Wednesday, January 6, 2021

The Saga of Sea Island Cotton in Savannah...

It's downright fascinating how the threads of history get woven together This is never more true than when studying Savannah's history. The twists, turns, and intersections never disappoint the curious mind or the wandering eye.

My son Corey Foulds came to visit us over Christmas, and of course, we had to go riding on boats every day he was here. During one of these rides, Corey mentioned that he had flown over Mallorca (or "Majorca") an island in the Mediterranian Sea, and wanted to go there.

His comment triggered some memories I have of reading about Majorca and it's smaller island-neighbor, Minorca. Minorca figures in our family history as one of my sisters married a Minorcan man whom she met near St. Augustine, Florida during my childhood. I had heard bits and pieces of the story of how people from Minorca came to be in Florida, and today the picture became much clearer. And of course, there's a connection to Savannah's islands and her rivers.

While reading my research books (Once Upon An Island, Elizabeth Carpenter Piechocinski / A Georgia Tidewater Companion, Buddy Sullivan / Tidecraft, Rusty Fleetwood) I have come across remarks about "a letter" several times. The letter was written to the newspaper by a local plantation owner, Nicholas Turnbull, protesting published claims made by, or on behalf of, another plantation owner, Francis Levett, Jr, to have been the first person to grow black seed "Sea Island" cotton on the Georgia Coast.

I didn't know why the question of who was first was important, as in good time all of the planters became wealthy (thanks mainly to the efforts of the slaves they all owned.) Bragging rights? Prestige? Money?

I decided to read more about the history of Minorcans, and the area that they were initially brought to, which was named "New Smyrna," in Florida. Here's a link

This project was the brainchild of Nicholas Turnbull's father Andrew, a Scottish physician and consul to Smyrna, part of what was then the Ottoman Empire on the coast of the Mediterranian. The name "New Smyrna" was in honor of Andrew Turnbull's wife, who was from that area. Turnbull set out to recruit immigrants from many locales around the Mediterranian, ending up with over 1400 souls, most of whom were from Minorca. The proposed colony failed in fairly short order, and many of the Minorcan's relocated to the area around St. Augustine. This makes sense as St. Augustine was founded by Spaniards, and Minorca is near Spain. After the demise of the project, Andrew Turnbull relocated to Georgia.

While reading the story about Andrew Turnbull, the name of one of his partners in the New Smyrna venture caught my attention; that of Francis Levett. I had seen that name somewhere else. Indeed!

"I conceive Mr. Levett is not entitled to any merit, as previous to that time the quantity was made in this state and shipped to (England) by the Savannah merchants, and the character firmly established; I do not suppose the trouble was great to Mr. Levett, or cost him anything, and which any anyone could have done as well as himself...The state is not the least indebted to Mr. Levett...( Nicholas Turnbull letter to Georgia Gazette, (Savannah), November 28, 1799, via "A Georgia Tidewater Companion.)

Now when you read that passage, it sounds like a story from today. Anger, jealousy, bitterness? All there.

And I'd bet it had everything to do with the economic relationship between the two fathers that was begun in 1769 with the work at New Smyrna thirty years prior. A relationship that went south just before the two men came north to Georgia.

If you are wondering what all this had to do with our creeks, rivers, and islands, well here's what an anonymous contributor wrote in the Columbia Museum and Savannah Advertiser in the fall of 1799--this is an excerpt of the letter that sparked Nicholas Turnbull's angry response a few weeks later...

"(Growers of) Sea Island Cotton (from the Caribbean Islands) gave the early planters ... a supply of that article from their own country, and completely foiled the making of indigo in the United States; but thanks to our climate, though the planters were compelled to turn their attention to something else, they recollected that cotton could be cultivated on lands that produced indigo, and included their thoughts to that article, and to this most were encouraged by a crop of black seed cotton from seed procured for Major Barnard on Wilmington Island which was raised on the island of Skidaway, 10,000 lbs. of which crop was shipped to England in the spring of 1791 by Messrs. Johnston and Robertson on account of Francis Levett, Esq. which established the character of Georgia sea island cotton; being the first shipment of any consequence; and to him (Levett) the state is indebted... (Companion, pg 98)

From a further reading of both full letters on the Jstor site (where you can enjoy the first-ever Georgia Historical Quarterly,) I can see that Josiah Tattnall (of Bonaventure Plantation) gave Nicholas Turnbull (of Deptford Hill Plantation) one-quart container of cotton seed that he had obtained in Carolina. That seed was planted on Whitemarsh Island. It was taken there by Turner's Creek or Richardson's Creek. The rest is, as they say, history.



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