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The Old Plantation

"The Old Plantation," attributed to John Rose, Beaufort County, South Carolina, probably 1785–1790.

What do you see when you look at this watercolor painting from the late eighteenth century? Maybe you first notice its aesthetic qualities—color, line, form, and medium. Or perhaps you view it for historical understanding, looking for meaning in its content.

Art is a powerful teaching and learning tool. In this watercolor from South Carolina, we see a group of enslaved Africans as they enjoy some leisure time. Notice the two musical instruments being played by the figures at the right. The stringed instrument appears to be a hollowed gourd with strings attached to several pegs. The other instrument is being played in the manner of a drum. Its details are unclear, but it could be a makeshift drum—perhaps a pot or pan—rather than a conventional drum. There are other musical instruments you might not recognize: each of the two women near the center holds a type of rattle called a “shegureh.” A distinctive, percussive sound is made by a gourd when the netting enclosing it is shaken, causing the gourd to strike against hard objects (such as shells or bones) woven into the fabric. Several figures are shown in vigorous movement, apparently dancing. Yet the full extent and sequence of the dancers’ movements, or steps, may never be known, for African dance was frequently improvised on the spot, and sticks appeared in a number of them.

What kind of clothing are the figures wearing? Do you see anything in their attire that suggests African origin or influence?

Behind the figures, parts of two small frame structures focus attention on the enslaved subjects and visually frame the scene in the distance, a meandering river fed by a creek, with a plantation owner’s house and outbuildings adjacent.  The artist, John Rose, owned slaves and maintained a plantation on the Coosaw River in rural South Carolina. The slaves shown were almost certainly his, and some or all of the landscape likely formed part of Rose’s plantation.

For a student activity involving this image, see the Teaching Strategies section of this month's newsletter.

Click here to see the entire glossary of terms relating to slaves and free blacks.

This article was written by Martha Berner, retired elementary school teacher, San Diego, CA. Revised with new research information by Barbara Luck, Curator of Paintings, Drawings, and Sculpture, The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.