I decided to publish my write-ups from my comprehensive exam reading fields. I am publishing them *as is.* Thus they represent my thoughts as a new PhD student. They were written between September 2011 and July 2012.  The full collection is accessible here

“What Nature Suffers to Groe”: Life, Labor, and Landscape on the Georgia Coast, 1680-1920

Mart A. Stewart

The landscape of the Georgia Coast is both the backdrop and a major player in Mart. A. Stewart’s “What Nature Suffers to Groe.” Stewart asserts that the study of change in society is also the study of change in the environment, as political and social institutions are inextricably tied to the landscape in which they take place. Culture and technology may decide what is considered valuable in nature; however, nature ultimately provides the situation to which society must adapt itself. The planter elite in Georgia used the environment as a device to further their own ideologies and class status. Like the European individuals in William Cronon’s Changes in the Land and Richard White’s Land Use, Environment, and Change, the officials that founded the colony of Georgia intended to carry on with the same economic and social structures that they were accustomed to in their homeland, and thus set to reorganizing the land for productive ends, often with undesirable consequences. Self-absorbed stubbornness almost always overruled common sense, which led to many of the colonists, who where made up of debtors originally, to have to stick to unreasonable rules against their better judgment. “Their persistence in believing that English farms and villages could be created quickly in the colony’s land within the straightening confinements of the town lands and land tenure policy and in attributing problems with the environment to other causes—most notably character flaws in the colonists—underlines the strength of the relationship between their social perceptions and their perceptions of the Georgia environment,” Stewart writes. Georgia was founded on false promises.

One of these false promises was based on the region’s level of healthiness. Similar to Linda Nash’s portrayal of health perceptions in Inescapable Ecologies, Stewart also discusses the fact that the settlers and European officials believed their bodies to be porous and susceptible to outside forces. They feared hot climates because they were notorious for throwing off the equilibrium between the atmosphere and the body. Despite Georgia’s hot and humid climate, propaganda attracting settlers to the colony advertised its health benefit. However, upon arrival it was clear to the colonists that this was yet another one of the misleading details officials had used to sell the colony. The general unhealthiness of the climate and the lack of cooperation on the environment’s part to bend to the agricultural processes forced on it increased the level of labor needed to make profit, and subsequently gave birth to and enforced the institution of slavery. Stewart argues that this is an example of environmental racism and that environmental relations are a facet of gender and class relations. The slaves in Georgia and other regions of the South represent the ultimate nexus of social and environmental relationships, as the demands of the land reinforced the plantation owners’ need for slaves, while continuously making the slaves’ jobs more difficult.

Stewart’s argument is based on a strong belief that mankind is a part of nature, and that, no matter how hard they try, humans will never be able to separate themselves from the natural systems. Nature has active agency in Stewart’s narrative. The title even suggests that it is capable of suffering and other emotions. Nature is always acting back. No matter how hard Georgians tried to rationalize and simplify the landscape, nature would be contemplating its consequent move of revenge, its next step in restoring its own equilibrium. Stewart is adamant that this is not environmental determinism. Instead, looking at the environmental situation in which these social and political forces were played out places human agency back in its correct historical context, he states. The labor needed to make the plantations profitable due to environmental conditions shaped plantation culture, not capitalism.

Feature Photo

  • Title: Picking cotton, Savannah, Ga., early Negro life
  • Creator(s): Launey & Goebel.,
  • Date Created/Published: Savannah, Georgia : Launey & Goebel Photographers. Dealers in Photo Stocks. 141 & 143 Broughton St., Savannah, Georgia, [between 1867 and 1890]

Published by Jessica M. DeWitt

Dr. Jessica M. DeWitt is an environmental historian of Canada and the United States. She is passionate about the use of digital technologies to bridge the gap between the public and researchers. In addition to her community and professional work, she offers various editing and social media consultancy services.

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