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Forkways #24: Gullah Agriculture

The Civil War’s Enduring Influence on the Gullah People

The end of the Civil War marks the beginning of isolation for the freedmen of the Sea Islands. The individuals emancipated from the coastal islands of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida are now called Gullah. During Reconstruction those on the Sea Islands rarely saw visitors imposed on their isolated space. Many of the residents would travel to the mainland to take care of various aspects of business, but few outsiders came to visit them. The survival of Gullah culture and language is fully dependent on the Civil War. It is a mistake to think of slavery as having a single origin point or homogenous experience from one slave to the next. Experiences of slaves on the Sea Islands, and throughout South Carolina, significantly differed from other slave experiences in the South. Gullah culture emerged from the interactions between Africans, African Americans, Native Americans, and Europeans combining different cultures, traditions, and languages (Barnes, Archaeology and Heritage of the Gullah People 168). Though the origin point of Gullah, as both a culture and a language, is ambiguous, evidence exists of Gullah culture before the Civil War. The language likely existed on the South Carolina coast as early as 1700 (Gullah 468). The Gullah language is a creole of African and English, with some influence from other European languages. Many of the grammatical structures carryover from African language spoken before the Middle Passage.

Without the events that took place during and directly after the war between the states, the saturation of slaves and emancipated blacks on the Sea Islands would not have produced such a vibrant and distinctive language and culture. The Gullah people are tied in particular to this land as a direct result of the Civil War. In General Sherman’s Special Field Order #15, these islands were promised to the emancipated slaves. Though Johnson ended the Port Royal Experiment, and revoked the land from the Gullah people, many continue to feel connected with the Sea Islands. Contemporary farmer Ralph Middleton told author Patricia Klindienst “This is where we’ve been, where we’ve worked, for generations. You know your grandparents and great-grandparents planted here. We have memories about the land, about what they did here. So it’s important. It’s sacred” (Klindienst 37). Climatic features on the coastal islands also reminded some slaves of their lost African home. Despite the forced migration that brought Gullahs to the Sea Islands, they still feel connected with the land. They did, and still do, take pride in their achievements here. Without the Civil War, the Gullah people would not have achieved the isolation necessary to distill their distinctive culture. This culture is exhibited particularly by their use of language, access to land, and creation of cuisine.

The Gullah language has its roots on the slave ships of the Middle Passage. As slaves made the treacherous journey from Africa to the New World, they improvised in order to communicate with one another. The Gullah language spread to the Sea Islands from the coast around or after 1750 (Gullah 468). Most accounts suggest that the Gullah language has not changed much from those who spoke it first (Twining 383). Gullah was first a pidgin, as Africans attempted to use English to communicate with one another. When these slaves had children, their offspring became native speakers, thus transforming Gullah into a creole (Joyner, Down by the Riverside xx). The Gullah language takes a unique place in North America because it is the only lasting English-based Creole (Cross 229). Gullah emerged slowly as the plantation system took a stronghold in the South. Originally “starting with smaller and less-segregated homestead communities and extending to larger and more-segregated plantation communities in which Europeans and their descendants and Africans and their descendants interacted less…” (Mufwene 70). Examination of the Gullah language mirrors the cultural and personal experiences of Gullah people on the Sea Islands. The language also provides a way to understand other types of changes in culture. When Gullah became a creole, it became for the people who speak it “a cultural action” (Joyner, Down by the Riverside xxi). This cultural action was the first step in the solidification of Gullah as a language and culture. But it was not until after the Civil War that Gullah cemented into its current state.

The Civil War was critical to the development and solidification of the Gullah language especially as a cultural action. “Isolated since the early eighteenth century, slaves and their descendants developed their own language marked as much by its rhythm, tempo, and stress as its vocabulary and grammar” (Pollitzer 107). The Gullah language changed slowly over the eighteenth century, but after the abolition of slavery the language begins to be more stationary, crystalizing into a more finalized format (Mufwene 70). While Gullah may have not changed significantly over the time of its existence, the increase in usage of the language on the Sea Islands was concentrated by emancipation. “There is no evidence that Gullah is dying or that it changed significantly since the last quarter of the nineteenth century” (Pollitzer 128). It is only after the Civil War that the people of the Sea Islands find a collective name for their culture and experience. Though once seen as a pejorative, “the term Gullah becomes more widely used after emancipation…. after 1865 Gullah begins to refer to African Americans as a group” (Barnes, Archaeology and Heritage of the Gullah People 196). Just like many other negative aspects of slave life, the Gullah people embrace and build identity from the negative circumstances surrounding them. With language as a representation of culture, the events encompassing the Civil War explain how Gullah culture survived into the contemporary era.
It is through language that Gullah culture finds its boundaries. Language represents the transition between African culture and African American culture. “The English contribution was principally lexical; the African contribution was principally grammatical” (Joyner, Down by the Riverside xxi). Maintaining use of Gullah is essential to keeping connected with the community that was solidified during the era of slavery (Mufwene 71). The connections between the English and African aspects of the Gullah language represent the interaction between European, American, and African culture in the Gullah experiences and practices. “This shared language made possible the establishment of a sense of community in the new territory. The cultural identity of these forced transatlantic communities emanated from shared African traditions and experiences, and intersecting social relations and linguistic connections” (Bell 160). The Gullah language was established previous to the end of the Civil War, but it was only by the events during and directly after the war that kept Gullah vibrant.

