The Gullah culture arose from a unique set of circumstances set into motion by a single crop: rice. Around the turn of the seventeenth century, British colonialists occupying the marshy lands of South Carolina’s low country discovered that rice fared particularly well in the damp soil and climate. The settlers, however, possessed little knowledge regarding the crop and were in desperate need of tutors. The most economical form of tutelage for the black-thumbed planters turned out to be their own slaves. Africans native to the western coast of their continent had been cultivating rice for upwards of 3,000 years, leading Europeans to dub the region the Rice Coast; those Africans possessed the knowledge regarding rice cultivation and tidal irrigation that British American planters so desperately needed. So, in the imperialistic fashion common in those days, the planters enslaved the knowledgeable Rice Coasters. Since Charleston (at that point still Charlestowne) was a major center of slave importation, it was convenient for planters to purchase slaves from the western coast of Africa and easily send them to work in the humid marshes surrounding the city. In fact, by 1708 South Carolina had a black majority, primarily as a result of the huge number of slaves populating the growing rice fields of the low country.
The African slaves brought with them more than just their knowledge for rice cultivation; they also carried strains of malaria and yellow fever across the wide expanse of ocean. The diseases flourished in the muggy climate and spread easily via the waves of mosquitoes already populating the region. Africans, for the most part immune to the diseases, suffered little from the endemic, but white settlers never before exposed quickly fell prey to both diseases. In an attempt to save themselves from the endemic, white planters fled the low country in search of higher and drier ground, leaving their “rice drivers” or overseers in charge of their plantations and the large populations of slaves who worked them.
What resulted was a rare opportunity for an African community not only to practice their traditions but to preserve their culture for generations. Unlike most slave communities, where interaction with whites was constant and conversion to European and American traditions was mandatory, the communities that came to be known as Gullah or Geechee were mostly isolated from growing American white society. In regional rural pockets of isolation stretching from Cape Fear, North Carolina, to Jacksonville, Florida, the Gullah created their own culture, unmarred by the influence of greater America. Although slaves on rice plantations heralded from numerous African cultures, such as the Wolof, Mandinka, and Fula, the new communities banded together in order to preserve their heritage.
From the eighteenth century until today the Gullah culture has safeguarded and perpetuated their linguistic and cultural history through their very actions. Western and central African influences thrive in Gullah storytelling, rice-based foods, music, crafts, farming and fishing practices. African influences still pervade every sector of Gullah life. The Gullah word for peanut, for example, is “guber,” which hails from the Kikongo and Kimbundu word “n’guba.” Herbal medicines used by Gullah are strikingly similar to traditional African elixirs still used today. Even tales of “Brer Rabbit” share story lines with African trickster tales describing a canny rabbit, spider, or tortoise. The Gullah language, also known as “Sea Island Creole,” is technically English-based, but the grammar and sentence structure, as well as a large number of “loanwords,” also mark the language as African.
Gullah still live in relative isolation today. Following the Civil War, in which Gullah fought on the side of the Union for their freedom, the rice plantations were widely abandoned by planters and a series of bad hurricanes and endemics provoked the majority of the population to abandon the low country. The Gullah remained through the decades, their private enclave unmarred and residents left free to maintain their historical culture. Although resort development did threaten to oust the Gullah from their homes for a period during the late twentieth century, the Gullah have since come under the protection of the federal government and their homes considered historical sites, so their history may be maintained for decades to come.
From the time of the inception of Gullah culture in the eighteenth century through today, the Gullah have expertly maintained their own culture and communities; even when they do leave their native low country, they continue their traditions, as exemplified by pockets of Gullah in New York. The Gullah personify one of the grander ideals of American culture as whole: pride of place and people and history, from wide-arching states to the smallest, most isolated regions. The Gullah embrace their history wholeheartedly and, with the tenacity buried deep in the soul of our country, deny extraneous change.