Imagine yourself as a young girl, transported from your proper English school to the wilds of South Carolina. The year is 1738. You along with your parents and sister take up residence at Wapoo, a plantation near Charleston. Now imagine that your father departs for Antigua, leaving you, at age 16, in charge of not one, but three plantations.
This was the situation facing Eliza Lucas, who went on to become one of the most important women in South Carolina history. Her father, a colonel in the British army, left Eliza to decide where she and her family should live. From Antigua, he sent her a variety of seeds for experiment and in 1741 she first successfully manufactured the blue dye-cakes from the indigo plant. The intense dye was in demand abroad for making military uniforms and Eliza proved it could be a commercially viable crop.
Her days usually began at five am when she arose to read for a couple of hours. Then she walked the fields “to see that the Servants are at their respective business and then to breakfast.” Afterward, her morning was consumed by practicing music, French, and shorthand, and by teaching reading to her sister Polly and “two Negro girls.” After dinner, another hour of music needlework by candlelight, and then reading or writing until bedtime.Can’t you just imagine Eliza and Polly in the drawing room, their heads bent to their canvas, their needles flashing in the flickering light? A sultry, salt-laden breeze moving through the open window. Long shadows shivering on the walls.
Eliza left many letters that paint a vivid picture of life on an indigo plantation and of the enormous responsibilities left to her. In 1740, she wrote to her teacher in England: “We are 17 mile by land and 6 by water from Charles Town where we have about six agreeable families around us with whom we live in great harmony. I have a little library well furnished…in which I spent part of my time. My Musick and the garden which I am very fond of take the rest of my time that is not imployed in business of which my father has left me a pretty good share…’twas inavoidable as my Mama’s bad state of health prevents her going through any fatigue.
“I have the business of three plantations to transact which requires much writing and more business and fatigue of other sorts that you can imagine.”
Eliza married Charles Pinckney, a prominent lawyer, in 1744 and moved with him to Belmont Plantation. There, she continued experiments with crops including flax and hemp, and with cultivating silk. The Pinckneys and their children moved to London in 1753 and returned to Charleston five years later. Mr. Pinckney, who she described as “the beloved of my soul” contracted malaria and died shortly after. Nearly overcome with grief, Eliza resumed her plantation duties. Following the American Revolution, Eliza lived with her daughter until her death in 1793.
On a trip to Charleston many years ago, I visited one of my favorite used book stores, Boomer’s Books on King Street , owned and operated by Jim and Lee Breeden,( now it’s called Blue Bicycle Books and is under new ownership) and there I discovered, in near-perfect condition, a copy of Eliza’s letterbook . It’s a treasure trove of first- hand information about colonial South Carolina, offering a rare glimpse into the workings of plantation life and into the heart of a young girl of remarkable intelligence and strength. Discovering lives like Eliza’s and sharing them with you is what I love most about writing Southern historical fiction.