The Grim Years: Settling South Carolina, 1670–1720
Columbia, University of South Carolina Press, 2019, ISBN: 9781643360546; 212pp.; Price: £37.50
Eastern Kentucky University
Date accessed: 10 June, 2023
John J. Navin offers a new account of the first half century of settlement in the colony of South Carolina, which he characterizes as The Grim Years. By the mid-18th century South Carolina would become the wealthiest British colony in mainland North America, but in recent years scholars long familiar with its distinctive plantation system have turned more attention to these earlier, formative decades. If few scholars of early South Carolina have been so bold as to offer an overview of the whole period, almost all of them would agree that it could be aptly described as “grim.” Navin organizes his book as a chronological narrative interspersed with analysis, and there is little direct explanation for why these years were so grim, though the usual suspects are all present, including the creation of a brutal plantation system, hurricanes, fires, war, and epidemic disease. Nonetheless, the emphasis of the narrative is hard to miss. For Navin, early South Carolina was a grim place especially because of stark inequities in wealth and power. Along those lines, he frames pieces of his narrative with references to Hobbes’s Leviathan, suggesting, in the language of his epigraph, that in the South Carolina lowcountry life was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” and that “every man” was “Enemy to every man.” There is surely room for debate over whether Hobbes provides an apt context for this story, but there is also thought-provoking irony in Navin’s contention that a colony with a system of government partly designed by John Locke would turn out to be Hobbesian. Whether one prefers a Hobbesian or Lockean perspective, this is a dramatic history, filled with suffering and challenges that need no exaggeration.
In his introduction, Navin moves backwards in time, reviewing the many challenges and difficulties faced by Carolinians. Drawing from the remonstrative writings of Hugh Bryan, he notes that, by the end of 1740, the lowcountry had experienced not only a fire but also “drought, disease, slave insurrections, and a failed assault” on St. Augustine (p. 3). Here, and throughout the book, Navin makes use of contemporaries’ language of a providential reckoning for South Carolinian greed and sin. Yet, he also parts ways with scholars who have emphasized the mid-century prosperity of South Carolina’s elite, noting that “few men grew rich in South Carolina” during its first 50 years. Instead, he describes a Charles Town with wealthy rice planters but also filled with “legions of paupers” (pp. 6, 7). Shifting to the 16th and 17th centuries, Navin evokes a world European explorers imagined filled with seemingly limitless promise. With the settlement along the Ashley River in 1670, the lowcountry became home to an unusually ruthless pursuit of profit, ultimately making it “unique in remarkable, important, and sometimes terrible ways” (p. 14).
In recent years some scholars have become more circumspect about the connection between Barbadians and the founding of South Carolina, but Navin devotes a full chapter to “Barbadian Precedents.” For his purposes, it may be less important how connected Barbadians and South Carolinians were than how much South Carolinians sought to imitate Barbadians. Barbados was the first British colony in the Americas to transition to large-scale plantation slavery, so its influence on British America in general, and South Carolina in particular, is clear. Developments in Barbados presaged the same developments that Navin emphasizes in South Carolina. 17th-century Barbados, in other words, was a grim place in its own right, characterized by an “unrelenting pace,” “high mortality,” the ceaseless toil” of “an unfree majority,” and, consequently, considerable “emotional and physical distress” (p. 16). After all, Barbados had a large enslaved majority, epidemic diseases, tropical storms, and a notoriously brutal labour regime. While Navin rarely uses the word “class,” he focuses his sketch of Barbados squarely on issues related to economic exploitation. To that end, he devotes as much attention to indentured servants and other poor whites as to the massive numbers of Africans arriving in Barbados before the founding of South Carolina. Because Navin sees Barbados as the template for both a system of economic exploitation and a pattern of struggle, both groups of labourers are described more in terms of their resistance and treatment than their cultures or identities. It is easy to see how South Carolinians who aspired to Barbadian levels of wealth also had to accept a variety of tensions and dangers that made Barbados a potentially precarious place.
