Essentially America

SEDUCTIVE CHARLESTON AND HER BRITISH BEAU

CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA, MAY SEEM QUITE DEMURE, BUT SHE HAS AN INTERESTIN­G, INDEED QUITE TEMPESTUOU­S, PAST

- BY MARY MOORE MASON

Charleston, that charismati­c, quintessen­tial Southern Belle, has been waiting far too long for the arrival of her British beau. And now that he is finally due – in the form of twice-weekly British Airways flights from London – what can he, and those who travel with him, expect to find?

First off, it must be said that although this ‘Queen City of the South’, enthroned on a peninsula surrounded by the Ashley and Cooper Rivers, may appear to be quite regal and well-mannered, she, in

fact, has a tempestuou­s past.

In the 18th century she rebelled against her British ‘sugar daddy’ and was punished by having a number of her Revolution­ary War sons, including two signers of The Declaratio­n of Independen­ce, imprisoned in the 1771 Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon and then deported to Florida. A tour of the cellar’s colourful dioramas led by a guide in period costume tells the story. Among the exhibits is one dedicated to ‘Gentleman Pirate’ Stede Bonnet, one of many who once swashbuckl­ed for booty along the Carolina coast. Asked

why he, a wealthy plantation owner, chose piracy when he didn’t need the money, he reputedly responded: “To get away from a nagging wife”.

A visit to the early 18th-century Powder Magazine, the oldest public building in the Carolinas, adds colour to the tale of how the local rebels spirited away the kegs of British gunpowder and walled them up in the aforementi­oned cellar, never to be detected by the British troops even when they occupied the building.

Charleston once again became a notorious rebel on April 12, 1861, when Confederat­e forces fired on Union-occupied Fort Sumter, sited on an island in Charleston Harbor. The event ignited the tragic four-year American Civil

War. Now, you can take a boat tour to the island from downtown or Patriots Point, the across-the-harbour site of the city’s Naval & Maritime Museum, which encompasse­s 28 historic aircraft.

In addition to the Southerner­s’ demands for their ‘States Rights’, the key cause of what is sometimes locally, half-jokingly, referred to as ‘the War of Northern Aggression’, was, of course, slavery. Newly-arrived Africans were auctioned openly at the base of the Old Exchange until 1856, when the sales moved to Chalmers Street, site of today’s small-but-informativ­e Old Slave Mart Museum. More of the vital role they filled in creating Britain’s wealthiest American colony by toiling in the surroundin­g Lowcountry’s rice and indigo plantation­s is explored in the impressive Charleston Museum, the oldest in America.

But, for even more background, visit such sites on the other side of the Ashley River as the McLeod Plantation, where 17th-century enslaved cattle farmers from the Gambia became, in effect, America’s first cowboys. Five of the numerous slave cabins still exist and were, says local African-American historian Alphonso Brown, still voluntaril­y occupied by slave descendant­s until the 1900s. Remarkably,

the mid-19th-century slave owner’s whitecolum­ned mansion has survived, possibly because it served as both a hospital for black Union troops during the Civil War and as home to freed slaves thereafter.

Other Ashley River Road antebellum mansions were burned to the ground by Union troops, with one notable exception, Drayton Hall, which was saved, it is said, by its quick-witted owners, who started the rumour that the premises were overwhelme­d by plague. Now considered America’s oldest unrestored plantation house still open to the public, it purposely remains unfurnishe­d, which creates a somewhat ghostly ambience.

Both nearby Middleton and Magnolia plantation­s are known for their beautiful gardens. In fact, Middleton’s, which feature terraces leading down to a butterfly-shaped pond, are considered to be America’s oldest landscaped gardens. And on the other side of the Cooper

River, although Boone Hall’s great house

is of more modern vintage, its avenue of massive, Spanish moss-draped oak trees and slave cabins remains and have often been featured in films and TV series.

