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Caribbean uncovered

30 July 2002

In recent years there has been an important change of emphasis in Archaeological research towards documenting the 'Modern' world. Mark Horton and Dan Hicks from the University's Department of Archaeology describe the new 'historical archaeology' through their search for early English settlements in the Caribbean.

The study of buildings and artefacts, or the environmental record left by man, can provide a vivid insight into the organization of ancient societies, from the beginnings of mankind to the great civilisations of the ancient world. The core of archaeology has long focused upon prehistory or the civilisations of Greece and Rome, Egypt and the Near East, and archaeologists have developed methodologies which provide scientifically-based ways of understanding this past. But more recently, the combination of new methods of survey, excavation and recovery, with scientific analysis of recovered materials and the physical remains of humans, provides insights into ancient societies that were not considered ten years ago. A consequence of this is that archaeologists now increasingly ask – why stop at prehistory or medieval societies, when these same methodologies are as relevant to the much more recent past? At Bristol we have particularly focused on the origins of the ‘Modern’ world and are developing a series of linked projects designed to understand the last 500 years of our past.

The plantation ‘revolution’ was closely linked to the industrial revolution, which saw the beginnings of many institutions such as banking, insurance and industrial companies

A central element of this research is the use of both archaeological and documentary sources to conduct ‘historical archaeology’. Over the last two years our research has centred on the island cultures of the Eastern Caribbean, particularly St Kitts and St Lucia. We have rich archival material covering the last 400 years, although anyone working in the Caribbean has to reckon with the loss of many archives through war, fire and paper-eating insects.

The islands are not of particular economic importance nowadays, but from the seventeenth to the early nineteenth centuries they generated huge wealth, based upon plantations worked largely by slaves. This plantation ‘revolution’ was closely linked to the industrial revolution, and saw the beginnings of many institutions such as banking, insurance and industrial companies. The plantations mainly produced sugar and a range of other tropical crops such as tobacco, coffee and cocoa. A large number of the fine eighteenth-century houses in Bristol were owned by merchants who either supplied these plantations with slaves and hardware or derived profits from the produce.

Working with the St Christopher Heritage Society, in 2001 we undertook a detailed three-week survey of a surviving but heavily ruined sugar factory known as the Wingfield Estate on the island of St Kitts. Sugar was still grown around the estate until the end of 2001 when the island finally abandoned production after some 350 years. The Wingfield factory had ceased working around 1911 when a centralized factory was built in the south of the island and the cane was transported there on a narrow gauge railway. Our archaeological survey demonstrated that this was one of the oldest and longest-operating industrial sites in the Caribbean. It was the only water-powered sugar mill on the island, with a sophisticated aqueduct to supply the water and elaborate arrangements to boil and refine the sugar. The mill itself dates from around 1700, but it is the earlier history of the site which is of particular importance.

St Kitts became the first permanent English settlement in the Caribbean, when Sir Thomas Warner established a community at Old Road in 1624. There had been a number of previous ill-fated attempts to settle the islands and the northern coast of South America, most famously by Sir Walter Raleigh, but as far as we know, none survived for more than a few years. St Kitts was different, with a well protected anchorage and, for the crucial first few years, peaceful relations with the Carib ruler,Tegreman, until the English were sufficiently secure to murder him “in his hammacco”, probably in 1627. The first settlers acquired crops from the Indians, and were soon cultivating manioc and sweet potato, as well as crops for export such sugar, tobacco, indigo and cotton. After a few years, they moved out from this pioneer community to other islands.

Our archaeological survey demonstrated that this was one of the oldest and longest-operating industrial sites in the Caribbean

The present small village of Old Road is a rather run down affair, but it contains a number of seventeenth-century stone and brick houses, as well as traces of a fort, and the original township retains its basic plan, as shown on earlier maps. The Wingfield Estate lies half a mile inland, adjacent to the only perennial river on the island, known as the Wingfield or Black River. It was an ideal location for an early European settlement as it lay out of reach of cannon fire and pirates from the sea, and away from the beach with its sand flies and mosquitoes. It was here Sir Thomas Warner chose for his first plantation and residence. It was assumed to have long since disappeared.

Remarkably, we were able to locate an estate map of 1682 held in a collection in New York. It showed in detail a square enclosure with a timber-framed house with a tower at its corner, cattle mill, tobacco fields and a long, open-fronted shed. It appeared that the map was drawn up during acquisition of the estate by Christopher Jeaffreson (an ancestor of the more famous Thomas Jefferson) and at first we assumed it to be rather schematic. By following leases and occasional first-hand descriptions, it seemed probable that the enclosure and house on the 1682 map actually represented Warner’s original Governor Residence of 1624 – the first in the Caribbean and one of the earliest in the Americas. It was very like other early seventeenth-century pioneer enclosures found in North America, suggesting that our tentative conclusions were correct. If this identification was right, then this building represented the beginning of permanent English settlement in the New World.

The survey of the landscape was a major part of our project, and it was only when we had mapped the landscape with a theodolite that we noticed that the 1682 map was not as schematic as we had first thought. The Wingfield River on the plan had the same number of bends and could be exactly compared to our survey (and differed from the official map which had been drawn up from aerial photographs!). We soon realised that the square enclosure actually survived on the ground just as it was shown on the plan, but as a very low wall, and in the cellar of a later plantation house.

The Governor’s Residence of 1624 represents the beginning of English settlement in the New World

Excavations in the cellar soon uncovered the corner tower, built of stone, and the post holes of the original timber-framed house. Pottery was typically seventeenth century earthenwares. The open-fronted shed – possibly used for drying tobacco – was also largely intact although disguised as a stable, while the cattle mill had been turned into a garden ornament. Indeed, the entire complex was present, looking very similar to that shown on the 1682 map, with some of the walls surviving up to two metres in height. What had survived at Wingfield was probably the earliest English masonry building in the New World, and an archaeological sequence that documented the full history of the plantation economy from 1624 until 2001.

The archaeological investigations of these plantations in the Eastern Caribbean normally offered though a study of the documents alone. It gives a voice to those often ignored or invisible in the historical record, such as slaves and indentured servants. We are able to locate their settlements and houses, and recover the material culture. Excavation of slave cemeteries provides material to study diet and disease. We are also able to look at long-term change, often ignored by historians, who frequently focus on particular eras. Thus we can see a series of transitions – the first pioneer settlers, experiments on how to profit from the tropical environment, the introduction of slavery, the investments in machines, the changes created by the abolition of slavery, centralisation of production and the ending of sugar production.

Dr Mark Horton / Department of Archaeology

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