Navin’s second chapter, succinctly titled “Carolina,” explores the establishment of the Ashley River colony according to the plans of the Carolina Proprietors and their Barbadian associates. Here again, Navin depicts the key historical actors primarily as profit-seekers. In his view, sometimes South Carolinians were seemingly “so hell-bent on making money that no scheme was too immodest or immoral” (p. 88). By extension, the chapter describes South Carolinians’ need for labour. Various efforts encouraged both free immigrants and indentured servants to come to the new settlement, but they largely failed, perhaps unsurprisingly given South Carolina’s reputation and limited economic opportunity during its first few decades. While free workers, indentured servants, and Africans all labored in the lowcountry from the earliest settlements, enslaved Native Americans became more significant for several decades. But, while profits were preeminent, Navin contends that colonists also preferred bound labour out of their fondness for “the sweet nectar of unchecked power” (p. 90). He suggests that the growth of slavery in South Carolina was contingent and that other alternatives could have emerged, but he also concedes that in colonies at this time the brutal exploitation of all forms of labour was “business as usual” (pp. 43, 58, 91).
The third and fourth chapters of The Grim Years concentrate on South Carolina’s second quarter century, beginning in 1695. The third chapter bears the title “Paradise Lost,” and, if Navin has made it clear that South Carolina was never much of a paradise, he is correct to note that at first it had been promoted as “a sort of Eden in which an ideal climate and abundant resources provided a life free from sickness, want, or worry” (p. 95). More to the point, if South Carolina had never been so idyllic there is plenty of reason to believe that, after a couple of decades, it was becoming even less so. For one thing, by the start of the 18th century the colony was beginning its transition to rice cultivation, a switch which increased the scale and brutality of slavery and heightened economic inequality among free people. Increasing numbers of slaves, both African and Native American, also complicated South Carolinians’ ability to defend themselves in a tense and often violent region. As planters bought more enslaved people and military expeditions asserted themselves, colonists also became more anxious about keeping order in the lowcountry. Many of their fears were realized in 1715 when the Yamasee War devastated some South Carolina settlements. After losing paradise, matters cannot be said to have improved for the colonists in Chapter Four, which Navin, quoting S.P.G. Minister Francis LeJau, calls “‘Dreadfull Visitations.’” Here he addresses a number of significant challenges in the colony, some of which deserve even more attention, including the consequences of the war, increasing poverty in Charles Town, four hurricanes, fires, the collapse of the proprietorship, and repeated disease epidemics. Records used by Navin from the St. Philip’s Parish and other institutions suggest more poverty and deprivation among free colonists than one might expect in a colony accumulating such conspicuous wealth.
In a fifth chapter and an epilogue Navin carries his narrative and its implications beyond 1720. The last chapter notes the consolidation of the rice plantation system and increasing prosperity of the lowcountry elite. But, to at least some degree, earlier problems lingered on, including epidemics, fires, systematic violence, and stark inequality. Perhaps Navin has misnamed his book. Can the years before 1720 be “The Grim Years” if life continued to be as grim for later generations in South Carolina? If greed and exploitation had made many miserable before the expansion of the plantation economy, it is difficult to believe that matters improved after it arrived. The material environment, political relations, and health might have improved for many free people at least by the second quarter of the 18th century, but Navin does not focus on these matters. The epilogue connects The Grim Years to other historians of early South Carolina who have also “painted a grim picture” (p. 164). In doing so, it also raises ethical questions and calls for historical interpretations that are less sympathetic to the colony’s wealthy plantation elite. Navin wants us to “give due consideration to the other people in South Carolina—men, women, and children of different races and ethnicities who endured not only the calamities that tested the mettle of the colony’s elite, but also a host of other crises and hardships”(p. 165). This seems to be the central aim of Navin’s book. He has written a narrative account of neglected histories and shown that a variety of people faced severe challenges and endured considerable suffering in early South Carolina.
