Colonial South Carolina played an undervalued role in early American history. New England and Philadelphia had a corner on European shipping routes, but South Carolina played just as a significant role in the very lucrative Caribbean trade. University of South Carolina history professor, Robert Weir, has admirably filled in a lot of gaps in the public’s mind regarding early American with his excellent Colonial South Carolina: A History. Considering South Carolina’s preeminent role in British America south of Williamsburg, VA, the role that the colony played extended far beyond its natural borders, which were set by the mid 1700’s.

Books like this, covering a large time period from before recorded history to roughly 1775 in a few hundred pages are by nature very selective. Weir does an admirable job of describing South Carolina’s history before European colonization. His main goal is to describe the land and the native people’s in relationship to how they affected and altered the English attempt to establish a colony south of Virginia.
What made Carolina different, for it was just one colony at the time, was that it was settled by business leadership from the island of Barbados. So total was the Barbados influence, that Carolina could be said to be the only mainland location that was settled from the Caribean, rather than the other way around. The story that Weir tells of South Carolina is that of a trading colony that remained a transitional land between the raw commercialism of the Caribean islands and the settled little British communities of the rest of British North America.

Carolina’s growth, and by extenstion, eventually the deep South’s growth and culture had its origin’s at the very start in the late 17th century. Relationships with native tribes were seen as potential trading partners, and due to clan warfare, as the first slaves on some of the early populations. Weir’s presentation of Carolina as an extension of the British aristorcracy, even to the famed eight Lord Proprieters led by Lord Anthony Ashley Cooper, fits into the cultural model of Carolinians being aristocratic, yet demanding fairness and equity.

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Weir’s history of the Carolina colony can be divided into three sections:

  • Founding by the Lord Proprietars and early settlement, including the division of the two Carolina’s
  • Revolt against the investors and establishment of direct royal rule
  • Growth of an independent South Carolina culture that attempted to be more English than native England

Along the way, Weir does an excellent job of describing the rising three different South Carolina’s, the Charleston aristocracy that quickly established themselves as a new power with new traditions more powerful than across the Atlantic, the growing African slave population designed to provide the ease of life that the Charlestonians were becoming used to, and the small, but growing backcountry settlements from Scotch-Irish and Germans who came South from Virginia and Pennslyvania.

While the history of colonial South Carolina can be easily put into the context of the Atlantic, British, Caribbean world of the mid-18th century; Weir’s book excels at describing the culture of early South Carolina. The economy, the hopes of the first generation settlers who hacked their homes out of the wilderness, the decaying relationship to the Indian tribes that coalesced into just a handful of opposition groups are placed in the context of not only how it relates to the rest of the British Empire, but how individual factions in South Carolina shaped the society for generations to come.

The rising arguments and disagreements that led to the Revolution had a distinct South Carolina influence. Wrapping up the book, Weir builds his case of how the distinct and at times factional South Carolina added its own flavor to what was a New England led (at first) revolt against Great Britain. It can be argued that were it not for the commercial and equity concerns of South Carolina, by far the most populous of the three colonies south of Virginia, the American Revolution might have remained a local concern of New England, rather than the opportunity to establish a continent long nation.

Weir’s story is a fascinating look into how a factionalized, aristocratic, backwoods, slave-based coastal colony grew to be special and unique land, part Caribean, part English, part frontier. Colonial South Carolina, A History, is a defnitive modern work for establishing the role of the origins of the Southern half of the United States.

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