Disease and isolation might not seem like a great way for a population to thrive, but in the case of the Gullah people in the 1700’s, it worked.
Slaves brought to South Carolina and Georgia during this time period unwittingly brought tropical diseases such as malaria and yellow fever with them. These types of diseases thrived in the swampy region of the Lowcountry where rice fields were planted. While many of the Gullah people were resistant to these diseases, the white planters were not. As such, masters of the plantations moved their homes and families away from the rice fields and left a few white managers and trusted slaves to tend to business.
With most white plantation owners keeping their distance, Gullah populations thrived while the white population remained low. In 1708, there was a black majority in South Carolina, a rarity at the time.
This isolation allowed a unique opportunity for the African culture to remain relatively intact. Without the persistent influence and control of white slave owners, the language, rituals, customs, music, crafts, and diet of the Gullah cultures thrived. Add to this the constant influx of slaves directly from Africa and you have an environment in which the Gullah community could develop in relative seclusion.
The rice economy of South Carolina and Georgia collapsed after about 1890, and within years, rice plantations were abandoned and the fields returned to swampland. This left the Gullahs in one of the most geographically remote regions in the United States. They did not even have bridges to connect the islands to the mainland until the 1920’s.
Thankfully, the Gullah culture has remained intact and luckily, more and more people are learning to celebrate all that is Gullah!
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