Although the Civil War left Charleston’s downtown property owners ‘too poor to paint and too proud to whitewash’ this, in fact, proved to be a long-term blessing; rather than tearing down its beautiful but battle-scarred buildings, Charleston retained them until times were better. Now, they are an unrivalled collection of stunning, restored antebellum mansions, filled with exquisite, sometimes-original furniture and, in many cases, welcoming in the public, For instance, the Nathaniel Russell House, built in 1808, is popular with visitors for its splendid, multi-storey, free-flying staircase and its beautifull­y-decorated and furnished rooms. Nor does it avoid revealing the origin of the wealth of its owner, whose walls are decorated with his and other family portraits as well as a poster announcing a forthcomin­g auction of slaves he has brought into the country, and a photo of a muchloved slave woman cuddling one of the Russell children. You can also visit the slave quarters in the house and an outer building.

The Aiken-Rhett House, the city’s most-intact antebellum complex, tells the story of Governor William Aiken, his family and the slaves who lived on the premises; the Heyward-Washington House, home to a signer of The Declaratio­n of Independen­ce, included George Washington among its guests; the Edmondston-Alston House offers great views of the harbour from its secondfloo­r piazza; the Josesph Manigault House has an exceptiona­l collection of early 19th-century furnishing; and the Calhoun Mansion, Charleston’s largest private home and house museum, offers post-Civil War, Guilded Age opulence.

Nor is the region’s African-American Gullah and Geechee culture forgotten. You still hear its patois in the colourful, 19th-century Charleston City Market, where vendors sell handsome sweetgrass baskets, inspired by those once used by slaves to winnow rice and now collectors’ items displayed in both the local Gibbes Museum of Art and in Washington, DC’s Smithsonia­n Institutio­n. That’s not to forget the savoury spices and exotic vegetables once brought from Africa and the Caribbean and now part of the local cuisine, or the role Charleston played in the creation of America’s most-famous opera, George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. Based on a novel by local author DuBose Heyward, it was inspired by the life of local, crippled beggar Samuel Smalls, who traversed the city in a goat-drawn cart – a lovable character in the opera; reputedly a very unpleasant one in real life.

In fact, Lady Charleston is a culture lover. There are a number of theatres, including the Dock Street Theatre – the oldest in America and home to the renowned annual Spoleto USA and Piccolo Spoleto performing arts festivals, the Charleston Symphony Orchestra, and the Halsey Institute of Contempora­ry Art, located in the College of Charleston, America’s oldest municipal college.

And even if you temporaril­y tire of the numerous charms of Lady Charleston, there are many, nearby temptation­s.

Not far from town, Folly Beach appeals with its wide, sandy strand, fishing pier and quirky laid-back ambience; Kiawah and the Isle of Palms are known for their splendid golf courses and elegant resorts; and Sullivan’s Island, which inspired a poem by Edgar Allan Poe, attracts fans of its century-old homes and historic Fort Moultrie, which played a part in one of the first decisive battles of the Revolution­ary War.

 ??  ??
 ??  ?? Appropriat­ely named Rainbow Row
Appropriat­ely named Rainbow Row
 ??  ?? A carriage ride lingers at the historic Edmonston-Alston House
A carriage ride lingers at the historic Edmonston-Alston House
 ??  ?? The white-columned South Carolina Historical Society graces Meeting Street
The white-columned South Carolina Historical Society graces Meeting Street
 ??  ?? Magnolia Plantation is known for its beautiful gardens
Magnolia Plantation is known for its beautiful gardens
 ??  ?? A guide at the 1748 Powder Magazine, oldest public building in the Carolinas
A guide at the 1748 Powder Magazine, oldest public building in the Carolinas
 ??  ??
 ??  ?? Traditiona­l sweetgrass baskets are now collectors’ items
Traditiona­l sweetgrass baskets are now collectors’ items
 ??  ?? The elegant Nathaniel Russell House is now a museum
The elegant Nathaniel Russell House is now a museum
 ??  ?? Russell made much of his fortune from the slave trade
Russell made much of his fortune from the slave trade

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