissident subculture within Lowcountry communities embodied by a complex system of traditions represented the second form of resistance along the South Carolina-Georgia continuum. The traditions developed by Lowcountry African Americans emerged as a central component in their ontological praxis. The communitarian character of the slaves’ traditions provides salient insights into how enslaved men and women understood and communicated their experiences and struggles through their use of language. Their symbolic and metaphorical traditions provide insights into the ways in which they transformed their experiences into images that tell their stories of both oppression and liberation. In this context, spirituals from the Lowcountry, interpreted as oral texts, reveal the intertextuality of the lived experiences of enslaved men and women through artistic expression. Dublin Scribben, an African born slave in Liberty County, fused English with his native language to express both the oppression of the Middle Passage and the symbolic rebirth of the individual in the slave song “Freewillum” [Freewill]. The ocean served as a metaphor for rebirth and freedom (reproduced without phonetic exaggeration):

Going home to see the ocean, religion told New Jerusalem, I bring good news, a-tatta-ho! My soul seen the ocean.

The varied discourses of slave resistance illustrate that enslaved men and women created alternate geographies for themselves in Lowcountry Georgia. Enslaved Africans brought their bodies, their minds, and their cultures to the Americas, and employed all three to address conflicting ideas of slavery and freedom. They carved out marginal spaces within slavery to engage in strategic resistance, and established alliances based upon ethnicity, occupation, kinship, and mutual oppression to contest their bondage.  Slave insubordination crystallized into open defiance as they sought to gain individual and collective freedom by challenging the fissures within slavery. During this critical period, enslaved men and women re-imagined, reformulated, and transformed the legal contexts in which they lived.

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Karen Cook Bell

Karen Cook Bell is the Wilson H. Elkins Endowed Professor of History at Bowie State University. She is the author of Claiming Freedom: Race, Kinship, and Land in Nineteenth Century Georgia (University of South Carolina Press, 2018); Running From Bondage: Enslaved Women and Their Remarkable Fight for Freedom in Revolutionary America (Cambridge University Press, 2021) and Southern Black Women and Their Struggle for Freedom during the Civil War and Reconstruction (Cambridge University Press, 2023). She is Founding Director of the BSU Du Bois Center for the Study of the Black Experience at Bowie State University. Follow her on Twitter at @kbphd08 and at the BSU Du Bois Cenetr @BSUDuBoisCenter

Comments on “Black Resistance and Slave Politics in Lowcountry Georgia

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    This is fascinating, particularly considering the connections that Lorenzo Dow Turner’s work (exhibited at the Anacostia Community Museum of the Smithsonian Institution) seemed to make between the Georgia Sea Islands, Bahia, and Sierra Leone. This is my area of interest. Am already in the process of checking out your books and other references.

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