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Spirits of the past


Melissa Shales is haunted and captivated by the Gullah storytellers of South Carolina

I wouldn't say I'm overly superstitious and I don't believe in ghosts – certainly not the lost souls wandering the universe type anyway. So it came as something of a surprise when something stopped me dead at the door of the women's slave pen in Ghana's Cape Castle. Suddenly, in the West African heat, I felt so cold I was shaking. My skin was clammy and I felt as if I couldn't breathe. Nothing would make me enter that room and I bolted for the hot sunshine of the courtyard. I've never felt anything like it before or since.

Fast forward a few years and I am standing in the courtyard of Boon Hall Plantation, South Carolina, listening to music that sears my soul – the rasping rhythms of the Gullah people. The Gullah (short for Angola) were actually collected from all over West Africa and herded through those terrible slave pens on Africa's Gold Coast (now Ghana) to the plantations of the New World. On the far side of the Atlantic, I'm at the other end of this horrific journey. The avenue of live oaks drips with Spanish moss, the gracious ante-bellum mansion and the cabins of the house slaves lined up in rows along the drive to proclaim the wealth of the plantation owner.

A Gullah storyteller has her audience enthralled with her tales of plantation life, her voice as old and gold and liquid as smoked honey.  She tells of a hard existence, working the cotton, indigo and pecan fields, field hands kept strictly out of sight and segregated, the more highly trained house slaves given the brick-built cabins. There was hard work and heartbreak, chicken stew and fishing for catfish, but also love and even marriage, the old religions and the new, travelling preachers and spirituals proving a salvation when children were ripped away and sold as chattels. The Gullah music is raw, the earliest ancestor of the blues, speaking of African drums, of sweeping scythes of weeping and of sighs.

Boon Hall Plantation is a few miles outside Charleston, a city that is giving San Francisco a run for its money as America's most popular tourist destination. Clip-clopping round its elegant streets in the back of a carriage next day, it was easy to see why.

"This was the first walled city in America," says Steve, our engaging muleteer or 'skinner', who manages to steer while standing backwards, talking continuously. "Founded in 1680 and named after your King Charles II, it was also the first city to offer real religious freedom – not like New England where you were free to be Protestant. Here you were free to be anything you liked. Except Catholic, of course! The Spanish were the enemy." The Catholics were eventually allowed in from 1787.

We take a turn around the market. A Gullah woman is weaving complicated, patterned sweet-grass baskets. These are beautiful and have become the must-have local souvenir but the prices are astronomic. I think back to the prices I paid for baskets in Africa and my purse stays in my bag.

an obsession with food

"Everyone associates the south with slavery," continues Steve, "but this market was opened in 1807 on land owned by the Pinkney family. The deeds specifically prohibited any 'human suffering' so no slaves have ever been traded here."

What was traded in abundance – and still is – was food. Food is something of an obsession in Charleston, one that I bit into with enthusiasm as I headed off on another city tour, this time a walking trail through the history of southern food, starting with breakfast at Dixie Bakery & Café, where I was introduced to sweet tea (the drink of the south). Did you know that South Carolina is the only state in the US to grow tea? Proprietor Alan Holmes made us grits laden with cream and butter – the first time I've ever found them anything but disgusting – explaining that grits were basically ground maize porridge, introduced to the early settlers by the local Kiawah Indians.

Food influences came thick and fast. The Spanish had been and gone and left behind their pigs. Pork became popular, whether barbecued or boiled. Tomatoes were brought north from South America in 1700 by Sephardic Jews. The arrival of the Africans introduced pickled okra, collard greens, black-eyed peas (known as cowpeas), watermelon, eggplant (or aubergine, from Morocco), guber peas (peanuts, always eaten soft-boiled in salt water here) and sweet potatoes.

The French Huguenots brought with them patisseries, charcuteries and cassoulet. And so were born great Southern dishes such as Hopping John (a spicy dish based on rice, cowpeas and smoked pork), tomato pie, fried green tomatoes, and sweet potato pie.

I thought I'd enjoyed a great barbecue on that tour of Charleston but it paled beside the feast that awaited me a couple of days later on Hilton Head when I got to One Hot Mama's, run by local celebrity chef, Orchid Paulmeier. 'Mama Orchid' isn't actually a local, she's of Filipino descent by way of Chicago, but she takes the art of barbecue to new heights of decadent indulgence, plates piled heart-attack high with chicken wings, juicy steaks, tender ribs and hickory-smoked pulled pork.

gullah community

Hilton Head is the second largest island on the East Coast of the US (after Long Island) and began life as a rice, cotton and indigo plantation. After the war between the States, as it is known down here, freedmen managed to buy a third of the island, creating a Gullah community that survived in its own little world until 1956, when the bridge opened to the mainland and the island suddenly became one of the most sought-after holiday playgrounds on the East Coast. But there is still a fascinating little museum. One of 12 children, David Campbell was born here in 1943 and grew up as part of the isolated Gullah community. My tour with him was wonderfully personal. At that time, the island had a population of 1,600 with only three white families. "That, there, is my aunt's house. That's my Mama's and over there on the right, that's my cousin's," he explains. "And that's the store. My father used to call it the 'robbercery' on account of the prices being so high." 

Today, with proper education and real estate prices soaring, the Gullah community is fragmenting fast. This is good, bad and sad. South Carolina has joined the modern world, but history is ever present and the state will always be full of stories – and probably full of ghosts. I, for one, would be happy to settle back for a lot longer and listen to a whole lot more, preferably while sipping some sweet tea and supping on a piece of pie.


Virgin Holidays

Tel. 0844 557 4321 /

Offers a range of independent travel options and self-drive tours to South Carolina and the surrounding states.

Bon Voyage Holidays

Tel. 0800 316 3012 /

Offers tailor-made travel to the US, including North and South Carolina.

Bulldog Tours

Tel. (843) 722 8687 /

Bulldog Tours, Charleston, features a 'Savor the Flavors' walking tour that takes 2 ½ hours.

Palmetto Carriage Tour

Tel. (843) 723 8145 /

Palmetto Carriage Tour, Charleston,offers one-hour carriage tours around the city.

The Gullah Heritage Trail Tour

Tel. (843) 681 7066 /

The Gullah Heritage Trail Tour, Hilton Head, leaves by minibus from the museum and takes about three hours.

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