Gullah Islands: A History

21 04 2013
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Ever since I moved to the Lowcountry, I’ve been fascinated by the Gullah culture. Historically, the Gullah islands have ranged from South Carolina to Georgia to northern Florida. While the descendants remain mostly off the coast of South Carolina now, the Gullah people have preserved a unique heritage and language.

The Gullah language is properly referred to as “Sea Island Creole.” It’s an English-based language, with strong African influences in both vocabulary and grammar, but it also owes much to Jamaican and Bahamian structure as well. While the Gullah people may have a sad beginning to their history, descending from British slavery, they now have a rich culture passed down which includes their own stories, music, and craft. The largest group of enslaved Africans brought into the port cities of Charleston and Savannah came from a West African rice-growing region, centered primarily in Sierra Leone (Liberia was founded, by an act of U.S Congress; no slaves were ever taken from Liberia and Sierra Leone), It is likely that the name “Gullah” came from the Gola tribe.

 

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Once planters discovered that the climate was ideal for rice and it would grow well in the southern U.S. regions, African farmers brought the knowledge and skills for cultivation and made it one of the most successful industries in early America. By the 18th century, the lowcountry was dominated by thousands of acres of rice fields.

Due to the subtropical climate, it was also vulnerable to the spread of malaria and yellow fever. Mosquitoes in the swamps inundated the rice fields of the Lowcountry and spread the diseases to English and European settlers. Malaria and yellow fever soon became endemic in the region. Having built some immunity in their homeland, Africans were more resistant to tropical fevers than the Europeans, and the Gullah people thrived. White planters were often forced to leave the plantations for months, and left their trusted overseers in charge. As a result, Gullah community was preserved to the highest degree.

Furthering Gullah preservation, during the Civil War, many planters gradually abandoned their plantations and the brave Gullah people served as volunteers in the army. After the Civil War ended, many rice planters completely abandoned their farms for the mainland because of hurricane damage to crops. Gullahs continued to practice traditional culture with little influence from the outside world into the 20th Century.

In 2006 U.S. Congress passed the Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Act, that provides $10 million over 10 years for the preservation of historic sites relating to Gullah culture. The project will be administered by the US National Park Service and the Gullah community.

 

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If you’ve ever heard of a peanut referred to as a “guber,” we owe that to the Sea Island language. We owe gumbo and beautiful sweetgrass baskets. If you’re interested to experience more, Beaufort, South Carolina hosts a celebration in May, “The Original Gullah Festival,” and Penn Center on St. Helena Island holds “Heritage Days” in November. Hilton Head hosts a “Gullah Celebration” each February. Gullahs have much to be proud of, and keep their family traditions alive.

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