GEORGE GABRIEL POWELL
THE FIRST SPEAKER OF SOUTH CAROLINA
George Gabriel Powell died in Charleston, South Carolina, on 21st January 1779, his passing mourned with the reverence due an honoured citizen. Three years previously, South Carolina had thrown off the British yolk, and since the first session of its independent Legislative Council, George Gabriel Powell had served as its Speaker. Even today, his prominence in the extra-legal committee system, so important to the American independence movement, is mentioned in specialist literature. Only the Biographical Directory of the South Carolina House of Representatives mentions that he had been exiled from St Helena for misappropriation of fluids.
On St Helena, a tiny island in the South Atlantic then owned by the East India Company, the name Powell had long been synonymous with misery and greed. By marrying several widows and acquiring their land and livestock, his father, Gabriel Powell, had become the wealthiest and most despised planter on the island. One of the widows he married died when she miscarried after trying to protect her two young children from him, and in 1704 he had been fined forty shillings for whipping his eight-year-old slave boy until his back was raw, then throwing him into a bed of nettles. The young lad had fallen into convulsions and died.
George Gabriel Powell was a chip off the old block. He once flew into a rage because he disliked a wig made for him. Using his authority as governor of St Helena, he ordered a slave to give the unfortunate wigmaker fifty lashes upon his bare buttocks. Powell sat in the room and looked on. His rise to power came within three years of his appointment as 4th-in-council, at a time when the then-governor and deputy were defrauding the East India Company. Left out of a share of the profits, he had informed the directors in London. The Honourable Masters, as the directors were known, sent out an interim governor for one year to investigate the claims, and when his replacement lived only four months, George Gabriel Powell was appointed governor.
For the two years he ruled St Helena, from 1742 to 1744, Powell's fraudulence far exceeded those of his predecessors. He took possession of a goat range belonging to the company and appropriated company farms, using the timber, lime, stone and company slaves to construct a mansion on his estate, the expenses charged to the building of fortifications. The slaves were forced to carry loads along a terrain so steep that today a climbing rope is recommended for part of the route. If they did not return to work before daylight, they were flogged. With no time to return to their families at night, they slept by the roadsides.
The Honourable Masters heard of his impropriety and sent out yet another governor to make enquiries. Giving full security to meet the company's claims, George Gabriel Powell was dismissed from service and shipped to England. For many years his unfinished mansion would stand on St Helena as a monument to his cruelty and avarice. Never again would the East India Company appoint a local man as governor.
Powell's disgrace was short-lived. In 1749, only five years later, he was Deputy Secretary of the Province of South Carolina, his landholdings totalling 3500 acres. From 1751 onwards, he represented various parishes in the South Carolina Royal Assembly, the colonial government presided over by a British-appointed governor.
As dissatisfaction with British rule grew, Powell cast his lot with the dissidents. He and other government members became active in the independence movement, using their inside information and expertise to sabotage the colonial government, governing instead by executive and extra-legal committees. The first extra-legal committee was elected in December 1773 at a crowded protest meeting in the Great Hall of the Exchange Building in Charleston. The issue was the Tea Act taxes, and so frenzied was the enthusiasm that the supporting timbers of the crowded Great Hall began to crack. A month later the committee expanded to the Committee of Ninety-Nine. George Gabriel Powell was its chairman and it became the defacto government of South Carolina.
In July 1774, a three-day meeting was held to elect delegates to the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia. Co-chaired by Powell, it was reported as 'such an example of pure democracy as has rarely been seen since the days of the Ancient city republics.' Formal ratification of the appointments was a masterpiece of Powell cunning. In his double capacity as chairman of the Royal Assembly, he arranged for the Commons House to assemble much earlier than their regular hour of 9.00 a.m., sending two members to perform the traditional task of informing the royal governor that the house had assembled 'agreeable to His Honour the Lt. Governor's prorogation'. As members knew would be the case, the elderly Governor Bull was asleep. The letter if not the spirit of the law having been satisfied, chairman Powell proposed that the appointments and £1500 (sterling) to defray expenses be confirmed and ratified.
The Committee of Ninety-Nine developed a network of extra-legal committees in villages and parishes throughout South Carolina. There were local committees on correspondence, on observation and inspection, and 'committees of safety' to implement the resolutions of the Provincial and Continental congresses. The South Carolina Provincial Congress, of which Powell was a member, grew so bold that it physically took over the colony's State House. Governor Bull and other royal officials were virtual prisoners, their mail read by extra-legal committees. Governor Bull fled the colony in September 1775.
The following year the South Carolina Provincial Congress declared itself to be the First General Assembly, and the honour fell to George Gabriel Powell to serve as the Legislative Council's first Speaker. After his death three years later, several South Carolina delegates became founding fathers of America, and the South Carolina committee system became the model for standing committees now used throughout the world.
A hero of American Independence?
A sadist and thief? How do we judge George Gabriel Powell?