Bastion of Confederate America
Charleston was where the first shots in the American Civil War were fired. Some of the sights associated with it have been preserved and no attempt is made to shy away from historical truths
Lalit Mohan

Until the election two years ago of Nikki Hailey (nee Randhawa) as the governor of South Carolina, the state was, for most Indians, just another blob on the map of the US. In American politics, though, it is known as one of the staunchly conservative states where, as an NRI professor put it, "Some people are still fighting the Civil War."

It is that war which makes the South different from northern, metropolitan America. This was the side that lost the War 150 years ago, but still clings tenaciously to memories of that era. And a city that captures all too well its spirit is Charleston. Travel magazines rate it among the best cities to visit in the country. 

Originally, the pioneers who came here named it Charles Towne, in honour of the then king of England. After they got rid of the British, they changed its name. It saw some fierce battles on land and sea during that struggle, but its role in the Civil War of the 1860s was pre-eminent. South Carolina was the first of the 11 states to secede from the Union. And Charleston was where the first shots in the War were fired. 

The city still has some of its old-world charm that the Southerners guarded so fiercely. But the principle issue in the War was slavery, or abolition thereof. So, some of the sights associated with that abominable practice have been preserved and no attempt is made to shy away from historical truths. One of these is the Slave Market. It is a series of long sheds, and now serves as a souvenir market. It is said to have been a gift from the city to the newly freed Blacks, to give them an outlet to sell goods and make a living. 

Most shops were either resold or leased out. But a few are still run by Gullahs, as the direct descendants of the former slaves are known as. Their language is 'Geechee' and can be linked to the one spoken by people of modern day Sierra Leone whence their ancestors were brought here from as slaves. Gullah folklore, music, beliefs and traditions, all exhibit strong influences of West and Central African cultures. 

The site where the auctions of black slaves took place is known as the Slave Mart Museum. Before the Civil War broke out, public trade in black slaves had been banned, so a private auction house was set up in 1859 at Chalmers Street. Auctions ceased in 1863 and after changing hands several times it was taken over by the City of Charleston in 1988 and converted into a museum, which still displays the 3'x10' platform where the slaves were paraded, their holding barracks and a morgue for those who died before deals could be struck.

The site where the auctions of slaves took place was later converted into a Slave Mart Museum (L) and  A memorial to the defenders of the Confederacy 

Charleston still has some stately homes with long pedigrees, located principally on a sea promenade known as The Battery, which saw fierce action as a defensive wall during the Civil War. Then there is the Rainbow Row, where houses are painted like the colours of Easter eggs. The Ashley and Cooper rivers meet at its harbour and it is here that the now retired aircraft carrier Yorktown is anchored.

This ship has been converted into a naval museum. It featured prominently in the film Tora! Tora! Tora! It was also used for recovery of the Apollo 8 space capsule from the sea, which now sits proudly on its deck. 

Most of downtown Charleston can be covered on foot, but for those who get a little weary there is the horse-drawn buggy. In cities where this mode of transportation is permitted, a bag has to be slung below and behind the posterior of the animal so that, unlike tongas of yore in Indian towns, droppings do not litter the road. The overflow is hosed into the sewer promptly and vigorously. 

A little outside Charleston some of the old plantations have thrown open their gates to visitors-for a fee, of course-to tour their homes, gardens and even swamps. One of them is the Magnolia plantation, owned by the Drayton family since 1676. The vast estate includes cabins of the former Black slaves and with the tour comes a narration of how their lives changed over the years, from before, till after Abolition.

A peculiar feature of the vegetation is the Spanish moss, a dense wispy growth with long slender strands that thrives on southern oak and cypress trees in a hot and humid climate. There is a legend about it. It is said that over 300 years ago the Cherokee Indians, resenting the take-over of their land, cut off the long flowing hair of a beautiful White bride and threw it up an old oak tree. Soon the hair shrivelled and turned grey and spread from tree to tree. In fact, the moss has spread to Georgia, Florida and elsewhere.

The swamp covers 60 acres and is traversed by boardwalks, bridges, and dikes, and features all varieties of local mammals, birds, and reptiles. One can see turtles and alligators basking in the sun in perfect harmony, next to each other.

Fact file 

How to get there: Charleston airport is well connected with all major cities in the US.

When to go: When the north freezes in sub-zero winter, the climate here is milder. Go in springtime (mid-March through May end) if you like to see beautiful azaleas, magnolias, roses, peach blossoms, dogwoods etc. For fall foliage, late September through early-November is the best time.

Where to stay: Chose hotels in the downtown area. Also check out the History Society tours. To visit the plantations take the conducted bus trip. Don't miss the sea food in any of the many restaurants in the harbour.











Stick to your gums

THE milky latex or the chicle resin from the Mexican rain forest trees has been harvested by the chicleros since the late 19th century. This resin is the original ingredient used for making chewing gum and collected from the sapodilla tree. It has been harvested since the ancient Maya ruled the southeastern Yucatan Peninsula.

(1) A chiclero climbs a 30-meter (100-foot) high tree to collect resin. (2) A chiclero cooks (3) then kneads the cooked latex. It will be moulded it into a brick, and sent to the Consorcio's small chewing gum factory. Photos: PEDRO PARDO/AFP

The chicleros are men who dodge poisonous snakes, run into jaguars and climb 30-meter (100-foot) high trees to collect resin. They nearly met their demise when US gum makers switched to synthetic ingredients following World War II.

But the chicleros have made a comeback thanks to Asia's continuing appetite for chicle and soaring demand for the real thing in Europe.

For the past three years, chicleros have produced their own organic chewing gum, selling in more than 15 nations.

The Mayas and the Aztecs are believed to have chewed chicle to clean their teeth and stave off hunger.

The modern chewing gum was created by American scientist Thomas Adams in the 19th century after former Mexican leader Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna introduced him to chicle, hoping to export it as an alternative to rubber.

Since chicle failed as a rubber substitute, Adams decided to turn it into chewing gum, said Jennifer Mathews, author of Chicle. The Chewing Gum of the Americas: From the Ancient Maya to William Wrigley.

Chicle's heyday was during World War II, when US soldiers distributed sticks of gum across the world. There were 20,000 chicleros and 5,000 tons of chicle produced per season at the time.

Its decline came when US companies switched to synthetic ingredients.

The Consorcio Chiclero was created to save the industry after bad management nearly ended chicle production in the early 1990s, with only 1,000 chicleros still climbing trees.

Today around 2,000 chicleros live in small villages like Tres Garantias. They climb several trees in a day and wait hours for the latex to fill a bag at the foot of the tree, producing up to 200 tonnes of chicle per year. Laurent Thomet (AFP)