In this context, The Grim Years is not a book designed to persuade academic historians to change their interpretations. Indeed, as the epilogue shows, many of them already agree with Navin’s main points. Along the same lines, Navin does not marshal evidence or prove his points so much as he narrates, asserts, and references. He also does not cite research evidence in a manner that is consistent with academic conventions. It is difficult to be sure how much research went into a project from its notes, but this book contains virtually no references to manuscript sources, and it is tempting to conclude that the author did not consult any. Many of the references to primary sources suggest that the author has relied on quotations within other secondary sources without examining their original context. In some cases, the sources that are cited are not the most authoritative editions. When Navin makes arguments about historiographical points and engages with important scholarship, he sometimes does so only in the notes and in a manner that may strike some readers as dismissive. For all of these reasons, scholarly audiences may be dissatisfied with The Grim Years, no matter how compelling they find its narrative.
On the other hand, Navin’s line of argument raises questions that deserve serious consideration from academic audiences. Specifically, we need to have some sense of how “grim” life was in Colonial South Carolina, and in early modern colonies more generally. Has Navin identified a distinctive feature of South Carolina before 1720, or is he showing us fundamental problems in the settling of the Americas? Certainly, scholars agree that lowcountry colonists developed an especially brutal and profit-oriented plantation system during this period. Early South Carolina was also clearly an unhealthy place for everyone, so much so that Navin might have paid more attention to health problems to support his argument. Hurricanes were another serious challenge, and war had devastating consequences within the region. In fact, these problems were almost all more severe for indigenous peoples and for Africans in South Carolina than for the colonists at the center of Navin’s narrative. It could be argued as well that they were all more severe in South Carolina than in any of the mainland British colonies that would become part of the United States. There is no particular reason why we should use that frame of reference, however. If we follow the lead of many other scholars who compare the South Carolina lowcountry to the British Caribbean colonies, these matters look very different. In this context, South Carolina’s plantation system still seems terrible, but it was not as brutal, deadly, or large-scale as some others. South Carolina’s high mortality also had much to do with tropical diseases that were even worse in much of the Caribbean. Hurricanes struck more often in the Caribbean too, and the islands also had their share of unrest and warfare. Of course, Navin acknowledges some of these West Indian comparisons and no doubt understands that many readers in the United States will pay more attention to South Carolina than to Antigua. But South Carolina before 1720 needs to be understood as part of the British colonial world before 1720, and the British West Indies were a central part of that world. They shared most of the “grim” features Navin discusses in this book, and they substantially complicate any claims about the distinctiveness of South Carolina.
On the other hand, if Navin has shown us little that was distinctive to South Carolina, his catalogue of threats, disasters, and challenges reminds us of just how difficult life could be for Europeans trying to carve out settlements on the western shores of the Atlantic during the 17th and 18th centuries. Several years ago, Bernard Bailyn reminded us of the same thing, in his own inimitable fashion, while somehow completely ignoring the establishment of the Carolina colonies. Bailyn and other members of his generation of historians have noted the cultural challenges faced by distant settlers with few resources, in a place they considered “barbarous.” Later generations of historians, more attentive to early modern environments, have recognized the difficulties colonists confronted because they were in a place very different from Europe. The years between 1670 and 1720 could indeed be grim for colonists, both within and beyond South Carolina, for the reasons Navin demonstrates and for still others too.
 Bernard Bailyn, The Barbarous Years: The People of British America: The Conflict of Civilizations, 1600-1675 (New York, 2013).
I appreciate Dr. Bradford J. Wood’s review of The Grim Years, Settling South Carolina, 1670-1720 and the opportunity to offer this response. Though Dr. Wood dissects the book in considerable detail, his critique does not address a number of important themes in the text that merit discussion.
