Tuesday, 26 January 2021

Mission Impossible: Reverend Francis LeJau in South Carolina

"There is one thing wherein I find the people here generally like those in the West Indies, they are so well persuaded that what they do is well, as to be very angry when their mistakes are shown to them and they will find cunning arguments to oppose truth itself." Francis Le Jau, 1709

Francis Le Jau was a French Huguenot who fled to England c. 1685 to escape religious persecution under Louis XIV. After his arrival, he was educated at Trinity College, Dublin, earning a doctorate. He then became an Anglican minister. 

The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (SPG), founded in 1701, sent him to St. Christopher in the West Indies and then to South Carolina as a missionary. (Image: portrait of Le Jau, by Henrietta Johnston)

Le Jau arrived in Charleston (then Charles Town) in 1706. He was 41 years old and in good health. The colony, slightly younger, was not. The colonists had just driven off a combined French and Spanish attack, and were expecting another soon. Anglicans and Protestant Dissenters were feuding with one another over an act making the Church of England the established religion in the Carolina colony, which then included what is now North Carolina. [Image: A View of Charleston in 1773]. 

In addition, Charleston was suffering from a deadly epidemic of yellow fever. Samuel Thomas, the first and thus far only SPG missionary to have come to the colony, was among the hundreds of dead. Local officials whisked Le Jau away to his rural parish, St. James, Goose Creek, to escape the pestilence. 

Despite this grim beginning, Le Jau was optimistic. People had told them new arrivals commonly experienced a bout of sickness during the warm season of their first year of residence. They called it the "seasoning," as if one was being preserved like a piece of meat. 

"When I am seasoned to the country, I hope I'll do well," he wrote his SPG superiors in London. In the winter months, he proclaimed, the climate was the finest he had ever experienced, pleasant and productive. The people were prosperous and generous.

With the advance of summer, the tone of his reports to London began to alter. He suffered his first bout of fever, probably malaria. His family arrived that summer and all became sick. 

At first, he blamed the seasoning, and anticipated a speedy recovery of health. Instead, he remained seriously ill for more than a year with fevers and fluxes (dysentery or severe diarrhea). For months he was unable to perform his clerical duties.

Notes of disillusionment crept into his letters. His disappointment extended to his neighbors. They were not the good Christian folk he had at first thought, but consumed by greed. They would "do any thing for money." They treated their  enslaved Africans and "Indians" (many of whom they had also enslaved) barbarously. The colonists fomented conflicts among the various tribes and then bought war captives as slaves. 

The mistreatment of the Native Americans led to the Yamasee War in 1715, during which an alliance of several tribes nearly destroyed the young colony. They attacked Le Jau's Goose Creek parish, and he and many of his neighbors fled to safety in Charleston.

Le Jau's animosity towards his neighbors deepened when his white neighbors failed to help him in his time of need. Few had honored pledges to supplement his meager income, or to finish building him a house and a church. After six years it was still unfinished. [Image: St. James, Goose Creek]

"They deceived me more than I can dare say," he wrote to the SPG, and he urged them to inform other missionaries coming to Carolina to be warned that they "must be prepared to suffer great hardships and crosses."

For ten years, Le Jau was plagued by fevers, fluxes, and other diseases. In August 1716, he was attacked with a fever and digestive disorder that confined him to bed for months. In March 1717, he reported that he expected to die soon. His body was "worn out with labour in this sickly and desolate country." He died a few months later in the Carolina Lowcountry's cruelest month, September. 

Le Jau did not understand all of the connections between South Carolina's economic system and its deadly disease environment, particularly that between disease, enslavement of Africans, and rice production. 

Yet he sensed the root of the problem: "This would be a pleasant place if men were but willing to make themselves easy and improve the fruitful soil where anything grows without much trouble ... but they all aim at riches which are hard to be got and they neglect the peace of their conscience and life."


Frank J. Klingberg, ed., The Carolina Chronicle of Francis Le Jau (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1956)

Papers of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, London (Microfilm copies available in many academic libraries; a treasure for historians of colonial America)

Peter McCandless, Slavery, Disease, and Suffering in the Southern Lowcountry (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011, pbk, 2014)

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