Gallery of Fine Art Photography - Atlanta GA


Southern Heritage – Commerce

The Role of Commerce in the Southern Colonies

Economics and power struggles drove the exploration of the new world. Europe’s need for new markets and resources to support commerce were key reasons for the colonization of the Americas by England, Spain and France.
Lumière’s current exhibition Southern Heritage – 500 Years In The Making uses photography as a metaphor for exploring the history of the American South, viewed, in part, through the lens of commerce. This exhibition also looks at other motivations for the founding of the Southern Colonies including religious, political and cultural conflicts.
In the 15th and 16th centuries, England was a minor player in the world of trade dominated by the Spanish, Habsburgs, Persians and Ottomans. Knowledge of England’s place in the constellation of trade with more powerful empires of the time is one key to understanding the economic motivations that led to colonization of the New World.

When Elizabeth I ascended to the throne, the British began to challenge the existing power structure. The Age of Exploration began at the end of the 15th Century and lasted through the 18th. This period was marked by extensive global exploration and the rise of a European culture, including Mercantilism and Colonialism.

Queen Elizabeth I established a model trading company in 1585, called the Barbary Company, which granted England exclusive rights to trade with Morocco for 12 years. Elizabeth also sent her ministers to live in Morocco to cement the relationship and ensure the British advantage. The Barbary Company was a model for the eventual colonization of America.

The emphasis on trade and exploration that began in the Elizabethan era laid the ground work for the establishment of a close economic relationship between England and the Colonies.

Within this environment England and her colonies were part of a complex interlocking economic system that affected the flow of people, products and ideas back and forth across the Atlantic. This parallels the establishment of commerce in the Middle East and Indies.

The commonly held perception that the Colonists were self-sufficient is incorrect. In fact, the well-being of the Colonies was closely tied to England. Between 1700 and 1770 the volume of shipping between the Colonies and the homeland tripled. The Colonies’ economy grew from 4 to 40% percent of England’s Gross Domestic Product.

Commerce1marshThe economy of the American South was centered on agricultural exploitation of the land, climate, and access to water and labor. This potential attracted capital from London, which was vital to the economies of the Colonies. The commercial foundation of the lowland South was further dependent on the shipping capability of its inland rivers and ocean harbors in locations such as Charleston, Savannah and Beaufort. These port cities played a significant role in the economic cycle of goods crisscrossing the Atlantic between the New and Old Worlds.

The Carolina Colony and the Georgia Colony operated on two different models of labor. The Carolina Colony was founded by West Indians familiar with a plantation system dependent on large tracts of land. These large plantations required a massive amount of cheap labor to operate. Indentured servants eventually earned their freedom or perished trying to do so; disease wiped out Indian labor, which left African slaves as the eventual primary source of labor in the plantation economy.

Drayton Plantation, a rare survivor of the Civil War and centuries of natural disasters is a prime example of a slave based economic model. This large rice plantation was founded at the mouth of the Ashley River by John Drayton in the early 1750s. The Drayton family originally ranched cattle but soon realized the value of growing and exporting rice. Historians consider Drayton Hall to be a masterpiece of Palladian architecture.

Drayton Plantation

Drayton Plantation

“Drayton’s palace was the first fully executed example of Palladian architecture in North America; his gardens were composed of idealized English landscapes and the interior spaces were finished with the finest examples of European and Charleston-made material goods, furniture, a wealth of imported ceramics, and fashionable artwork. Taken as a whole, Drayton Hall was one of the most significant elite plantations assembled in colonial America, and its rare survival makes the estate an icon of American history, design, and historic preservation.”1

The Drayton family history in some ways mirrors the larger economic and political role the Colonies began to play within the British system. For example, John Drayton went from being a local farmer to obtaining a seat on the Royal Governor’s Council. He went on to educate his sons in the tradition of English gentlemen. The splendor of the house and gardens was a reflection of the family’s power and prestige.

Cotton, an important cash crop and export, flourished in the Southern Colonies from Maryland to Georgia thanks to the mild winters and sub-tropical climate. Originally cotton would only grow along the coast, which is why some cotton is still known as Sea Island cotton. Later developments in agriculture, led to cotton being planted inland.

The size of the average plantation ranged from 500 to 1,000 acres and produced about 5,000 plants per acre. Cotton exports were not only important in England but also critical to New England’s textile business.

Georgia was founded on a different economic and political model. The English trustees who founded Georgia wanted a colony of many small farms worked by free people. As a result, the trustees provided farms to almost 2,000 “charity” colonists. Others paid for their own transportation drawn by the offer of free land. Georgia was the first and only colony to outlaw slavery, under its original charter written by General James Oglethorpe. However, slavery was allowed in Georgia after the British crown issued an official decree in 1751.

Savannah Cotton Exchange

Savannah Cotton Exchange

Shipping and the transfer of goods among the Colonies and across the Atlantic was another important aspect of the economy. Though built after the Colonial period, the Savannah Cotton Exchange is a tangible reminder of just how important cotton was to the overall economy.

The original Savannah Cotton Exchange was built in 1872 when export revenue from cotton was listed at $40 million dollars, and Georgia was the leading cotton producer in the country. The city’s reputation was cemented by the 1880s when the area around the Cotton Exchange was known as the “Wall Street of the South.” The exchange was built to facilitate the needs of planters and cotton brokers as they brought crops to market. The exchange was also a place to congregate and set the market value of cotton that was then exported to larger markets such as New York and London.

The Cotton Exchange was rebuilt in 1886 in the Romantic Revival style and is one of the best surviving examples of this type of architecture.

The commercial foundation of the lowland South was further dependent on the shipping capability of its inland rivers and harbors. Recognizing the importance of safeguarding shipping routes in Georgia, James Oglethorpe, the Governor of the 13th Colony, ordered the construction of the Tybee Island Light House in 1732.

Tybee Island Light House

Tybee Island Light House

Though the lighthouse itself has been rebuilt several times after being ravaged by storms, many of the original support buildings are intact. The 1916 version of the lighthouse and the surrounding structures can be visited today. Tim Barnwell’s powerful image of the Tybee Lighthouse guarding the Savannah harbor is a highlight of this exhibition.

While economic success was dependent on cash crops, such as tobacco, rice, indigo, and cotton, the harvesting of timber, was another economic boon for the Colonies and England. Georgia and the Carolinas were full of virgin forests that could be harvested to build ships and other goods. The timber trade also created economic dependence between the Southern and Northern Colonies.

The role that commerce played in the discovery and development in the American South and the growth of European counties has been a key element in Worl History since the 15th Century. The exhibition, Southern Heritage – 500 Years In The Making, Illustrates this role through photographs of the region.


See the exhibition here: Southern Heritage.
Posted in: a Deeper Look


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