As Dr. Wood points out, The Grim Years describes “stark inequities” in wealth and power in early South Carolina, shedding light on developments whereby a lowcountry elite emerged at the expense of other colonists (and the proprietors). The book describes shameless profiteering, corrupt trading practices, the enslavement and sale of Native Americans, the exploitation and abuse of African slaves, and other outrages that contributed to widespread suffering. These are central themes, to be sure, but the book also engages other topics that Dr. Wood unfortunately overlooked or glosses over in his review, leading him to conclude that “The Grim Years is not a book designed to persuade academic historians to change their interpretations.” In this he is mistaken, and I invite him to take a second look.
In juxtaposing the dark predictions of Thomas Hobbes and the optimistic “Grand Design” fashioned by John Locke and Anthony Ashley Cooper, the opening pages of The Grim Years present two remarkably different visions of what might transpire in Carolina. Hobbes, a staunch monarchist, considered absolute rule essential; he believed that, in its absence, a “condition of war against everyone” would result. As the story unfolds it becomes clear that neither the Lords Proprietors nor London authorities held sway in South Carolina, and a competitive free-for-all did ensue, much as Hobbes envisioned in an unregulated society. Colonists refused to endorse or adhere to the terms of the Fundamental Constitutions; ambitious newcomers competed for goods, lands, labourers, livestock, monopolies, appointments, and political offices. To generate income they traded whatever, wherever, and with whomever they could. Lord Shaftesbury and his fellow proprietors were not up to the task of managing colonists who regarded political autonomy and the pursuit of profit as proper bedfellows. Barbadian immigrants—the “Goose Creek men”—proved especially intractable, emboldened by their experience as former planters, slaveowners, and exporters. Subsequent chapters of the book recall the colony’s litany of epidemics, storms, fires, conflicts, and self-inflicted wounds, but, despite these setbacks, “the quest for mammon remained a driving force that sustained growth and production”(p. 5).
The reckless competition and exploitation that characterized the colony’s first half-century elevated the most successful merchants and planters to the top of society. The Indian trade, slave trade, deerskin trade, naval stores, and other enterprises generated revenues that many entrepreneurs would reinvest in slaves and in the construction of immensely profitable rice plantations. By the middle of the 18th century the commercial success envisioned in the “Grand Design” seemed attainable, at least in part. The introduction of rice and a brutal labour regime known as the “plantation system” would enable South Carolina to become the “flourishing colony” the Lords Commissioners for Trade and Plantations had anticipated in 1721(p. 148). However, those same overachievers who clawed their way to the top resented any type of outside interference, rejecting proprietary authority, undermining uncooperative governors, and thwarting agents of the Crown. Unfettered competition paved the way for the colony’s economic ascendance, but it also exposed the folly of transatlantic oversight and strengthened arguments for local (self) rule. The Hobbesian disorder discouraged absentee landlordism and further investments from abroad. This correlation between economic competition, ruthless exploitation, and political autonomy had implications for colonies throughout the British realm.
In his discussion of the chapter entitled “Barbadian Precedents,” Dr. Wood notes that “Navin sees Barbados as the template for both a system of economic exploitation and a pattern of struggle.” The purpose of this opening chapter is not to point out similarities between Barbados and South Carolina, for the Caribbean origins of the colony’s plantation system are well-documented. My main goal in describing events on Barbados in such detail is to offer a new perspective on the emergence of slavery in North America. In The Grim Years I discuss the transition to an African workforce that began in Barbados in the 1640s. By 1660 half of the island’s labourers were enslaved blacks and by 1680, ten years after Charles Town was established, Africans outnumbered whites on Barbados by a 2:1 ratio. Most accounts of the rise of slavery in North America focus on the Chesapeake, but in 1680 there were 13 whites for every black in Virginia (or more) and indentured servants still comprised at least three-quarters of that colony’s workforce. Thus, the Barbadian planters who settled in South Carolina were decades ahead of the average Virginia planter in the use of slave labour. Sugar planters and other immigrants from the island had dealt with a black majority for years and were intimately familiar with the brutal methods and repressive laws intended to keep enslaved Africans in check. So when we look at labour systems, coercive measures, punishments, restrictive legislation, white paranoia, the rise of slave communities and cultures, and race relations in the American south, we should consider the influence of South Carolina, where enslaved Africans were among the first settlers in 1670. By comparison, most planters in the Chesapeake were years “behind the curve” in acquiring and exploiting enslaved blacks. South Carolina’s influence was certainly evident in Georgia where the inability of rice planters to compete with lowcountry plantations using slave labour led to the repeal of the prohibition on slavery. Might not the example that South Carolinian slaveowners set have influenced planters further north? The adoption of the Barbadian slave code after the Stono Rebellion most certainly promoted draconian slave laws elsewhere; perhaps we need to consider precedents set in South Carolina to a greater degree when we examine the use and abuse of Africans in the upper South.
