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Eliza Lucas Pinckney:
Production and Consumption in the Atlantic World

Eliza L. Martin


     Eliza Lucas Pinckney's life embodies the transnational networks British imperialism created across the Atlantic world in the eighteenth century. Pinckney's experiences demonstrate the central role women played in Atlantic World trading systems, not just as consumers of goods but also as producers and intellectual innovators. Her life is explicitly tied to world historical events and systems which characterized the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, such as colonialism, imperial wars, slavery, industrialization, and biological and knowledge transfer across oceans. Best remembered for her introduction and successful cultivation of indigo in South Carolina in the first half of the eighteenth century, significant as indigo became the second most important cash crop for the colony at the time, Pinckney is remarkable for the economic, political, and social contributions she made to colonial, revolutionary, and post-Independence South Carolina and the way her life influenced and interacted with world historical happenings. Though an extraordinary person under any circumstances, we must keep issues of class and race as well as gender in mind as we examine Pinckney's experiences. Pinckney's class status, as well as the privileges that came with whiteness, provided her access to the education, resources, and contacts that would make her future feats possible.

     From the time of her birth, Eliza Lucas Pinckney had ties across the Atlantic to both the metropole and the British colonies. Pinckney was born in December, 1722 on the West Indian island of Antigua to English parents – George and Ann Lucas. 1 The Lucas family owned sugar plantations on Antigua, a profitable enterprise linked closely to emerging trends of colonialism and industrialization, and both Pinckney's Grandfather and Father involved themselves with politics on the island, acting as links between the governing body of their homeland and their new environment.2 The eldest of four children, Pinckney's parents sent her to England for her education, as they did with her two younger brothers. In 1738, at the age of 15, Pinckney's sojourn in England ended. Along with her parents and younger sister, she relocated to South Carolina in order to avoid the hostilities of an impending war with Spain, and to provide a change of scenery to hopefully improve the health of her invalid mother.3

     The Lucas family move was not an unusual one, as many of South Carolina's first European settlers migrated from the British West Indies.4 As one historian asserts, Carolina began as a "colony of a colony."5 From its founding, Caribbean planters invested heavily in Carolina as a place to get supplies, including food and wood, for the sugar islands. The mainland colony also served as an outlet for younger sons of the planter elite who could not find land for themselves on the limited space of the islands.6 This tie between these colonies may also have contributed to the development of slavery in South Carolina, as emigrating planters from the Caribbean were accustomed to mono-crop plantations worked by slave labor, and imported this economic system to the Carolinas.

     The Lucases settled on their smallest holding, the 600 acre Wappoo Plantation, lands Pinckney's grandfather had previously acquired. In her letters, Pinckney describes Wappoo as "17 mile by land and 6 by water from Charles Town" – modern Charleston – the bustling commercial center of the colony.7 British settlers founded the city in 1670, and by the time the Lucases arrived Charleston was the most important British port in Atlantic North America south of Philadelphia. The ethnically and religiously diverse town housed a population of approximately 6800 in 1742, roughly half of them African-descent slaves, and had its own weekly newspaper and an active social circuit including balls, horse racing, and musical and theatrical events.8 Pinckney notes of Charleston, "The people live very Gentile and very much in the English taste," quite a compliment from a teenager so fond of England, and also a comment on the far-reaching penetration of British culture.9

     Even after the move, Pinckney's father, George Lucas, remained involved in the military and political affairs of Antigua. Less than a year after their arrival in South Carolina, with the outbreak of the War of Jenkin's Ear, a trade-motivated war between England and Spain, the British government recalled Lucas to the West Indies where he served in the military and eventually became Lieutenant Governor of Antigua.10 This is another example of the direct role imperialism and broader world events played in Pinckney's daily life. Upon her Father's removal to Antigua, and with her Mother's continuing illness, Pinckney assumed the management of the family's three Carolina plantations. In a letter, Pinckney describes a typical day:

     "I rise at five o'clock in the morning, read till Seven, then take a walk in the garden or field, see that the Servants are at their respective business, then to breakfast. The first hour after breakfast is spent at my musick (sic), the next is constantly employed in recollecting something I have learned least for want of practice it should be quite lost, such as French and short hand. After that I devote the rest of the time till I dress for dinner to our little Polly (her younger sister) and two black girls who I teach to read . . ."

