Family Across the Sea, Part 3
Anthropologist Joe Opala has studied the history of slavery from the African side of the ocean. He has tracked a remarkable series of connections that end in Charleston and trace back to Africa. Bunce Island, a quarter-mile long island, twenty miles from Freetown, was the furthest point inland where slave ships could travel without being grounded, and was the location from which Africans were boarded on ships and taken to Charleston and the slave market. A reading from the diary of Anna Marie Falkenbridge reveals her observations, on looking through a window at the back of the manor house that stood on the island and was the home of the chief agent, who became wealthy from the trafficking of human beings. John Newton, a slave ship captain, later denounced slavery, became a clergyman in England, and wrote "Amazing Grace." Opala discusses finding the connection between Richard Oswald, the owner of Bunce Island in the mid-18th century, and Henry Laurens, his agent for slaves in South Carolina. From Mepkin Plantation near Charleston, Henry Laurens rose in South Carolina society and became an important figure in American Colonial government, became president of the Continental Congress, and was the highest-ranking American official captured by the British during the Revolutionary War. Laurens was imprisoned in the Tower of London, and it was Richard Oswald who posted Laurens' bail. Later, the two helped to negotiate the cease-fire that ultimately led to the Treaty of Paris. The connection between these two men established the fact that thousands of slaves came from one small part of Africa to one small part of America.
The conditions that made the coast of South Carolina and Georgia an excellent place for rice cultivation also made it a place for tropical diseases brought from Africa. White plantation owners couldn't tolerate these conditions and fled, leaving their African slaves as overseers and farm managers. Many blacks also fled to the north along the Underground Railroad, but many went south to the wilderness of Florida. There they joined with another dispossessed people, the Seminole Indians. The former slaves became known as Seminole Negroes and kept alive their distinct language and culture, even cultivating rice. They also became a nation of black warriors, taking arms against their former masters. In the 1830s and 1840s, the second Seminole War pitted them against the United States government. In Florida, the blacks were able to escape into that tropical area, set up successful communities based on rice cultivation, and were able to resist the force of the U.S. military for several decades. It was a drawn-out, bloody conflict, unequaled in America until Vietnam. Only when the Seminoles agreed to leave Florida did the hostility end. The Black Seminoles remained free and began calling themselves freedmen and traveled with their red brothers along the Trail of Tears to the Indian territory in Oklahoma, where they still live today. The Black Seminoles in Oklahoma have retained their identity as Seminole freedmen, along with much of their Gullah language and culture.