Every schoolchild learns that Eli Whitney’s cotton gin opened up the Old South to extensive cotton cultivation. The type of cotton that came to dominate in the Old South was called “upland,” or short-staple. This strain of cotton grew well over a wide stretch of Southern soils and climates, and when Whitney improved the method of mechanically separating the seed from the fiber, a way of life soon followed. The type of cotton grown before Whitney’s invention was known as “Sea Island,” or long-staple. This variety flourished only along the South Carolina and Georgia coasts. Sea Island cotton plants produced a much longer and finer fiber, highly prized by English cotton spinning factories, and the market for Sea Island cotton continued to be strong until the Civil War. The richest of the Sea Islands was Saint Helena, located near Beaufort, halfway between Charleston and Savannah. The work in growing this lucrative crop was done by slaves, and from the Revolution through the twentieth century, Saint Helena has had black people as a majority of its population.
Tombee: Portrait of a Cotton Planter, which won the 1986 National Book Critics Circle Award for biography, is a book that recounts in a number of ways the antebellum history of Thomas B. Chaplin’s Tombee Plantation on Saint Helena. The book reprints the plantation journal Chaplin maintained from 1845 to 1861. The modern editor of the journal, Theodore Rosengarten, has added helpful annotations that identify persons and places mentioned in Chaplin’s writing. Chaplin made journal entries almost daily about life on his Sea Island cotton plantation, and his journal offers an intimate look at the world of the South Carolina low-country slaveholder. The journal is all the more interesting because three times after the Civil War—in 1868, 1877, and 1885—Chaplin reread his journal and added new marginal notations. Anyone who has kept a diary knows the bittersweet feeling of reexamining old thoughts. Chaplin’s case is an extraordinary example of this phenomenon, since he lost his plantation as well as a son in the Civil War. The journal is preceded in this volume by a book-length background study of antebellum Saint Helena, written by Rosengarten. Helpful chapters on Chaplin, his family, low-country agriculture, and the effects of Union occupation and Reconstruction place Thomas Chaplin’s writings in historical perspective.
The attraction of Tombee is in part that the reader sees Chaplin age and mature as a person while learning at firsthand the world of a cotton planter. Thomas Chaplin’s mother, Isabella Jenkins, was one of the wealthiest women in South Carolina, and she provided Thomas with a fully operating plantation on Saint Helena soon after he married Mary McDowell in 1839. He married at a very young age—seventeen—and when he began his journal at the age of twenty-three, his main interests seem to have been enjoying the company of other young planters on hunting and fishing expeditions. His plantation suffered as a result of poor management, and young Chaplin fell heavily into debt and had to sell a number of slaves to satisfy his creditors. He seemed little bothered that his inattention to plantation detail had resulted in the forced breakup of a number of the black families he owned.
Personal sorrow and economic hard times, however, soon aged Chaplin. Mary and Thomas had seven children, but three died in early childhood. His diary entries suggest that Mary became a bulimic recluse before she, too, died in 1851. That year was also the financial low point for Tombee Plantation. Chaplin for the first time in his life could not afford to rent a summer-house in Beaufort or Charleston; instead, he and his family had to spend the humid months on Saint Helena amid the dangerous malaria-bearing mosquitoes. Life began to improve for Chaplin after 1852: He remarried, to his former sister-in-law; cotton prices began to improve; and he obtained a talented new slave named Robert who helped increase output at Tombee. Only the occasional reference to local politicians in favor of South Carolina’s leaving the Union gives any clue that the privileged world of Thomas B. Chaplin would soon crumble.
Thomas Chaplin’s journal shows Saint Helena fundamentally divided into two societies, one white and the other black. The first is amply documented in his journal, and its outstanding feature was that nearly all the white islanders were related to one another. Slave society, on the other hand, is something that Chaplin knew imperfectly, but from some entries, together with the historical investigation done by Rosengarten, the reader can also see that black society crossed plantation boundaries to cover the entire island. Three white families dominated Saint Helena: the Chaplins, the Jenkinses, and the Fripps. All intermarried with one another, carefully giving thought to the transfer of land and slaves across the generations. Close kinship ties did not, however, prevent rancor among relatives. Low cotton prices in the 1840’s made for grasping operators, and one of the first things Chaplin did upon reaching the age of twenty-one was to sue his guardian uncle for misappropriation.
The plantation journal that Chaplin kept at Tombee is filled with references to friendships and rivalries with his cousins on the island, but the one relationship that most occupied his thoughts was that with his mother. This is not to say that he was particularly close to his mother, for he was not; rather, he became obsessed with Isabella and her fourth and final marriage to a bankrupt Charleston pharmacist named Robert L. Baker. After burying three husbands, Isabella still sought romance, and after a brief but torrid Charleston courtship, she wed in 1845 a man closer in age to Thomas than herself. She did have the foresight—highly unusual by nineteenth century standards—to ask Baker to sign a prenuptial agreement that retained for her control over her property. The couple were estranged a few months after the marriage ceremony, and Baker promptly went to court to have the prenuptial agreement overturned. Such agreements were rare enough in antebellum America, but courts throughout the United States recognized them as valid contracts. Baker’s attorneys, however, contended that such an arrangement was “unnatural” and that the duty of a wife was to support her husband in every way, including the tendering of all property. Baker ultimately prevailed upon appeal...
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