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Historically, the Gullah region extended from the Cape Fear area on the coast of North Carolina south to the vicinity of Jacksonville on the coast of Florida; but today the Gullah area is confined to the South Carolina and Georgia Lowcountry. The Gullah people and their language are also called Geechee, which some scholars speculate is related to the Ogeechee River near Savannah, Georgia. "Gullah" is a term that was originally used to designate the language spoken by Gullah and Geechee people, but over time it has been used by its speakers to formally refer to their creole language and distinctive ethnic identity as a people. The Georgia communities are distinguished by identifying as either "Saltwater Geechee" or "Freshwater Geechee," depending on their proximity to the coast.
Because of a period of relative isolation in rural areas, the Gullah developed a culture that has preserved much of their African linguistic and cultural heritage from various peoples, as well as absorbing new influences from the region. They speak an English-based creole language containing many African loanwords and influenced by African languages in grammar and sentence structure. Properly referred to as "Sea Island Creole," the Gullah language is related to Jamaican Patois, Barbadian Dialect, Bahamian Dialect, Trinidadian Creole,Belizean Creole and the Krio language of Sierra Leone in West Africa. Gullah storytelling, rice-based cuisine, music, folk beliefs, crafts, farming, and fishing traditions all exhibit strong influences from West and Central African cultures.
The name "Gullah" may derive from Angola, where ancestors of some Gullah people likely originated. They created a new culture from the numerous African peoples brought into Charleston and South Carolina. Some scholars have suggested it may come from Gola, an ethnic group living in the border area between present-day Sierra Leone and Liberia in West Africa, where many of the Gullah ancestors originated. This area was known as the "Grain Coast" or "Rice Coast" to British colonists in the Caribbean and the Southern colonies of North America. The name "Geechee", another common (emic) name for the Gullah people, may come from Kissi, an ethnic group living in the border area between Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia.
Some scholars have also suggested Native American origins for these words. The Spanish called the South Carolina and Georgia coastal region Guale after a Native American tribe. The name of the Ogeechee River, a prominent geographical feature in coastal Georgia, was derived from a Creek Indian word.
According to Port of Charleston records, African slaves brought to the port came from the following areas: Angola (39%), Senegambia (20%), the Windward Coast (17%), the Gold Coast (13%), Sierra Leone (6%), and Madagascar, Mozambique, and the two Bights (5% combined) (Pollitzer, 1999:43).
Particularly along the western coast, the people had cultivated African rice for possibly up to 3,000 years. Once British colonial planters in the American South discovered that rice would grow in that region, they often sought enslaved Africans from rice-growing regions because of their skills and knowledge, needed to develop and build irrigation, dams and earthworks.
Two British trading companies based in England operated the slave castle at Bunce Island (formerly called Bance Island), located in the Sierra Leone River. Henry Laurens was their agent in Charleston and was a planter and slave trader. His counterpart in England was Richard Oswald.
Many of the slaves taken captive in West Africa were processed through Bunce Island. It was a prime export site for slaves to South Carolina an Georgia. Slave castles in Ghana, for instance, shipped their people to sites in the Caribbean islands.
After Sierra Leone was founded in the late 18th century by the British as a colony for poor blacks from London and black Loyalists from Nova Scotia, resettled after the American Revolutionary War, they did not allow slaves to be taken from Sierra Leone and tried to protect the people from kidnappers. In 1808 both Great Britain and the United States prohibited the African slave trade. The British, which patrolled to intercept slave ships off Africa, sometimes resettled Africans freed from slave trader ships after that date in Sierra Leone. Similarly, Americans sometimes settled freed slaves at Liberia, a similar colony established in the early 19th century by the American Colonization Society as a place for freed slaves and free blacks from the United States.
The Gullah people have been able to preserve much of their African cultural heritage because of geography, climate, and patterns of importation of enslaved Africans. Taken from the Western region of Africa in primarily the Krio and Mende populations of what is today Sierra Leone as slaves and transported to some areas of Brazil (including Bahia), the Gullah-Gheechee slaves were sold to slave owners in what was then Charlestowne, South Carolina. According to British historia, P.E.H. Hair, Gullah culture was formed as a creole culture in the colonies and United States from elements of, many different African cultures who came together there. These included the Wolof, Mandinka, Fula, Baga, Susu, Limba, Temne, Mende, Vai, Kissi, Kpelle, etc. of the Rice Coast, and many from the Gold Coast, Calabar, Congo Republic, and Angola.
By the middle of the 18th century, thousands of acres in the South Carolina and Georgia Lowcountry and the Sea Islands were developed as rice fields. African farmers from the "Rice Coast" brought the skills for cultivation and tidal irrigation that made rice one of the most successful industries in early America.
The subtropical climate encouraged the spread of malaria and yellow fever, carried by mosquitos. These tropical diseases were endemic in Africa and had been carried by slaves to the colonies. Mosquitoes in the swamps and inundated rice fields of the Lowcountry picked up and spread the diseases to English and European settlers, as well. Malaria and yellow fever soon became endemic in the region.
Because of having acquired some immunity in their homeland, Africans were more resistant to these tropical fevers than the Europeans. As the rice industry was developed, planters continued to import African slaves. By about 1708, South Carolina had a black majority. Coastal Georgia later developed a black majority after rice cultivation expanded there in the mid-18th century. Malaria and yellow fever became endemic. Fearing disease, many white planters left the Lowcountry during the rainy spring and summer months when fevers ran rampant. Others lived mostly in cities such as Charleston.
