SEDUCTIVE CHARLESTON AND HER BRITISH BEAU
CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA, MAY SEEM QUITE DEMURE, BUT SHE HAS AN INTERESTING, INDEED QUITE TEMPESTUOUS, PAST
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.