Tombee: Portrait of a Cotton Planter
Reviewed by Peter H. Wood
Vol. 8, No. 3, 1986, pp. 21-24
Tombee: Portrait of a Cotton Planter by Theodore Rosengarten. With the Journal of Thomas B. Chaplin (1822-1890). New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1986. $22.95. Drums and Shadows: Survival Studies Among the Georgia Coastal Negroes by the Georgia Writer’s Project. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1940; reissued with an introduction by Charles Joyner, 1986. $26.00 (paperback $9.95).
“All God’s dangers ain’t a white man.” This memorable reflection on the nature of Southern history came from a black sharecropper, recalling the effect of the boll weevil on his cotton crop. The listener was Theodore Rosengarten, a Brooklyn-born student of “American Civilization,” doing research in the late ’60s on the history of Southern tenant farmers. His book, All God’s Dangers: The Life of Nate Shaw, received the National Book Award in 1974 and has become regarded as a classic in the realm of oral history. Combining the best of the new social history with the South’s rich narrative tradition, the volume won an immediate place on every shelf containing the important modern works
about the region.
Instead of using his first book for ante at the poker tables of academia, Rosengarten settled near a small fishing town on the South Carolina coast where he now lives with his wife and sons. There he has continued to fish the waters of Southern history with the same patience and satisfaction that he brings to shrimping and crabbing in the tidal creeks of the Lowcountry. His most exciting historical catch occured in 1979, when archivist David Moltke-Hansen at the South Carolina Historical Society in Charleston showed him the lengthy manuscript journal of Thomas B. Chaplin, a member of the antebellum elite and the owner of Tombee Plantation on St. Helena Island near Beaufort. After much careful work, Rosengarten completed a three-hundred-page portrait of Chaplin, and with the assistance of Susan W. Walker he edited and annotated the journal itself. The historian’s judicious appraisal and the fascinating primary source are both included in Tombee, along with maps, genealogical charts, and copious notes.
It is hard, literally, to know where to begin in this massive book, for the biographical treatment and the detailed journal go hand in hand. The latter begins in 1845 when Chaplin, age twenty-two, already controlled the lives of more than sixty enslaved Southerners, who grew cotton for him on a 376-acre plantation facing Parris and Hilton Head Islands. His wife Mary, also twenty-two, had already borne four children and a fifth was on the way. The journal ends in 1858, seven years after Mary’s death and six years after Chaplin’s marriage to her half-sister, Sophy. By then, the diarist was approaching the end of his volume-and the end of an era. But for twenty years after the Civil War Chaplin occasionally looked back over his personal record and added revealing afterthoughts and comments. At the beginning of 1886, four years before his death, he inserted a three-page epilogue and closed out his personal ledger for good. Dependent and morose, broken both physically and economically, Chaplin was living with Sophy on the farm of a relative, where he could “only work a garden try to raise poultry.” He and his wife, Chaplin concluded, “are both feeling the effects of age can’t stand much more thumping tumbling about, I pray the remainder may be passed in peace and ease. So this ends.”
Thomas Chaplin, like Nate Shaw, had a distinctive personality and a complicated life. Both men lived close to the soil of the Deep South, and each in his way endured a good deal of thumping and tumbling about. Their worlds were determined by who owned the land and what crops it could yield. They each witnessed, and were shaped by, the region’s travails over race, and they faced many of God’s other dangers as well. Both engaged in continuous and judicious observation of their own place in society. Moreover, both had the good fortune of ending up in the fine mesh of Rosengarten’s casting net, so that their unique character traits and archetypal qualities could be observed by others. But here the similarities end. For Shaw, though a generation younger, told a story that sounded strange and novel-if relevant and disconcerting-to most modern ears. Chaplin’s tale, on the other hand, gains interest precisely because we inevitably hold it up beside well-worn images of antebellum cotton planters.