The Grim Years also calls attention to the changing racial attitudes of colonists from England, France, and other places in Europe. The propensity for slave labour and the plantation system among former Barbadians is easily understood, but this book examines the emergence of a proslavery mentality among the immigrants from Europe in South Carolina, most of whom had never set foot on Barbados. Concessions made by the Lords Proprietors, the colony’s headright system, the drive to produce exportable commodities, and the example and influence of the Barbadian immigrants caused South Carolinians to covet an enslaved workforce even before they had a cash crop. Barbadians were familiar with the dangers posed by a black majority; not so their fellow immigrants who became persuaded that success hinged on the acquisition of enslaved Africans. In his review, Dr. Wood notes, very tersely, that I suggest that the growth of slavery in South Carolina “was contingent and that other alternatives could have emerged.” I find it remarkable that he has no more to say on this point. The fact that the demand for slaves emerged prior to the discovery of a cash crop in South Carolina speaks volumes about the transition to slave labour in colonial America. The ability to exploit others – especially non-whites – appears to have been motivation enough for settlers to aspire to become slaveholders, even when there was no economic imperative. Power corrupts, and it did so in South Carolina more severely than elsewhere in the North American colonies. In The Grim Years I argue that the colony’s early commitment to slavery set it on a disastrous course – one that might have been avoided.
Dr. Wood feels that the various calamities that beset the colony “deserve even more attention.” I agree that descriptions of wars, fires, storms, and epidemics make good reading; The Grim Years includes many original accounts of the colony’s “dreadful visitations,” especially in chapters 4 and 5. Those readers who want to know more about lowcountry diseases, conflagrations, hurricanes, conflicts with the Spanish and Native Americans, and other natural and man-made disasters will find ample references in the book’s citations and explanatory footnotes. Daniel Crooks, Walter Fraser, Alan Gallay, Peter McCandless, Steven Oatis, and other scholars have produced notable works that describe the impact of various types of calamities on South Carolina. I have a lot of ground to cover; my book was never intended to substitute for their highly focused studies.
Regarding the challenges that early settlers, slaves, and Native Americans faced in South Carolina, Dr. Wood calls for comparisons to the British Caribbean, saying colonists there also faced grim circumstances. I suppose I might also have described the struggles of people in Quebec, Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Virginia, and elsewhere in the Americas. But to what end? I claim no exclusivity for South Carolina when it comes to catastrophic events. Rather, I strive to demonstrate that, in addition to fires, diseases, and natural disasters, the actions of a relatively small number of men caused much needless suffering in the colony. Though a handful of entrepreneurs and scoundrels grew fabulously rich, most people (especially those doing the heavy lifting) were not in a position to benefit from the lucrative Indian (deerskin) trade, slave trade, or from the introduction of rice which proved disastrous for countless Africans and poorer whites. Had I described storms and outbreaks in greater detail and paid less attention to calamities brought on by the colonists themselves, the book might have been to Dr Wood’s liking but not to mine.
