You probably don’t need me to tell you that Charleston is a beautiful city. It was one of the great cities of the British colonies in the Americas. It was a major port and naval base. 40% of black Americans can trace their ancestry to slaves sold in its little market by the docks
Its present state as a historic city full of old buildings and charm is, like so much in the South, a result of the Civil War. Southerners had so much capital tied up in their slaves, that they were impoverished when the system was abolished. Britain had abolished slavery throughout its remaining colonies eighty years previously but had compensated the owners. They had therefore been able to reinvest and reorganise their businesses to work with free labour. The moral bar had been raised but life and business went on.
The more dramatic (and some readers will be thinking more ethical) approach taken by the Americans left over 700,000 dead, the South in smoking ruins and once-wealthy Southerners near bankrupt. Morality is a difficult thing. As is democracy. There is no way that 19th century voters in America would have approved a compensation scheme. Of course if you had told them the death, destruction and division that would ensue, they might have taken a different view. Hindsight is cheaper than war.
Charleston has olde worlde charm by the shipload because when buildings aged or burned down their owners could only afford to make do and mend. Now any building over 75 years old is preserved by law, however dubious its utility or artistic merit. Ironically the city is doomed to be a living museum of the age of slavery.
I wandered its streets, camera in hand, and drank in the charm. I signed up for a horse-drawn tour of colonial Charleston and noted that our guide spoke of the British colonists as “we” when other Americans say “they” as if the Revolutionary War deleted the British individuals who founded America and replaced them with new humans, rather than just changed their nationality.
Over breakfast back in Camden, the bride’s daughter and son-in-law – restauranteurs in Barcelona – had recommended High Cotton, as the place to eat in Charleston. It was a brilliant choice. After sampling a few local beers in the nearby bar, I turned up for my solo reservation and had a fantastic time. New Jerseyites at the next table made conversation, as did the accomplished young waiter and sommeliere. It would’ve been nice to have a friend to share the experience of course, but it was not the weird occasion it might have been in Britain. I dined on shrimp and grits washed down with a bottle of Pouilly Fuissé and life was good.
Today I set off early from Charleston to drive up the Carolina coast towards the ferry terminal at Cedar Island from which I will embark tomorrow to reach the “Outer Banks”, a series of islands linked by ferries and causeways many miles off the mainland coast. Blackbeard the pirate was fond of the place and the Wright Bros made my life of travel possible with their brave experiments there.
The nearest bed to the ferry terminal that I could hire was in an elegant B&B in the little sailing town of Beaufort. I arrived in the late afternoon after a pleasant and uneventful journey mostly along minor roads. The pace was slow but I was able all the better to watch ordinary Americans go about their business. Sally the Ford Mustang I hired in Washington DC is a perfect machine for the task. It was chilly but sunny so I turned up my collar, turned on the heated seat and drove most of the way with the roof down and the cruise control on, thoroughly adjusting to the unhurried pace of the American Road while blending in as I never could in Speranza on my 48 state epic trip of 2013.
After walking along the waterfront and taking some photographs in Beaufort, I settled down in a Mexican restaurant to have a much more humble meal than last night. I rather shocked the waitress by ordering a pitcher of margaritas to accompany my modest repast. Spanish is not the secret code she thinks it to be so I got the full benefit of her wisdom as she told her manager all about the dissolute alcoholic Brit she was serving. I was as cheerfully unaffected by this as my “large organism” was by the alcohol and tipped her handsomely to introduce some much needed confusion into her narrow mind.
I am a forty minute drive from the ferry terminal and am booked on the 1030 crossing so will head over there after breakfast tomorrow. The crossing of Blackbeard’s old waters is more than two hours so I will have the whole afternoon to make my way to the beach hotel I am staying at near the Wright Bros testing grounds.
The updated map of my tour is here.
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