Naturally, he fits none of these contradictory stereotypes we have inherited. Far from an opulent patriarch, he remained insecure about his economic holdings and his personal status throughout his life–though not so insecure as to become a Simon Legree. “My heart chills at the idea, and my blood boils,” he wrote in his journal in 1849 after seeing how a neighboring planter had whipped a crippled slave and then chained him by the neck in an outhouse overnight to choke and freeze to death. The more we get to know Chaplin, the more he seems like a character out of a Chekhov play. And like most Russian landlords before the abolition of serfdom, this member of the South’s rural elite has a very imperfect sense of the forces that are holding him up and tugging him down.
Occasionally, life imitates art so thoroughly that whole passages from the diary read like notes from a fiction writer’s journal. An Ellison or Faulkner would beam to have created a protagonist who has weak vision in one eye due to the burst of a rocket at a Fourth of July celebration! Or consider Chaplin’s entry for May 9, 1846. He was sailing across Broad River with two other white men and four Negro slaves when a sudden squall
capsized their vessel and left them clinging to the overturned boat. “One poor fellow named Monday could not swim though we got him on the boat twice the third time he went down, never to rise again poor fellow….” The rest eventually managed to right the boat and row to shore. Chaplin lost all his best hunting and riding equipment and a set of gold studs, but he saved his water-soaked pocket watch.
“A broken watch is a small thing next to a life that’s lost,” Rosengarten observes, “but Chaplin did not see it that way….Faced with great losses he clung to small things. Always aware of his class, the things he recalled when he had been stripped of everything were emblems of pleasure and ease.” This applied not only to an overturned boat but to an overturned land title, not only to a brief spring gust but to the five-year storm of war that arrived at St. Helena with the Union gunboats. “Thus, we find him,” Rosengarten concludes, “missing his old oak chair when what had passed out of his hands were his house and land; and fretting over the loss of silver forks and spoons when what had perished was the social order.”
In offering a portrait of the master of Tombee plantation, Rosengarten also provides a picture of the social order of the Sea Islands, or part of it. His narrative and notes trace networks of kinship and debt back and forth across the Lowcountry from Beautort to Charleston to Savannah with a care that should delight any Daughter of the Confederacy. (References to various Chaplins take up more than a page and a half in the index.) At the same time, the author displays a consciousness toward the non-elites that most dedicated plantation watchers still lack. But as Rosengarten himself points out in a chapter on “The Chaplin Family,” blacks outnumbered whites eight to one on St. Helena Island during the antebellum period and by about that much at Tombee.
While it might not be fair to ask Rosengarten to take up the task himself, it is worth remarking that a portrait of the local slave community could now be undertaken with the same attention to detail. One wonders whether the far-too-cautious Lyndhurst Foundation, which supported Rosengarten with Coca-cola bottling money from Chattanooga, would be willing to fund an equally well-crafted study of members of the island’s black majority? Hopefully, the current efforts of the venerable Penn Community Center to bring St. Helena’s black history to life will soon bear fruit, though we must wait to see whether the acclaim for Tombee will be used by funders to further such designs.
While they are making up their minds, they can examine another challenging book that has appeared this summer: Drums and Shadows: Survival Studies Among the Georgia Coastal Negroes. It represents a collaborative effort by the Savannah Unit of the Georgia Writer’s Project, set up by the Works Projects Administration, and it first appeared in 1940. At a time when forgetful and careless bashing of the New Deal is sanctioned from on high, it is a credit to the editors at the University of Georgia Press that they have reissued this volume as part of their handsome and selective “Brown Thrasher” series. It includes an informative introduction by Charles Joyner whose recent book about the Waccamaw Neck region of South Carolina, Down by the Riverside, affords the best available study of a black community in the Lowcountry.
