Plundering Charleston

I’m not a massive history buff. Ok, I’m not even a moderate history buff, but there is one particular historical period (and specific geographic location) that I’m pretty obsessed with: the first quarter of the 18th Century in the North Atlantic – The Golden Age of Piracy. I won’t lie… I’m pretty sure the fascination was sparked as a 5-year old on the Pirates of The Caribbean ride at Disneyland Paris, but it was cemented during a trip to St Lucia about 10 years later when we sailed on replica pirate ship Brig Unicorn to the Grenadines and back, cutting silently through the waves and watching through the rigging as the April sun went down on the open Caribbean sea while muscular men scaled the masts and provided everybody with rum. I thought it was paradise and, as the adults sipped their drinks, happily got lost in my own thoughts of high seas adventures, swashbuckling, and a bit of Johnny Depp.

As a pirate enthusiast (yes, I know they were barbarians, I just like the history okay), I like to treat myself once a week to an episode of the Amazon TV series Black Sails, which is set in around 1715 – slap bang in the middle of the aforementioned Golden Age – and is a jolly entertaining (although not for the faint of heart) watch. One particularly bleak episode sees, in an elaborate plot to liberate one of their own from the gallows, our pirate “heroes” all but destroy a settlement in the British colony of Carolina. Because of like, books and stuff, I was familiar with this settlement and the role it played in the politics/piracy of that period, and it was probably on my radar for a visit at some point… but seeing its Golden Age waterfront brought back to life in all its piratey glory was the clincher, and I knew I had to go. ASAP. As fate would have it, I soon found myself in the situation of needing to get from New Orleans to DC but not being in any particular hurry. The British-governed Carolina may be long-gone, but the US state of South Carolina is totally now a thing and is, very conveniently, pretty much bang slap in the middle of these two cities. Many hours at the back of a coach (plus a whistle-stop tour of downtown Atlanta) later, and the settlement that was once a hot-spot of plundering and thievery is now mine to explore for three days. Hello Charleston.


It is a short bus ride from my hotel in Mount Pleasant to the centre of Charleston, but because I pulled an all-nighter the night before last night on my way from NOLA, I woke up pretty late today and so didn’t arrive in the city until about 1pm. Not a problem though.  I have a guide book and really fast legs, which means I’ll totally be able to see all of Charleston’s historic attractions before sundown.

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We’re starting in the North and working our way down to the southern waterfront. Up this end there’s a couple of museums and also a visitor centre, which do sound interesting… but the weather is way too nice to spend any time inside. There’s a couple of nice historic houses up here too. First up is the Aiken-Rhett House. This mansion is classic 1820s architecture, and was home to Governor of South Carolina, William Aiken. It’s fully restored, and you can walk around inside for a small fee, but the 1800s are a bit modern for my tastes, and to be honest I’m more interested in the Rhetts than the Aikens (it’s hard to even work out if the Miss Rhett that married Governor Aiken is even related to Col. William Rhett, legendary pirate hunter, also of Charleston fame), so we’ll just look at the nice architecture and move on.

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Next is the Joseph Manigault House, notable for deviating from the classic architectural style of houses in the early 1800s. Again, it’s a nice building to look at, but I had no idea who Joseph Manigault was before today, so will just take a walk through the beautifully manicured grounds, imagine the parties I could throw if this was my pad, and continue on our tour.

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I head south down King Street towards the historic center. Incidentally, today is the one day a month where they pedestrianise the whole street, and the place is buzzing. If you can judge a city by the appearance of its main shopping street (and I like to think you can), we’re on to a winner here.

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On my way down, I take a brief detour to see the grounds of Charleston College, as I don’t like to pass up an opportunity to walk around the campus of an American University. This one was predictably beautiful – masonry washed in pink, green shutters, and shady trees. Delightfully tropical-looking.

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Turning left at luxury hotel complex Charleston Place, we come to Market Hall – Charleston’s historic market complex. Built in the 1790s, it’s a 4-block-long building full of stalls and food joints and stuff. Kind of like Boston’s Quincy Market but older and cuter. And it’s actually not squint, as the terrible photo I took would suggest…

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We’ve switched to Meeting Street now, Charleston’s other main North-South thoroughfare, and continuing South is the lovely Circular Congregational Church. Very churchy and circular. This specific building was built in 1890, but used bricks from previous versions, and its congregation was apparently established way back in 1681 by a nice combination of English Congregationalists, Scots Presbyterians, and French Huguenots. How splendidly ecumenical.

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Next on our historic jaunt is this wee beauty. Yeah, you may think it’s about as impressive as your neighbour’s garden shed, but this happens to be the oldest public building in North Carolina. The fact that it’s called the Powder Magazine and was built in 1713, are clues that its origins lie nice and close to pirate territory. In fact, the building was authorised as part of Carolina’s fortifications for Queen Anne’s War, the North American theatre of the balance-of-power shitstorm that ensued after the death of Spain’s last Hapsburg monarch – poor, inbred, childless Charles II. The war sucked in the main European powers and their North American colonies, but none of the countries involved had navies large enough to participate in a conflict of this scale… So they all resorted to dabbling in a spot of privateering, or “legalised piracy”. If you owned a nice big boat, you could apply to the government for letters of marque, which basically authorised you and your crew to plunder whichever vessels of enemy nations you happen to stumble upon. Thousands of sailors signed up for this lucrative business, and by the time peace was finally reached, it was a fine line for the now-unemployed men to cross between not-so-well-mannered privateering and full on piracy. Cross it they did, and the Golden Age of Piracy was born. Splendid.

