Hooey Boy, Humphry Primate!

  • Tuesday, March 11, 2014

You may have heard me speak of what I call “hooey boy” history. This time I’ve got a doozie.

I will start by telling you about how, several weeks ago, I awoke suddenly before dawn, sat up in bed, looked at the dog and said, “Humphrey Primate! Did you hear me Dexter? The answer is Humphrey Primate!”

Who was Humphrey Primate, you ask? I don’t know all that much about him. It appears that he was probably from London and one of the many who settled in Barbados and became a merchant. By the late 1600s he was in Charles Town and his name shows in early records as being called upon regularly to appraise estates, which means he was regarded with esteem as a man who knew what property was worth. He lived in town but was also one of the earliest landholders in what is now Mount Pleasant. He had a significant amount of land near Shem Creek, my guess in the area we know today as Bayview Acres.

While in Barbados, he apparently also began to independently deal in the trade of African slaves, bypassing the British conglomerate, the Royal African Company. He may have done this in Charles Town as well. He died around 1703.

And that is about the sum total of what I know about Humphrey Primate except that his last name was spelled differently almost every time someone wrote it down – as Primate, Primatt, Primett, Primots, Primas and Primus. I don’t know if he was married, but I think he may have had a son. This is where my hooey-boy history comes in.

I think Humphrey’s son was John Primus, also known as Jack. You may have heard of the Jack Primus neighborhood near Cainhoy, a predominately African-American area much in the news right now because of the potential harm the community could suffer from the proposed Cainhoy Plantation development. I had assumed that Jack Primus was probably a former slave who, after the Civil War, received land through one of the “forty acres and a mule” property transfers.

Lo and behold, searching through S.C. Archives & History files, I discovered the rather astounding fact that John Primus, also known as Jack, had purchased the 100 acres now known as the Jack Primus community in 1712. Even more astounding was that he was described as a “free black man.”

Wow! Here was proof that as early as 1712, an African-American not only owned property, he paid for it himself. Who was this man?

This time I started a diligent search. I was able to follow the progress of Jack Primus’s family as they eventually moved from the Cainhoy peninsula to Colleton County and the Pocotaligo region. Jack Primus’s descendants fought during the Revolutionary War, some with the patriots and another allying with British loyalists, eventually going to Nova Scotia. Primus’ descendants fought during the Civil War, in World War I and World War II. They continue to live in coastal South Carolina today.

But I could not find out who Jack Primus was or where he came from. Not until the history gods went to work while I was sleeping, slipped into my mind’s back closet, and pushed Humphrey Primate off the shelf.

Was I right? Was Humphrey Primate the father of Jack Primus? Further searching took me to the Records of the Secretary of the Province between 1694 and 1705, and voila! There it was in black and white. In 1703, a memorandum was sworn before the powers-that-be that Humphrey Primate had, indeed, given his slave, Jack, freedom. It read, “I, Humphrey Primatt... out of love for true and faithful service of Negro Jack who now lives with me to be given his liberty immediately after my death.”

I may never find out who Jack Primus’ mother was. She may have been a slave Humphrey met while he was in Barbados. This possibility is entirely plausible, for during Humphrey Primate’s time it was acceptable, perhaps even expected, for young men working for English companies involved with the slave trade to marry one of the daughters of the African kings who controlled the slaving business. It was a customary way to get ahead and better seal the business relationship. If so, Humphrey was not the only white man to bring an African wife and family to Carolina and, more specifically, to the Cainhoy peninsula.

In 1787, when Englishman John Holman emigrated from Africa and purchased Blessing, a profitable rice plantation on the Cooper River’s east branch, he brought his African wife and children with him. Holman had become enormously wealthy as a slave trader in Sierra Leone and Guinea. His male children were educated in England. The Holmans emigrated to Charles Town at the urging of friend and business associate, Henry Laurens. After Holman’s death, his will not only freed his wife and his children, they inherited Blessing, becoming one of the largest slaveholding families of African descent to plant rice in South Carolina.

As I traced the Holman family, another surprise was in the offering. The Holman children married into two other landholding families of African descent on the Cainhoy peninsula, the Anderson and Collins families. In 1813, James Anderson, called a “colored slave owner” in one document, purchased Bulls Head from Samuel Parker, a 541-acre plantation on the Wando River just above Cainhoy. Likewise, Robert Collins and his kinsmen owned land both in St. Thomas Parish and on the Santee River.

These were not small farms. These were large, profitable, money-making plantations which required slave labor to run. That said, when Elias Collins sold some of his slaves in 1839 for a pittance, he noted, “Slaves are not to be sold but given.”

It barely scratches the surface of what is out there waiting to be discovered. Hooey boy!

Suzannah Smith Miles is a writer and Lowcountry and Civil War historian.

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