The planters left their European or African "rice drivers," or overseers, in charge of the plantations. These had hundreds of laborers, with African traditions reinforced by new imports from the same regions. Over time, the Gullah people developed a creole culture in which elements of African languages, cultures, and community life were preserved to a high degree. Their culture developed in a distinct way, different from that of African-American slaves in states such as Virginia and North Carolina, where slaves lived in smaller groups, and had more sustained and frequent interactions with whites and British American culture.
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African influences are found in every aspect of the Gullahs' traditional way of life:
When the U.S. Civil War began, the Union rushed to blockade Confederate shipping. White planters on the Sea Islands, fearing an invasion by the US naval forces, abandoned their plantations and fled to the mainland. When Union forces arrived on the Sea Islands in 1861, they found the Gullah people eager for their freedom, and eager as well to defend it. Many Gullahs served with distinction in the Union Army's First South Carolina Volunteers. The Sea Islands were the first place in the South where slaves were freed. Long before the War ended, Unitarian missionaries from Pennsylvania came down to start schools for the newly freed slaves. Penn Center, now a Gullah community organization on Saint Helena Island, South Carolina, began as the very first school for freed slaves.
After the Civil War ended, the Gullahs' isolation from the outside world actually increased in some respects. The rice planters on the mainland gradually abandoned their farms and moved away from the area because of labor issues and hurricane damage to crops. Free blacks were unwilling to work in the dangerous and disease-ridden rice fields. A series of hurricanes devastated the crops in the 1890s. Left alone in remote rural areas in the Lowcountry, the Gullahs continued to practice their traditional culture with little influence from the outside world well into the 20th Century.
In recent years the Gullah people—led by Penn Center and other determined community groups—have been fighting to keep control of their traditional lands. Since the 1960s, resort development on the Sea Islands has threatened to push Gullahs off family lands they have owned since emancipation. They have fought back against uncontrolled development on the islands through community action, the courts and the political process.
The Gullahs have struggled to preserve their traditional culture. In 1979, a translation of the New Testament in the Gullah language began. The American Bible Society published De Nyew Testament in 2005. In November 2011, Healin fa de Soul, a five-CD collection of readings from the Gullah Bible was released. This collection includes Scipcha Wa De Bring Healing ("Scripture That Heals") and the Gospel of John (De Good Nyews Bout Jedus Christ Wa John Write). This was also the most extensive collection of Gullah recordings, surpassing those of Lorenzo Dow Turner. The recordings help people develop an interest in the culture because people might not have known how to pronounce some words.
The Gullahs achieved another victory in 2006 when the U.S. Congress passed the "Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Act" that provides $10 million over 10 years for the preservation and interpretation of historic sites relating to Gullah culture. The Heritage Corridor will extend from southern North Carolina to northern Florida. The project will be administered by the US National Park Service with extensive consultation with the Gullah community.
Gullahs have also reached out to West Africa. Gullah groups made three celebrated "homecomings" to Sierra Leone in 1989, 1997, and 2005. Sierra Leone is at the heart of the traditional rice-growing region of West Africa where many of the Gullahs' ancestors originated. Bunce Island, the British slave castle in Sierra Leone, sent many African captives to Charleston and Savannah during the mid- and late 18th century. These dramatic homecomings were the subject of three documentary films—Family Across the Sea (1990), The Language You Cry In (1998), and Priscilla's Homecoming (in production).
Over the years, the Gullahs have attracted many historians, linguists, folklorists, and anthropologists interested in their rich cultural heritage. Many academic books on that subject have been published. The Gullah have also become a symbol of cultural pride for blacks throughout the United States and a subject of general interest in the media. This has given rise to countless newspaper and magazine articles, documentary films, and children's books on Gullah culture, and to a number of popular novels set in the Gullah region.
Gullah people now organize cultural festivals every year in towns up and down the Lowcountry. Hilton Head Island, for instance, hosts a "Gullah Celebration" in February. It includes "De Aarts ob We People" show; the "Ol’ Fashioned Gullah Breakfast"; "National Freedom Day," the "Gullah Film Fest", "A Taste of Gullah" food and entertainment, a "Celebration of Lowcountry Authors and Books," an "Arts, Crafts & Food Expo," and "De Gullah Playhouse". Beaufort hosts the oldest and the largest celebration, "The Original Gullah Festival" in May. The nearby Penn Center on St. Helena Island holds "Heritage Days" in November. Other Gullah festivals are celebrated on James Island, South Carolina and Sapelo Island, Georgia.
But Gullah culture is also being celebrated elsewhere in the United States. The Black Cultural Center at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana conducted a research tour, cultural arts festival, and other related events to showcase the Gullah culture. The Black Cultural Center Library maintains a bibliography of Gullah books and materials, as well. Metro State College in Denver, Colorado recently hosted a conference on Gullah culture, called The Water Brought Us: Gullah History and Culture, which featured a panel of Gullah scholars and cultural activists. These events in Indiana and Colorado are typical of the attention Gullah culture regularly receives throughout the United States.
Gullah culture has proven to be particularly resilient. Gullah traditions are strong not only in the rural areas of the Lowcountry mainland and on the Sea Islands, and among their people in urban areas such as Charleston and Savannah. Gullah people who have left the Lowcountry and moved far away have also preserved traditions, for instance, many Gullahs in New York, who went North in the Great Migration have established their own neighborhood churches in Harlem, Brooklyn, and Queens. Typically they send their children back to rural communities in South Carolina and Georgia during the summer months to live with grandparents, uncles and aunts. Gullah people living in New York also frequently return to the Lowcountry to retire. Second- and third-generation Gullah in New York often maintain many of their traditional customs and sometimes still speak the Gullah language.
Gullah Gullah Island; Children's show on Nickelodeon.