By Mimi Wood for Island Eye News
“Sullivan’s Island, the sandy spit on the northeast edge of Charleston Harbor, might well be viewed as the Ellis Island of Black America,” stated Peter Wood, a prominent historian, in 1974.
“For decades, every slave, imported into the Colony, sick or not, was quarantined in the pest house,” wrote local historian Suzannah Smith Miles in 2004. “The first soil they touched was the sand at Sullivan’s Island.”
On Aug. 18, Nic Butler, Charleston County Public Library historian blew his Sullivan’s Island audience away with his meticulously documented history of pest houses. He also blew common historical depictions like those right out of the water, challenging them as overstating the island’s role as both a slavery gateway and extended holding ground for those suspected of carrying disease.
The stifling heat at the Battery Gadsden, where a rented air conditioner failed to deliver, compelled Butler to quip, “These are pest house conditions!” as he opened his hour long presentation, to the laughter of the 70 neighbors packed inside.
The story of the pest houses is “actually three stories in one,” Butler began. The first story revolves around the rise and fall of the pest house; the second, the practice of quarantine; and the third detailing the importation of African captives to America.
Pest houses were shelters used to isolate persons with infectious diseases, “in an attempt to prevent the spread of those diseases.” And, up until the mid-20th century, every port town worldwide, from China to the Mediterranean, to South America and beyond, would have had one. Fever houses, or quarantine stations, as they were interchangeably called, could have been as simple as a shed or as elaborate as a “Club Med Hospital.”
Sullivan’s Island actually had four pest houses. As natural disasters, primarily hurricanes, occurred, and wiped out a pest house, a new one would be constructed. Butler believes the first would have been a brick dwelling constructed around 1711, although not shown on the Crisp Map of that time period. The last appeared around 1785, after the American Revolution, on the footprint of the original Officer’s Barracks at Fort Moultrie.
That last incarnation, however, was virtually useless, as it was illegal to import African slaves from March of 1787 to the early 1800’s. Around then, Sullivan’s Island began to be developed as a resort, a summer town.
Consequently, the Legislature was petitioned to “remove the lazaretto,” as the pest houses had begun to be called, “from Sullivan’s Island.” By 1796, the structure re-opened as the “Exchange Coffee House, open for the recreation of gentlemen,” elaborated Butler, and served “the best beef steak in town!”
The degree to which quarantine was practiced was another misconception Butler tackled. The quarantine represented an ongoing struggle between government and private industry, with government wanting to protect the population from smallpox and the plague, while businessmen wanted to get their merchandise out, whether it was “pineapples or people.”
If a ship of 300 “valuable people” arrived, and three exhibited symptoms of “the pox,” huddling all 300 into a cramped pest house would only serve to infect the 297 with no symptoms. Consequently, the three with “dots and fever” would have been isolated to the pest house; the remaining asymptomatic quarantined on the island, until it was determined they were disease free.
Additionally, it was not unusual for incoming persons to be quarantined on their arriving ship, in a section of the Charleston Harbor known as Rebellion Road. A harbor pilot or the port physician might row out to meet an incoming vessel, and ask the commander if anyone on board was exhibiting signs of illness. The penalty for lying was stiff. Anyone of any race, exhibiting signs of illness, was isolated in pest houses, their shipmates quarantined.
Butler also documented the waxing and waning of the slave trade in South Carolina. He estimates that between 1670 and 1787, approximately 107,000 Africans came to South Carolina, “certainly more than any other mainland colony.” Of those, he estimates only 2 to 4 percent, or 2,000 to 4,000 people were “disembarked and put on Sullivan’s Island to do some sort of isolation.”
He recently uncovered new facts, revealed for the first time ever during his Battery Gadsden presentation: between 1801 and 1808, nearly 75,000 Africans were brought to Charleston and quarantined at a location on James Island identified as Point Comfort. Butler has yet to pinpoint this location on a map, but does have documentation to show that the citizens of Sullivan’s were taxed to pay for the James Island lazaretto.