Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Eliza Pinckney and the Indigo Trail

As Lieutenant Governor of Antigua, Colonel George Lucas must have had every intention of setting up one of his sons to run his three plantations in the American colonies. He could not have imagined that his sixteen year old daughter, educated in England with French, drawing and music, would ever need to draw upon botany, her best loved subject, to run the family’s plantations upon the death of his wife and his recall to Antigua during the War of Jenkins’ Ear.

"I beg here to acknowledge particularly my obligation to you (father) for the pains and money laid out in my education, which I esteem a more valuable fortune than any you could have given me, as I hope it will tend to make me happy thru my future life, and those in whom I am most nearly concerned" (Pinckney, xi)

Whatever her schooling prepared her for, it certainly would not have been the challenges of caring for a large slave population in a brutal climate, mortgaged plantations, crop failures, and hostilities abounding from all sides, all whilst endeavouring to maintain a genteel facade.

Despite her tender age and deep longing to return to English society, she plunged in to the life of a plantation owner, experimenting with many different crops including silk, figs, flax, and hemp.

This dress was woven out of silk from the Pinckney plantation and made for Eliza Pinckney in London
whilst the family were in residence there.

By 1738 she managed to grow a modestly successful crop of the notoriously difficult to cultivate indigo. Her hope was to circumvent the French, who heavily taxed the crop they grew in the West Indies, and to provide the English textile industry with this highly sought after deep blue purple dye.

Used since ancient times, indigo was introduced to England by a wealthy secular community for ink, paint, and cloth dyeing. It was a costly and superior alternative to European woad. Despite sabotage from her island competitors, Eliza proved so successful at developing this labour intensive crop that by the 1740s indigo accounted for over a third of the colony’s exports and was successfully cultivated on various plantations, with her help and support, throughout the South Carolina Sea Islands.

This late eighteenth century resist printed indigo American quilt was pictured in Florence Petit's book "America's Indigo Blues" and is now being sold for a substantial amount by an American dealer.  It is hard to imagine now but the making of this quilt may have taken as much as six months and used an amount of indigo more pricey than gold

Perhaps because of her independence she was at liberty to entertain Charles Pinckney as a suitor, and was married to the widower, who helped her maintain her interests in their plantations, numbering seven in total. They returned to England to Ripley in Surrey to live in 1753, planning to stay for at least the tenure of her two sons’ educations. Alas these plans were cut short as the war with France hastened her husband’s return to the Carolinas to protect their financial interests.

Upon their return he was immediately struck with fever and died, leaving Eliza largely friendless, her family far away in the Islands and her two sons in England, in debt with the plantations that had been run down in their absence, her hopes of returning to England dashed.

The spire of St. Philip's, Charleston, est. 1680 is one of the oldest surviving and continually in use Anglican churches in North America. Photo taken near Charles Pinckney's grave.

Although she maintained a lifelong correspondence with her English friends, modestly stating in many letters how her main entertainments were her books and a few neighbours, there was no turning back and she pressed forward, working tirelessly to promote her sons in the new colonial society and hold on to whatever property remained. Her sons eventually returned from England, her son Thomas eventually becoming the American Minister to Britain. Her powerful friends included George Washington, who would be her guest at Hampton Plantation in 1792 just before her death.

Hampton Plantation, 35 miles west of Charleston, SC where Eliza Pinckney spent her later years.
The Adams style portico was added in honour of George Washington's visit, hero of the revolutionary war that destroyed her crops and her livelihood.