Masters, Slaves, and Subjects

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Masters, Slaves, and Subjects

In his book “Masters, Slaves, and Subjects”, Robert Olwell examines the complex relationships and power structures of colonial-era Charles Towne. Charles Towne, as Charleston was known in the years between its founding and its independence from the British Empire, is portrayed by Olwell as dominated by a rigid agrarian slave society which served as an intermediary in a more complex power structure that extended from the royal halls of London to the plantation fields of the Lowcountry. In examining the complicated web of relationships between London and the colony, and Masters and Slaves, Olwell argues that the economic and political structure of Charles Towne was based upon a successive series of carefully-maintained power-based relationships.


Power in Charles Towne was centralized at what became known as the Four Corners of Law, at Broad and Meeting Streets, and radiated outward across the Lowcountry. The Four Corners were home to the State House, where the Colonial Assembly met, St. Michael’s Church, the heart of the Church of England in the colony, the Town Watch House, which kept the slave population in check, and the public marketplace, where the commerce that was vital to the colony’s economy took place (19).

One could easily see power was centralized within Charleston, not just over the local area, but also statewide. Of the forty-eight members of the colonial Assembly, twenty-eight lived within a day’s horse ride of the city. Half of the justices of the colony, who took an oath to defend “King and Country”, were either sitting or former members of the Assembly, and all of the justices were slave owners (...

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...constitution officially separated church and state, ending the power of the Anglican Church forever (282). With this, the last ties to Mother England were cast off, and the elite were secure as Masters of their world, and Subjects to none.


Colonial Charles Towne had evolved into a sort of fuedal city-state governed by power-based relationships, which established roles for everyone from the lowest slave to the economic and political elite who ruled the colony. These relationships were vital to the success and stability of the city and the lands and the people over which it held power. In his book, Robert Olwell clearly identified defines the roles of Master, Slave, and Subject, and made a strong argument that, right or wrong, this system of power-based relationships was the key to the success, prosperity, and security of the colony.
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