     After dinner she did needle work, read and wrote letters. She also devoted her time to visiting neighbors and taking care of plantation business, of which her father left her "a pretty good share."11 As can be seen from her letters, though Pinckney had a head for business, she also embraced the identity of a properly reared, upper-class English lady-in-training, a renaissance woman who read philosophy, played music, spoke French, and cultivated her own garden.

     Part of Pinckney's copious letter writing included corresponding regularly with her Father, offering updates concerning the plantations and the family. In turn, he sent her West Indian seeds for cultivation, an exchange that would alter the economy of the region and the broader Atlantic world. In an effort to generate a profit on their mortgaged plantation, Pinckney experimented with many tropical plants, including figs, cassava, ginger, cotton, and lucerne – a type of alfalfa, all in the attempt to find a suitable cash crop. Yet as she said, she had "greater hopes from the Indigo . . . than any of the rest of the things I had tryd."12 This exchange of plants between British colonies earned Pinckney her place in history. Pinckney is notable not only as a cosmopolitan, educated, and quick-witted woman, an ardent patriot in her later years, but also as the first to successfully and profitably grow and process indigo in South Carolina. In so doing, she became known as the originator of one of South Carolina's most important early cash crops.13 With her success, Pinckney passed indigo seeds along to her neighbors, essentially enabling and encouraging the establishment of a new trade commodity for the colony. Her actions had wide consequences, ultimately affecting markets on a global scale.


     Eliza Lucas Pinckney's introduction of indigo into the American colonies played an important role in the on-going biological transfer between regions as well as changes in the global market, connecting Pinckney and the American South to the Atlantic World, from Europe to the Caribbean to Africa. Though difficult to grow and process, indigo produces a vivid blue dye that is still used across the world to color fabrics. By the middle of the seventeenth century, indigo had become a primary export commodity of the European colonies in the West Indies and the Americas.14

     The production of indigo dye in Pinckney's time was a labor intensive procedure. In order to produce the dye, farmers grew the indigo plants, itself a delicate endeavor, then harvested the plants and submitted them to an intricate extraction process. Identifying the peak harvest time was vital to achieving a vivid color. Workers, usually slaves, threw the freshly cut plants into a large wooden vat, covered the plants with water, and pounded them until they began to ferment, a process taking approximately eight to twenty hours. The mixture had to be tended the entire time, day and night. Once the water began to turn blue, thicken, and bubble, workers, again usually slaves, moved the liquid to the next vat where they continuously churned it. When the dye particles began to separate from the water, workers allowed the mixture to settle and siphoned off the liquid. They transferred the residue to a third vat to sit for eight to ten hours, then strained the paste and hung it in cloth bags to drain. As the indigo hardened, laborers cut it into squares, and again left it to dry in the shade until completely hard and shippable. While drying, the squares needed to be turned three or four times a day and protected from flies and sun; if exposed to direct sunlight before drying, the indigo will lose its color and much of its value. Overall, the process was highly labor intensive at every step, requiring a great deal of oversight and physical toil, not to mention dealing with the nauseating smell of fermenting indigo. As slaves performed most of this labor, Pinckney tied herself into global networks not only through her role as an early innovator in the cultivation of indigo in South Carolina, but also through her utilization of slave labor.15

     Though indigo was not completely new to the area, Pinckney's timing was fortunate.16 During this period, the growth of the British textile industry with the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution created an increased demand for the blue dye. Meanwhile, the same imperial war that drove her father back to Antigua also cut off British consumers from their traditional indigo markets, as did the following War of the Austrian Succession from 1740-1748 and the French and Indian War beginning in 1754. According to historian G. Terry Sharrer, "the imperial wars in the 18th century gave American dye producers a near monopoly on the English market."17 Concomitantly, these wars made shipping rice, South Carolina's bulky staple crop, more difficult and expensive. In opposition to large, heavy barrels of rice, small cubes of indigo could be transported on a few well-protected ships.18 The British also placed a protective tariff on indigo, making indigo grown outside of the empire more expensive, and offered North American producers a bounty for every pound of indigo they produced, in effect subsidizing indigo production.