The geographical isolation of the Sea Islands and the autonomy provided to the slaves in South Carolina preserved aspects of African culture and language in the Gullah community. The Sea Islands generally had only a few white inhabitants. The main population were the slaves and workers who maintained the fields and harvested and processed the crops (Twining 381). Even though the slaves in South Carolina were able to retain some aspects of their African culture, “the move to the New World resulted in a stripping of the Africans' cultural and social heritage, in the loss of names, social status, home environment, personal identity” (Twining 384). During their time in enslavement, most slaves worked on a task system in South Carolina. Every morning each slave was assigned a task, once the task was completed they were free to hunt, fish, garden, or do other house hold chores. Some would help other slaves who were behind on their task for the day. Generally, a task would be the equivalent of working a quarter acre of the plantation (Klindienst 54). This incentivization of free time motivated slaves to work harder.

When the Sea Islands were occupied by the Union army, the plantation owners were already gone. The slaves who remained were eager to own land even in 1861. They wanted to direct their own growing and crop processing and “they did not want to leave their community” (Barnes, Okra Soup and Earthenware Pots 2). Without the extended toil of a harsh slave master, the slaves on the Sea Island felt more connected with the land they worked on. The Gullah people during the time of slavery hunted, fished, and grew their own gardens. They built a sense of unity in their community. The previous autonomy of the Sea Islands was challenged by the occupation of the Union soldiers in November 1861. The Port Royal Experiment challenged the Gullah people to work under the supervision of the North while the cotton harvest was secured. “The people of St. Helena were among the first to be freed, the first to be offered the chance to buy land, and the first to study in a school for free blacks…” (Klindienst 35). Eventually the quasi-freedmen would be allowed to purchase land here. As early as 1863 the plantation lands were being parceled out and sold off.

The Port Royal Experiment hoped to transition African Americans from slavery to freedmen. Freed slaves were able to buy land, usually around ten acres, some of which has stayed with the original families” (J. A. Barnes). Many of the black on the Sea Islands were motivated to “buy their own lands, educate their children, participate in political processes, and prove themselves loyal and good citizens” (Ochiai 2). The Port Royal Experiment represents a phase of land struggles that still impact the Gullah people. After working for a wage during the beginning stages of the experiment, the slaves were frustrated working the same land under white oversight. They wanted to have their own land and be able to make a place for themselves where they were free to participate economically in American society. Land was granted to blacks, first through the Port Royal Experiment, and then by Special Field Order #15.

Reconstruction was supposed to provide blacks of the South the opportunity to become self-sufficient. Though Reconstruction and land ownership was a point of tension for African Americans, those in the Sea Islands were able to overcome some of the issues facing blacks in the South. Many South Carolina freedmen had more opportunity to purchase land. “By the end of the Reconstruction, they had achieved a largely autonomous agrarian community” (Ochiai 3). Before, during, and after the Civil War the slaves in this region were already “…embedded in a complex network of social and cultural relationships” (Foner 199). Many of the expectations of Reconstruction were never realized for the freedmen. Many policies continued trends of inequality. Fortunately for the Gullah people, they were the exception when it came to land ownership (Ochiai 3). Though the struggle for land in the Sea Islands still continues to this day.

Even during Reconstruction, the Sea Islands displayed a unique experience for its inhabitance. The isolation and autonomy continued to protect the Gullah people and the culture they continued to cultivate. “African Americans were therefore able to move forward toward self-sufficiency in isolation, combining some of the customs and traditions of West African origins with the brutal realities of the slave experience. Developed during the 100-year period following the Civil War, African American Sea Island culture has matured in relative isolation as was the case during slavery, but with both change and continuity marking its main characteristics” (Guthrie 3). Johnson would take away both opportunities and return the land the white men who had abandoned their fields for years.

A cuisine is built around a growing culture and the Gullah food experience was influenced by the time in bondage. The slaves on the Sea Islands supplemented their slave rations with seafood, small game, and even okra. “Agricultural cultivation of family plots outside the slave quarters provided needed vegetables, such as tomatoes, okra, and greens. Game was hunted on adjacent Hunting Island, which had traditionally been a game reserve since the English habitation of the Sea Islands” (Cross 45). Okra originated in Africa and was likely brought to the Sea Islands by a slave from West Africa (Cross 180). The ecology provided by the Sea Islands created a unique basis of food for the slaves in the area. These cooking traditions continued as freedmen gain access to land ownership. The growing system of the region allowed for a wide variety of ingredients and a diverse diet. The rice cultivation had also stayed deep with the community and Gullah cuisine centers around rice as a staple ingredient. Throughout the cooking experience of slavery there is evidence of African influences on many of the dishes that define the cuisine. Many slaves used their African knowledge of food and combined the techniques with New World ingredients. Though many ingredients were introduced or reintroduced from Africa, the Gullah people also improvised with the locally available ingredients. The ecology of the Sea Islands provided slaves with a diverse diet. Through fishing and hunting and cultivation the Gullah people were able to taste the world around them.

