Savannah: then and now

I am in love with this historic, evocative city.

This is Savannah, Georgia.

First, some history.

What is now the state of Georgia was really only just a buffer zone in the early 1700s between the American colonies to the north in the Carolinas and the Spanish territories in what is now ‘Florida’.

Wormsloe Plantation; established by one of Savannah's earliest English settlers, Noble Jones (c.1700-1775) in 1736

The coastal city of Savannah occupied a strategic position and thus was the first English-speaking colony in what was to become ‘Georgia’ (as a tribute to King George) .   In 1733, a group of 21 British ‘movers and shakers’ drafted a charter in the hopes of creating an English territory in this area of the New World.  The paper was signed by King George (what king wouldn’t want a colony named after him?) and soon afterwards a clutch of English military men with political connections set sail for the southern coast of North America.

James Oglethorpe (1696-1875), one of the initiators of this idea, had been born into a wealthy English family but also had a storied past:  he had witnessed his father and oldest brother go off to fight and die in the War of Spanish Succession (1702-14), had studied at Oxford, then became aide-de-camp to the English ambassador to Sicily (and other Italian states) all before the age of 20.  In that year he was appointed Lieutenant Captain of the Queen’s Guard, which brought him to the attention of Prince Eugene of Savoy.  Oglethorpe was taken under the Prince’s wing and fought in several battles defending Hungary against the Ottoman Empire.  However, when this English hero to the Hungarians returned to England, it is possible that he stirred up nationalistic fervor because a brawl ensued where Oglethorpe killed his adversary and promptly wound up in prison for the next five months of his young life.

Soon after he left prison, Oglethorpe pursued his political ambitions and became a member of Parliament, where he was continuously re-elected for the next 32 years.  He was considered a philanthropist, a friend to children, colonists, slaves and ex-cons.  He and his fellow charter writers envisioned this new colony in Georgia being populated by ex-prisoners as a “family farm” type of economy, where each family was given land in 50 acre increments, dependent on the number of indentured servants (rather than slaves) they supported.  After completing their term of service, the servants themselves would be granted land of their own to farm independently.  No more land could be purchased or passed along though inheritance.

However, in the end the Crown over-ruled the idea that Georgia would be populated with ex-convicts but rather the ‘worthy’ poor; that is, English, Scots, Swiss, French and German tradesmen, artisans and religious refugees made up the first settlers.  Interestingly, the charter provided for colonists of all religions except Roman Catholics.

More than this, Oglethorpe’s ideal vision of this new, egalitarian society in Georgia was soon squelched.  Part of the Crown’s reason (other than ideological…if that) for banning the use of slave labour in this new colony, was the fear that runaway slaves would go south and find freedom in the arms of the Spanish, de-stabilizing the English colonies to the north.  But new settlers were not in favour of such a slave-less society and were choosing the Carolinas in which to start their new lives instead.  So in 1750 when Oglethorpe returned to Britain, the ban on slavery was revoked, opening up the road for a more profitable and less restrictive lifestyle, for the landowners, that is.

Today Savannah is a city of just over 135,000 people (according to the 2010 census).   The population is predominantly a mix of African American and white; shockingly, the median household income from that year was a hair over $29,000 and 22% of the population is below the poverty line.

It is hard not to see the disparity of wealth in this city.  There is beauty in the architectural grandeur and verdant city squares.  But there is also unemployment, a high drop-out rate, crime and disillusionment.  It is sometimes difficult to feel the glory of Savannah’s wealthy past knowing that much of it was achieved through the enslavement of human beings.

Today, though, I hope the tide is turning.  There seems to be new life breathing into this city.  Much of it is through tourism but also through the vibrant and youthful students at the Savannah College of Art & Design (SCAD).

I choose to think it was one of these kids that posted this in Forsyth Park.

2 thoughts on “Savannah: then and now”

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