     After her successful crop in 1744, Pinckney distributed indigo seeds to her neighbors, initiating an indigo revolution in South Carolina. Indigo became the highland staple of the state, the niche rice filled for the lowlands. Planters found indigo to be an ideal crop for the area as it fit into the existing slave economy, growing in opposing seasons to rice, the other most commonly grown cash crop, hence keeping slave populations employed in commodity production year round.19 By 1775, the southern colonies produced 1,122,200 pounds of indigo a year for export, a boom made possible by a convergence of local conditions and broader world historical events.20

     Pinckney imported not only the indigo plant itself, but the knowledge systems needed to process it. The indigo production process was not well known in South Carolina, so Pinckney's father sent her an expert from the French colonial possession of Montserrat to teach her the procedure. Her new "expert," a man by the name of Nicholas Cromwell, ended up being more of a hindrance than an asset; he attempted to sabotage the process by adding too much lime in the final stage, turning out a batch of indigo that was basically worthless.21 Pinckney, suspicious of the poor quality of her final product, caught Cromwell in the act and sent him packing. Legend has it he did not want Carolina indigo competing with the dye made in his home of Montserrat, a major exporter of indigo. His brother Patrick came next, and again Pinckney fired this second agent for trying to ruin the batch. The Cromwell brothers are an example of the transnational movement of knowledge between the Caribbean and Carolinas going on in this period, or mis-knowledge as the case may be, and Pinckney's patronage made this movement possible.

     Yet another imperial war, the American War for Independence, marked the beginning of the end of indigo's profitability for South Carolina. Not only did the war mean the end of the British bounty on American indigo, but soldiers destroyed many indigo plantations during the war, and the Continental Congress banned the exportation of goods to England, cutting off planters' access to markets. After the war, the British turned to India as a main source of indigo. In 1786 the British East India Company dumped more than 250,000 pounds of Asian indigo onto the London market, essentially ruining the North American trade in the commodity. By 1810, the Company imported 5,500,000 pounds yearly, and large-scale North American indigo production had almost completely ceased due to global market forces and British mercantilism.22


     Not only was Pinckney a vital member of the world market through her role as an early innovator in the cultivation of indigo in South Carolina, but because she took advantage of slave labor Pinckney also involved herself in global networks through the slave trade. Both the Lucas and Pinckney families owned slaves and utilized slave labor in the day-to-day operations of their plantations. Historians estimate that over 40% of the slaves reaching British North America between 1700 and 1775 entered through South Carolina, making the province an important hub for the colonial American slave trade. By 1740, the enslaved population in South Carolina outnumbered free whites in the territory by two to one, an imbalance that would shape the colony's priorities.23

     The mass production of indigo in colonial America, a highly labor-intensive process, could not have been undertaken without slave labor. Indigo requires the construction of an extensive system of dikes and ditches for irrigation, preparation and fertilization of the soil – as the plant quickly exhausts soil nutrient value – attention during its growth including weeding and insect eradication, and the long, complicated preparation process to turn the plant into the valuable powder dye already noted.24 In order to produce indigo Pinckney needed a labor force, and the most common form of help in South Carolina at this time, especially for physically demanding, dirty and menial tasks, was slave labor. South Carolina's insatiable demand for plantation labor led to high prices for slaves. In 1754 the Governor of South Carolina explicitly tied together slave labor, indigo, and the world market, reporting that "negroes are sold at higher prices here than in any part of the King's dominions. . . a proof that this province is in a flourishing condition . . . I presume 'tis indigo that puts all in such high spirits."25

     The available records acknowledge Pinckney's role as slave holder and consumer of slave labor. According to the introduction of her Letterbook, the Wappoo plantation where Pinckney and her family lived was also home to "20 able-bodied slaves." Historians put the number at eighty-six slaves for all three of the Lucas plantations, and estimate that at the time of her death Pinckney kept between two to three hundred slaves.26 In the eighteenth century, the majority of slaves in the North American colonies lived on holdings of fewer than fifty laborers, with most slave holders owning five to ten slaves. The majority of the South Carolina backcountry population, 77%, did not own slaves at all. Considering Pinckney's land and slave holdings, her family can certainly be marked as part of the wealthy elite of the colony. 27