Drums provides an intriguing companion volume to Tombee. It concerns Georgia rather than South Carolina; it focuses on blacks rather than whites; and it uses oral history and an ethnographic approach rather than archival research and biographical techniques to make its points. But it describes a world close to Thomas Chaplin’s own in a hundred ways, and the impressive photographs by Muriel and Malcomb Bell, Jr., help bring the inhabitants of that world to life. Black and white residents of Tombee would have had no trouble recognizing the “Wooden grave markers at Sunbury: or the “Praise House at Sapelo” pictured here. They would have felt thoroughly at home around Lewis McIver’s fishing nets, Katie Brown’s mortar and pestle, Cuffy Wilson’s tote basket, or Julius Bailey’s ox cart-more at home no doubt that some of these people’s far-flung grandchildren might feel today.
The pictures from the original edition have been moved prominently to the front and introduced with a note from the photographers. Though somewhat darker and smaller than they were in the original, these shots (clicked from under a black cloth, with a bulky Kodak camera on a tripod) retain their freshness as strong portraits from a period known for its impressive visual studies of everyday people. “We had seen the Julia Peterkin / Doris Ulmann collaboration, Roll, Jordan, Roll,” the Bells recall. “The soft focus of the Ulmann portraits was not to our liking, [but] Ulmann’s remarkable
ability to capture an attitude and to reflect her subject’s character we hoped to emulate.” For this edition the Bells have added some interesting new images from their files, such as the picture of a “Goatskin-covered log drum made by James Collier” that provided the cover design for the original book and the sensitive photograph of Cuffy Wilson and his granddaughter. Many of the previous images have been cropped less tightly, and what is lost in the intimacy of a close-up face is gained in the inclusion of background setting. Why some of these images have been reversed in the current edition seems deserving of explanation.
“Our picture-taking expeditions were always led by Mary Granger,” the Bells relate, and it would be useful, perhaps inspiring, to know more about this “confident and cheerful” woman. (Joyner tells us only that she “was a cosmopolitan and well-traveled novelist” with a formidible intellect.”) Granger was the district supervisor of the Savannah Unit of the Georgia Writer’s Project, and as its “unquestioned leader,” the photographers remember, “she told us of her proposed study of African cultural survivals she believed to be extant along the Georgia coast.” In the late ’30s this hypothesis remained unfashionable on most fronts. As Joyner explains, dominant Southern historians like U. B. Phillips were ignorant and disparaging about African cultures, while northern sociologists like Robert E. Park had accepted a “catastrophist interpretation of the black cultural experience”–one that still receives nodding acceptance from many mainstream scholars. The essence of this view had been stated in 1939 by the black sociologist E. Franklin Frazier: “Probably never before in history,” Frazier wrote, “has a people been so completely stripped of its social heritage as the Negroes who were brought to America.”
But Granger had different ideas, and she put together a group of advisors who could endorse, or at least tolerate, such research. The work paid off, and though it was dismissed by critics at the time, Drums and Shadows has come to be regarded as a pioneering work, however dated or patronizing some passages may seem. Even the controversial use of phonetic spelling in transcribing interviews now appears useful on balance, as understanding of the roots and logic of the Gullah dialect continues to grow. Meanwhile, Granger’s basic premise about African survivals has proven so true that a new generation of scholars run the risk of dismissing it as boring and old-hat at just the time when increased western knowledge of historical African religions and cultures is opening up new layers of potential research.
Today we find ourselves thinking as much about Africa’s current events as about its past, and one can hardly read these two excellent books without reflecting on political and cultural conditions in South Africa. We glimpse that world through the narrow keyhole provided by the American media, censored at one end by an embattled white minority that would understand perfectly the gag rules of Thomas Chaplin’s South and at the other end by our own inertia, myopia, and ignorance. With righteous officials still telling us which historical comparisons we cannot make, the urge builds to contrast and compare on our own, as shown by Steven Lawson’s excellent essay here in Southern Changes in May. If both these books make good reading when examined alone, and better reading when considered together, they may prove best of all when regarded in a wide comparative context that links them to our present concerns.
Peter H. Wood lives in Hillsborough, N.C., and teaches Early American History at Duke University. He is the author of Black Majority: Negroes in Colonial South Carolina from 1670 Through the Stono Rebellion.