In The Grim Years I make extensive use of primary sources to fashion a chronological narrative; I support this narrative with ample secondary sources that I cite in the footnotes. In some cases, these notes present opposing viewpoints or conflicting data, just to alert the reader to other scholarly interpretations. Unfortunately, Dr. Wood’s dislike for the documentation style I employed has led to baseless, mean-spirited speculation where a plain note of concern would suffice. He overlooks the fact that sources such as the records of St. Philip’s Church exist only in manuscript form and that many primary sources used in the book are available online. Readers would be much better served if Dr. Wood would use this venue to note the discontent among South Carolina’s servants, the Huguenots’ growing attachment to slavery, the role of Africans in defending the colony, and the sale of Carolina Indians to Bostonians (including Samuel Adams senior), and other important insights in the book.
As Dr. Wood states, The Grim Years is intended to “give due consideration to the other people in South Carolina – men, women, and children of different races and ethnicities.” His comment that I have “written a narrative account of neglected histories” is entirely accurate. However, his charge that the book shows “little that was distinctive to South Carolina” indicates that he misses the mark in terms of my intent. Claims of exceptionalism would be indefensible; other colonies also saw a controlling elite emerge at the expense of less remarkable and less fortunate individuals. Suffering was commonplace in early America and the exploitation of Native Americans and Africans was hardly unique to South Carolina.
I find it especially disappointing that Dr. Wood reduces the central point of the book’s closing section to this brief comment: “The epilogue … raises ethical questions and calls for historical interpretations that are less sympathetic to the colony’s wealthy plantation elite.” It seems to me that when ethical questions and revisionism are central to a monograph, they deserve more than a vague, fleeting reference. Rather than another account of “Proprietary Era” politics, The Grim Years graphically describes adversities faced by men and women of all races between 1670 and 1720. These days, when the history of oppression in America should be part of the general discourse about race, a call for more inclusive and fair-minded accounts should not be so easily dismissed. In the few months since The Grim Years was released, fatal encounters between the police and African Americans have brought systemic racism and economic and political inequities into sharper focus. These social cancers reach back to the seventeenth century; the relentless competition for wealth and power produced an upper class that specialized in exploiting perceived inferiors – especially women, minorities, and recent immigrants. Now we live in a society in which one percent of the population boasts nearly 40 percent of the nation’s wealth. This economic elite holds immense political sway and controls the destinies millions of workers. In short, the story has not changed, just the scale. It is unfortunate that, based on his review, Dr. Wood utterly fails to appreciate or acknowledge the timeliness of The Grim Years and the importance of its message.
Although the feedback from scholars who read The Grim Years prior to and since its publication has been overwhelmingly positive, I know the book will have its critics. Every work has its flaws. But hopefully all parties will agree that it is high time to pay attention to the poor and oppressed, and to address the prejudice and inequities that still cause widespread misery and resentment. Now, throughout our country, statues are coming down, institutions are being renamed, and history is being rewritten to give us a better understanding of problems that have divided this nation since its inception. The Grim Years is just one contribution to this examination of our collective past, but an important one, I hope.
 Christopher Tomlins, Freedom Bound: Law, Labor, and Civic Identity in Colonizing English America, 1580-1865 (New York, 2010), 453.
 Crooks, Daniel, Jr. Charleston is Burning!: Two Centuries of Fire and Flames. Charleston, 2009; Fraser, Walter J., Jr. Lowcountry Hurricanes: Three Centuries of Storms at Sea and Ashore. Athens, 2006; Gallay, Alan. The Indian Slave Trade: The Rise of the English Empire in the American South, 1670-1717. New Haven, 2002; McCandless, Peter, Slavery, Disease, and Suffering in the Southern Lowcountry. New York, 2011; Oatis, Steven J. A Colonial Complex: South Carolina’s Frontiers in the Era of the Yamasee War, 1680-1730. Lincoln, 2004.
 Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, 2016 Survey of Consumer Finances (SCF), https://www.federalreserve.gov/econres/scfindex.htm, accessed 07/02/2020. Results of the 2019 triennial survey have not yet been published.