     The ever present and world-wide fear of slave revolt appears subtly in Pinckney's letters. The large number of slaves in the area kept the planters in constant fear of rebellion. Planters in the area had experienced organized slave rebellion in the recent past such as the Insurrection of 1720 and the Stono Rebellion in 1739; an uprising based about five miles from the Lucas's Wappoo plantation. In the first case, the Carolinians detected and quickly squelched the plot, executing most of the conspirators. In the second event, a group of South Carolina slaves, mostly newly arrived soldiers from the Kongo, seized a store of weapons and marched southwards towards Spanish Florida, burning structures and killing whites along the way. As this rebellion occurred during the War of Jenkins' Ear, the war between Spain and England that called away Pinckney's father, these slaves may have thought that in light of international events, Spanish Florida would offer them their liberty for rebelling against the English. The group grew to around one hundred slaves before the militia dispersed it, killing forty, though some did manage to escape and make it to their destination. The rebellion led to a tightening of the South Carolina slave codes and a temporary sky-high tariff on importing foreign slaves, perhaps briefly affecting the slave market world-wide and contributing to a local preference for slaves from the Caribbean instead of Africa.28

     South Carolina was not the only place constantly on alert for revolt; the Caribbean islands and other locales with slave majorities also worried incessantly about uprisings and rebellions, and rightfully so. Jamaica is one place where a major rebellion erupted. Outright warfare between maroon communities and the British broke out in the 1730s, culminating in a 1739 treaty recognizing their freedom in exchange for the return of future runaways. And these latent fears only increased following the Haitian Revolution beginning in 1791. Through this shared, pervasive fear, and the very fact that she owned slaves, Pinckney's life can again be tied in to larger world-historical systems and contexts. 29

     Yet even while aware of these instances of rebellion, from incidents that Pinckney records she seems to have been a rather liberal slave holder when compared to those who came after her. She notes in a letter from 1741, after the Stono Rebellion, "I have a Sister to instruct (her younger sister Polly) and a parcel of little Negroes whom I have undertaken to teach to read" and later on she writes of "two little black girls who I teach to read. . . I intend [them] for school mistres's for the rest of the Negroe children."30 In terms of slave literacy, South Carolina "pioneered in repressive legislation during the middle of the eighteenth century," and politicians made teaching slaves to read illegal in the state by the 1830s, as slave holders feared slaves would read abolitionist literature and rebel.31 Literacy can be seen as subversive, providing another means for slaves to communicate and plan secretly, and possibly adding to feelings of unrest. There is no hint of what others in the area at the time thought about Pinckney's education project, or if she was successful, although her parents did allow her to proceed. Yet Pinckney, as a woman of her time, also seemed to view slaves as an economic asset, and she did not advocate for abolition. She wrote her father about the "loss" of a male slave, and in the same sentence laments the destruction of 20 barrels of rice tipped overboard forty miles down the coast from Charleston. Presumably the man was on the boat and drowned in the accident.32 She writes of both as economic blows for the plantation, not as a tragic loss of life. Without doubt, Eliza's ownership of slaves and dependence on slave labor for her own economic well-being ties her firmly into the world economic systems that make this type of labor available.

Eliza's Life Beyond Indigo

     Pinckney's strong will and streak of independence extended beyond the business world and into her personal life. After rebuffing potential suitors her father suggested, dismissing one with the statement "the riches of Peru and Chili if he had them put together could not purchase a sufficient Esteem for him to make him my husband," she married family friend, lawyer, planter, widower and member of the Governor's Council Charles Pinckney in 1744, giving birth to three surviving children over the following six years.33 In 1752, Charles accepted a British government appointment as commissioner of the colony, meaning he would act as a middleman between the governing bodies in Carolina and the English Board of Trade. The family relocated to England, offering Pinckney the opportunity to rekindle ties with friends of her youth, strengthening her global social networks.