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St. Phillips Church is next, and is one of only two churches in the United States to ever have been used as a lighthouse, its tower having doubled as a beacon to guide ships into Charleston’s harbour for many years. #FactOfTheDay

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We’re now in the old part of the city and it’s just SO DAMN QUAINT. Are we even still in America? I feel they should ban cars from streets that are this pretty so that we can all just pretend it’s still 1725 and let the gas lamps guide us back home from the pub.

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Tootling about the cute little streets in this area takes us to the heart of the French Quarter and their Huguenot Church – and with it the revelation that whitewashed Gothic Revival and palm trees really do go well together.

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We soon discover that palm trees go nicely with blue buildings too.

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My trusty guide book is now telling me to stop heading south for a bit and to instead head east towards the sea. Here we experience the delights of Waterfront Park, with its lovely fountain…

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… and scenic views out over some nice marshland, a row of palm trees, and some well-manicured grass. I’m almost tempted to sit on one of those benches, but I have 17 more buildings to admire and there’s only so many hours in the day.

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Speaking of buildings, just south of Waterfront Park is the Old Exchange Building, which has a nice dungeon you can tour if your holiday plans don’t include trying to absorb as much sunlight as possible. Mine do, so no dungeoning for me. This building wasn’t built until the 1770s, so it missed all the cool pirates anyway. It did hold confiscated tea during the American Revolution, though, so if that’s the thrill you’re after, definitely check it out.

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Back in the French Quarter, next up is an awkward reminder of how horrible our ancestors were. Charleston’s Slave Mart was established in 1856, conveniently AFTER the city banned public slave auctions and the poor folks of Charleston had to satisfy their all of their human-purchasing needs through the good old private sector. It’s now a museum. So at least we can learn about such obscenities. It’s not open right now though, so I guess I’ll have to Wikipedia it all later.

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Moving on to more cheerful buildings, and what is more cheerful than a wee pink house? This pink house is called the Pink House, and is one of the oldest buildings in the state. More importantly, however, is that legend has it that the father of bad-ass pirate Anne Bonny owned and ran a tavern/inn in the building, and that Bonny herself came back to work here after her mysterious disappearance from prison in Jamaica. Now it’s an art gallery, but it’s also closed right now.. I think that’s the theme of the day.

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The next building we come to is Hibernian Hall, notable for its use during the 1860 Democratic Convention, which itself is notable for being the event at which the Democratic Party couldn’t make its mind up about whether it disliked slavery or not, and so failed to nominate a presidential candidate, paving the way for good old Lincoln and the anti-slavery Republican Party to win the election, prompting seven slave-holding states to secede and form the Confederacy, which ultimately spawned some sort of civil war or something. No biggie.

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Moving swiftly on and continuing on our southern heading, we come to this nice Greek Revival specimen. Built in the 1750s, St Michael’s Episcopal Church is the oldest surviving Church in the city. It’s uh… white, and it has a steeple, and a clock and… I’ve seen a lot of churches today and I’m running out of descriptive words. It’s very nice, though.

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A spot more walking, plus a near-miss with a horse-drawn carriage, and we arrive at a house which has seem a fair few political heavyweights cross its threshold. The residence was owned by Declaration of Independence signatory Thomas Heyward Junior, and George Washington himself stayed there during his visit to Charleston. If I was Heyward, I’d probably be a bit miffed that G Wash stayed there for one single week and still gets his name on the stationery. But whatever. Bookshelf enthusiasts, this is your stop, as inside are apparently some of the finest specimens of American-made colonial furniture.

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I swear to God, this is the last church of the day. And I’m only including it because it’s a Scottish church, and I’m Scottish. If I had emigrated to Charleston in the early 1700s, this is no doubt where I would have done my talking to the Lord. Oh, who am I kidding? If I was anywhere near Charleston in the 1700s I would probably have been a rum-soaked pirate plundering Spanish galleons for Aztec gold, miles beyond redemption and quite without need or want of any Presbyterian services. It’s still a nice church though. It has a bell called Bonnie.

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In Charleston, it is customary to coordinate the painting of your house and car. Bonus Bourgeois points if you have the matching iPhone cover.

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We have now reached the southern shore of the Charleston Peninsula, and the start of the Battery, the city’s iconic sea wall slash promenade. Of all the sights I’ve seen today, this residential street was the one that made it on to the front of my guide book. And with good reason. These are houses and then some. Right along the waterfront, mansion after mansion, all unique, all massive, all completely stunning.

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Can we talk about some of these bloomin’ houses, please?

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Who even lives in these palaces? This person has an outdoor ceiling fan. What.

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And as if the houses weren’t desirable enough based on their architectural merit, there’s also the view. Yeah, THIS freaking view. You can practically see Queen Anne’s Revenge and the rest of Blackbeard’s flotilla anchored at the mouth of the lagoon, waiting to pounce on unsuspecting ships carrying prominent Charleston citizens so that they might be ransomed in exchange for medical supplies (true story).

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So yep, Charleston is super cute. It’s filled to the gunnels (appropriate nautical metaphor high-five) with historic buildings and quaint cobbled streets and it boasts Golden Age of Piracy tales that are up there with those of Nassau, Port Royal, and perhaps even Tortuga. Also the weather is stunning. Conclusion: As soon as I have a spare $5 million I am buying me a big-ass mansion on the Battery, and getting me a hammock and a rum cellar. Actually, I’d even move here in my current impoverished state as long as I could sit on a bench in Waterfront Park once a week,  stare out at the water and dream of Jack Sparrow.

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