By Herb Frazier


Tuesday, September 20, 2011 6:56 PM EDT

Three ships carrying captured West Africans arrived in the Carolina Colony between May 1760 and September 1761, ending long voyages at Ashley Ferry Town seven miles up the Ashley River.

The historical significance of where these British-owned ships — the Bance Island, the Fanny and the Dispatch — delivered human cargo has been nearly forgotten. Each ship made at least one stop at the town’s Ashley Ferry, which today is near Drayton on the Ashley, a quiet subdivision off South Carolina 61 near Bees Ferry Road.

The site is not only linked to the trans-Atlantic slave trade, but Ashley Ferry Town was once a river port where colonial leaders held a peace summit with the Cherokee and convened the government when a smallpox epidemic gripped Charles Town.

The records of slave ship voyages and the papers of slave trader and prominent businessman and politician Henry Laurens document the ships’ arrivals at Ashley Ferry, later called Bees Ferry. Laurens was the Charleston agent for the British owners of Bunce Island, a tiny slave-trading post up the Sierra Leone River near Freetown. The vessels came from Sierra Leone, and an iconic slave ad from the Charleston Gazette announced on April 26, 1760, that the Bance Island had brought a shipment of 250 “fine healthy Negroes” from the Rice Coast.

No manifest identifies these shackled passengers by name. One statistic, however, reveals that of the 869 people placed on the three vessels, 131 of them died during the Atlantic crossing. The people were captured at West Africa’s rice-growing region and no doubt were valued for their skill in cultivating the lucrative crop.

In a carefully worded ad, Laurens promoted the May 1760 sale at Ashley Ferry. He noted the people had no contact with residents in the smallpox-infected Charles Town. The ship’s captain John Stephens sailed the Bance Island to Ashley Ferry, apparently bypassing the quarantine station at Sullivan’s Island, attesting to Laurens’ ability to skirt the law to get the Africans before prospective buyers as quickly as possible.

The survival of the ad brought attention to the Bance Island’s May 1760 voyage to Ashley Ferry Town, which sometimes was called Shem Town or Butler Town. Knowing the specifics of two other ships that also arrived there makes the experience of slavery easier to comprehend, College of Charleston historian Simon Lewis, said. The three voyages to Ashley Ferry aren’t the ships’ only slave-trading journeys to the colony. The three ships made six other trips across the Atlantic to bring another 1,829 Africans to unspecified locations in the colony between 1760 and 1805.

“If all we know is an aggregate figure, or an aggregate estimate, that somewhere between 150,000 and 200,000 enslaved Africans landed in Charleston between 1670 and 1808, we know something about ‘slavery’ in general,” he said. “But we know it only as a kind of abstraction so it has less impact on us.

“Being able to specify the exact spot where people landed on an exact date as the result of a particular business transaction between named parties helps us to fully register the experience of slavery,” he said. “And that’s a good thing because it reminds us that we should register the horror of such things.”

Historian Joe Opala said the sales at Ashley Ferry were at a strategic location. Holding the sale there made it convenient to buyers on both sides of the river, he said. He also noticed similarities between Bunce Island and Ashley Ferry. Both places, he explained, are located along waterways to the interiors of their respective coastlines. The Bance Island sailed from Sierra Leone’s interior to the interior of the Carolina Colony. “This is something I’ve not seen documented anywhere else,” he said. (Ashley Ferry was located just southeast of today’s railroad bridge over the river.)

The frequent use of the ad announcing the Bance Islands’ arrival at Ashley Ferry, and its connection to Bunce Island, led Opala and historian and archivist Jane Aldrich to coordinate a remembrance ceremony there in February 2009 for descendents of the enslaved population along that river and local scholars to honor the African ancestors and their many sacrifices and to acknowledge their exile from their native land. Actor Isaiah Washington was the keynote speaker. A DNA test in 2005 shows he’s descended from the Mende, the largest ethnic group in Sierra Leone. (Washington also was in Charleston to speak at the dedication of the renovated slave cabins at Magnolia Plantation and Gardens.)

During the ceremony at Ashley Ferry, Sierra Leonean Amadu Massally performed an ancestor sacrifice or “sara” in which he called upon those ancestors to join the assembled crowd, acknowledged their arriving at that location enslaved and inability to return to their homeland Massally offered comfort to those ancestors by returning to them a bit of their homeland and placing sand from the beaches of Bunce Island and Sierra Leone into the Ashley River.

Bob Knight, a resident of Drayton on the Ashley, attended the ceremony. Knight said he was not aware that slave traders came up the river from Charles Town. “It is logical considering that the plantations are up here,” said Knight, a member of the neighborhood’s homeowners association. Residents, he said, are aware of the area’s colonial and Revolutionary War history, but knowing the links to slavery broadens the understanding of the area’s history.

Aldrich said that the current preservation work underway at Bunce Island will enable those whose ancestors were brought to these shores through the trans-Atlantic slave trade to visit the slave castle to learn about its history and to honor those who left from that port. Opala and Aldrich are part of a team of experts involved in a five-year, multi-national effort to preserve the ruins of the slave-trading post on Bunce Island and build a museum in Freetown. Opala is director of the Bunce Island Coalition (U.S.) and Aldrich is the deputy director.

“Of the entire slave trade, it is estimated that four percent of the people were taken to North America,” Aldrich said. “The balance went to the Caribbean and South America. Bunce Island is unique, however, in that roughly 25 percent of the Africans who left from that island were brought to North America with the majority of them coming to Savannah and Charleston.”

It is for that reason that the preservation of the Bunce Island ruins is so important, because that tiny spit of land up the Sierra Leone River is not only important in understanding Sierra Leonean history, but also American history.

Herb Frazier is public relations and marketing manager at Magnolia Plantation and Gardens and author of “Behind God’s Back: Gullah Memories of Cainhoy, Wando, Huger, Daniel Island, St. Thomas Island.” It is published by Evening Post Books.

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