     With the onset of the French and Indian War, Eliza, Charles, and their daughter Harriott returned to South Carolina in 1758 in order to sell their property. Within a month of their arrival, Charles contracted malaria and died. Charles' untimely death left Eliza a widow at age thirty-six, and again the person in charge of overseeing the operation of vast landholdings and a large labor force. She would never remarry. Rather than returning to England as originally planned, she spent the rest of her life engaged in business in South Carolina, managing the family's affairs. Similar to her relationship with her father, who was physically absent during most of her life, Pinckney also parented from afar. After their father's death, the Pinckney's two sons remained in England to be educated, not to return to Carolina for over ten years, a span that one would assume would cement the young boys' loyalties to England. 34

     Yet the opposite occurred. Contemporaries and historians recognize Pinckney and her children as ardent patriots at the time of the American War of Independence, eschewing their close ties to England to support the American cause at the risk of their own economic stability and physical well-being. Historians remain uncertain of Pinckney's motivation to support the colonial cause and sever the English ties she had held for so long, but the family weathered the revolution and prospered after independence. Pinckney spent most of her later years living with her daughter's family, and died of cancer in 1793. At her funeral, President George Washington served as one of her pallbearers, a fitting honor for one who gave so much to the fledgling Republic.35

     For any individual to realize the degree of success Pinckney attained in the eighteenth century colonial world is a noteworthy achievement, requiring skill, luck, and a strong personality. And the fact that she achieved these things while working within the social constraints placed upon her gender makes her even more remarkable. Not only did Pinckney act as a catalyst for the transfer of biological knowledge across the Atlantic world and take part in world economic systems as a producer and consumer, she also cultivated ties of friendship and family between England, the Caribbean, and the North American colonies. Pinckney's association with the British Empire and her active participation in the economic opportunities that association offered, including involvement in transatlantic trade networks, helped to make her ambitions a reality. Her status as an elite white woman, the availability of slave labor, and her access to flora from the West Indies made her horticultural experiments possible, while timing and the strength of her personality made them successful. Pinckney's life demonstrates that Atlantic World ties were not just ephemeral systems functioning on a macro level, but played out in peoples' lives on a day-to-day basis, linking physically distant areas through ties of trade and culture.

Eliza L. Martin teaches at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She can be reached at


1 Scholars tend to agree on 1722 as her year of birth, though no birth or baptismal records have been found to confirm or refute this dating.

2 For an overview of sugar's place in world history, see Sidney W. Mintz, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (New York: Penguin Books, 1985). For more information on the Lucas family, see "Eliza Lucas Pinckney," The Southern Carolina Historical Magazine, special issue, 99, 3 (July, 1998).

3 This is rather ironic, considering the insalubrious climate of the swamps of lowcountry South Carolina, where malaria, yellow fever, and dysentery ran rampant. For information on disease in colonial South Carolina, see John Duffy, "Eighteenth-Century Carolina Health Conditions," The Journal of Southern History 18, 3 (Aug., 1952): 289-302. H. Roy Merrens and George D. Terry, "Dying in Paradise: Malaria, Mortality, and the Perceptual Environment in Colonial South Carolina," The Journal of Southern History 50, 4 (Nov., 1994): 533-550.

4 George C. Rogers, Charleston in the Age of the Pinckneys (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1969), 4. Families Rogers cites as examples of this migration pattern include the Middletons, Schenkinghs, Lowndes, Rawlins, Perrys, Meylers, Whaleys, La Mottes and Lucases.

5 Peter H. Wood, Black Majority: Negroes in Colonial South Carolina through the Stono Rebellion (New York: W.W. Norton Company, 1974), 13-34. This viewpoint marginalizes Native American histories in the area.

6 Gary L. Hewitt, "Eliza Lucas Pinckney: Vegetables and Virtue" in The Human Tradition from the Colonial Era through Reconstruction, ed. Charles W. Calhoun (Wilmington: Scholarly Resources Inc., 2002), 75-76.

7 Elise Pinckney, ed., The Letterbook of Eliza Lucas Pinckney 1739-1762 (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1972), 7.