Some of the most distinguishing aspects of Gullah culture remains in their flavors and foodways. To the Gullah people rice is the staff of life. Many cultures have different bases for their cuisine. And for the former slaves of the Sea Islands, rice has long since been the staple of preference. Though coastal plantations had more successful rice cultivation than those on the islands, many Africans during the time of slavery were sought out specifically for their experience in all steps of the process. They systems used on the rice plantations of South Carolina directly correlate with African rice cultivation. The relationship between rice and the Gullah people is extremely complex. Several book length volumes have been written on the subject. But rice and the cuisine of Gullah people are inextricably linked.

During the time of slavery, most of the rice cultivation happened on the coast of South Carolina, rather than on the Sea Islands. Both of these regions are classified as being part of the marshy land called the lowcountry. When the Gullah people became emancipated, many of them relocated to the Sea Islands during the Port Royal Experiment and Reconstruction. After the Civil War, the unused land of the Sea Islands caused the people there to increase their isolation. No longer economically viable for the rest of the United States, this land could be used by the Gullah people as they saw fit (Opala). For slaves in South Carolina, every bite of rice transported the Gullah people back to their homeland. Community is a very important element for the Gullah people. The Gullahs use rice as “...the most significant way the Gullah express cultural identity through food practices” (Beoku-Betts 543). For the Gullah people and many in West Africa “... a person is not considered to have eaten a full meal unless rice is included” []. Precious Edwards, when interviewed, said, “Rice is security. If you have some rice, you'll never starve. It is a bellyful” (Beoku-Betts 543).

The role of rice for the slaves was twofold. Despite it being the reason for their voyage to the New World, those with rice cultivation knowledge were needed more than any other slaves and held more knowledge than many growers and plantation overseers. Rice represents power for blacks previous to the Civil War. At the end of the Civil War, rice was no longer a way to gain esteem on the plantations of the South, but the food still deeply connected the Gullah people with memories and tales of their former African homes. Throughout South Carolina slaves were specifically handpicked from Africa for their rice cultivation skills, they arrived to the lowcountry often. Like many aspects of slavery, the Gullah people embrace the role of rice in their life and diets. “The rice culture of the lowcountry meant that slaves in the Sea Islands were mostly acquainted with other blacks, had limited association with freed slaves, and had a persistent influx of Africans that served as a reminder of native culture” (Joyner, Down by the Riverside 37). The entire rice cultivation process reflected the same steps happening in Africa. The slaves on the Sea Islands and coastal South Carolina continued in their African methods of planting, hoeing, winnowing, and threshing the rice. “Rice served as the backbone of Lowcountry foodways…” (Barnes, Archaeology and Heritage of the Gullah People 188).

The conception of soul food is an oversimplification of complex concepts of Gullah cuisine. “The profound significance of food in' the memories of the ex-slaves is sensed in even a superficial reading of the interviews” (Joyner, Soul Food and the Sambo Stereotype 172). The slave narratives reveal the importance of food and food memories. Slave rations were administered once a week and often supplemented by hunting, growing, or trading. Most plantations had up to four types of gardens: their cash crop, kitchen garden for the big house, formal ornamental gardens, and small gardens for the slaves (Klindienst 53). The food most commonly consumed by slaves were vegetables, yet “…why did the staple diet of poor people of two races become an identity-symbol of one?” (Joyner, Soul Food and the Sambo Stereotype 171). “…popularization of such dishes as cornbread, fatback, collards, and especially chitterlings as ‘soul food’ is one of the more interesting phenomena of the whole black consciousness movement. But how does one account for the transformation of these cheap, filling foods, long staples in the diets of both blacks and whites in the rural South, into one of the very symbols of black identity?” (Joyner, Soul Food and the Sambo Stereotype 171). Racial breakdown of food impacts both the African Americans and the understanding of the cuisine as a whole.

The African Americans who now call the Sea Islands home, have the Civil War to thank for the survival of their culture. Though land struggles continue throughout the Sea Island, without the Port Royal Experiment, whites would not have believed in the black ability to work on land and produce economically viable crops. The Gullah language represents the isolation and concentration of emancipated individuals living together to produce culture and community. Food provides an additional language for community development and integration. The Civil War represents the dividing point between extinction and survival of the Gullah culture. If it were not for the Civil War and Reconstruction the Gullah people would not have achieved the isolation necessary for their culture, language, and cuisine. 750,000 people speak Gullah in their everyday lives. Recently there has been a resurgence in interest in Gullah culture, particularly the heritage of the slaves still represented in food today. The Gullah people live in the tension between looking back at the institution that brought them to the United States and the opportunities for culture that are still growing and connecting on the Sea Islands. Though much of the focus of the Gullah people remains on their language, there is much to learn from the other cultural practices of the Gullahs.


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