8 For details on Charleston during this period, see Rogers, Charleston in the Age of the Pinckneys. Constance B. Schulz, "Eliza Lucas Pinckney" in Portraits of American Women from Settlement to the Present, ed. G.J. Barker-Benfield and Catherine Clinton (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1991), 65-82. Also Gary L. Hewitt, "Eliza Lucas Pinckney: Vegetables and Virtue," 73-94.

9 Pinckney, Letterbook, 7.

10 The War of Jenkins' Ear (1739-1748) was a trade-motivated war between England and Spain which merged into the larger European War of Austrian Succession. The war was fought mainly in the colonies, including battles in Panama and the Caribbean and an unsuccessful British attempt to capture Spanish Florida. The war's odd name comes from Robert Jenkins, a British sea captain whose ear was cut off by the Spanish Coast Guard, sparking the conflict.

11 Pinckney, Letterbook, 34-5, 7.

12 Pinckney, Letterbook, 8.

13 The other significant cash crops at this time in South Carolina were rice and cotton.

14 Jenny Balfour-Paul, Indigo (London: British Museum Press, 1998), 42.

15 Information on indigo processing from Kenneth H. Beeson, "Indigo Production in the Eighteenth Century," Hispanic American Historical Review 44, 2 (1964): 214-218.

16 A strain of indigo grows wild in South Carolina. Carolinian farmers attempted to grow the domesticated plant early on, but found rice to be more profitable because of the difficulty in growing the indigo plants and producing the dye.

17 G. Terry Sharrer, "The Indigo Bonanza in South Carolina, 1740-90," Technology and Culture 12, 3 (July, 1971): 454.

18 David L. Coon, "Eliza Lucas Pinckney and the Reintroduction of Indigo Culture in South Carolina," The Journal of Southern History 42, 1 (Feb., 1976): 70.

19 Hewitt, "Eliza Lucas Pinckney," 83.

20 Sharrer, "The Indigo Bonanza," 454.

21 Harriott Horry Ravenel, Women of Colonial and Revolutionary Times: Eliza Pinckney. South Carolina Heritage Series No. 10 (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1896), 102-3. Ted Morgan, Wilderness at Dawn: The Settling of the North American Continent (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993), 259.

22 Kenneth H. Beeson, "Indigo Production in the Eighteenth Century," 218.

23 Wood, Black Majority, xiv, Appendix C and chart p. 152.

24 Ravenel, Women of Colonial and Revolutionary Times, 102-7.

25 As quoted in Balfour-Paul, Indigo, 70.

26 Pinckney, Letterbook, xvi. Schulz, "Eliza Lucas Pinckney," 70. T. Morgan, Wilderness at Dawn, 262.

27 Peter Kolchin, American Slavery, 1619-1877 (New York: Hill and Wang, 1993), 32, 30, 33.

28 Herbert Aptheker, American Negro Slave Revolts (New York: International Publishers, 1974), 174-175, 184. John L. Martin, "South Carolina's Response to the Spanish Menace, 1713-1739" (Masters Thesis, San Diego State University, 1973).

29 Information on slave rebellions from Eric Foner, Give me Liberty: An American History, Vol. 1 (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2005), 132-133.

30 Pinckney, Letterbook, 12, 34.

31 Eugene D. Genovese, Roll Jordon Roll: The World the Slaves Made (New York: Vintage Books, 1972), 562.

32 Pinckney, Letterbook, 13.

33 Charles Pinckney was 45 years old at the time of their marriage. Nancy Woloch, Women and the American Experience (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1984), 56.

In 1747, Eliza went into early labor upon the unexpected news of her beloved father's death. The premature baby died a few days after his birth. Schultz, "Eliza Lucas Pinckney," 75. Pinckney, Letterbook, 6.

34 Woloch, Women and the American Experience, 58.

35 Darcy R. Fryer, "The Mind of Eliza Lucas Pinckney: An Eighteenth-Century Woman's Construction of Herself," South Carolina Historical Magazine 99, 3 (July, 1998): 215-237.

Pinckney herself loaned money to the new state of South Carolina. Her sons fought on the American side during the war and became involved in American politics after independence. Schulz, "Eliza Lucas Pinckney," 78-79.



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