Slave houses elsewhere in the Caribbean
Interior of a slave hut on Barbados, published in 1820 by John Augustine Waller.
Contemporary pictures of slave villages drawn by visitors or residents in the Caribbean show that slave houses often consisted of small rectangular huts. Several descriptions survive from the island of Barbados. The German noble Heinrich von Uchteritz who was captured in battle in England and sold to a planter in Barbados in 1652 described houses of the enslaved Africans on the island. They were no more than small cabins or huts, "none above six foot square" and "built of inferior wood, almost like dog huts, and covered with leaves from trees which they call plantain, which is very broad and almost shelf-like and serves very well against rain" (Bridenbaugh and Bridenbaugh 1972, 119). At that time the Black slaves did not sleep in hammocks but on boards laid on the dirt floor. They had their own gardens in which they grew yams, maize and other food, and were allowed to keep chickens to provide eggs for their children (Bridenbaugh and Bridenbaugh 1972, 119). Their houses were little different from those of the white servants at the time.
Slave houses in Barbados have been described as;
"...consisting most frequently of wattle or stick huts, which were roofed with palm thatch. Furnishings within were always sparse and crude, most occupants sleeping in hammocks, or on the earth floor." (Watts 1978, 193).
Another description of houses paints a similar picture;
"the architecture... is so rudimentary as it is simple. A roof of plantain-leaves with a few rough boards, nailed to the coarse pillars which support it, form the whole building." (Carrington 2002, 148)
Huts like this needed constant maintenance and frequent replacement.
Conditions for enslaved Africans changed for the better from the late 18th century onwards. The Amelioration Act of 1798 improved conditions for slaves, forcing plantation owners to provide clothes, food, medical treatment and basic education, as well as prohibiting severe and cruel punishment. Slaves were also not allowed to work more than 14 hours a day. In part the Act was a response to the increasingly powerful arguments of abolitionists. However, it was also in the planters' own interests to avoid slave rebellions as well as to avoid the need to transport fresh slaves from Africa by increasing the birth rate amongst the existing enslaved population through better living standards. As a result housing for the enslaved workers was improved towards the end of the 18th century. In Barbados for example, the houses on some plantations were upgraded to wooden cabins covered with shingles (thin wooden tiles) and placed in a common yard to encourage family relations to develop (Carrington 2002, 148). In Jamaica too some planters improved slave housing at this time, reorganising the villages into regularly planned layouts, and building stone or shingled houses for their workforce. (Higman 1998)
A picture published in 1820 by John Augustine Waller, shows slave huts on Barbados. They are small low rectangular, one room structures, under roofs thatched with leaves. One hut is cut away to reveal the inside. It shows the enslaved couple with their sparse belongings. They have a pair of drinking glasses and a bottle on the table. A hat hangs on the wall, a group of large pots stands on a shelf and there is a small bed in the corner.
By the late 18th century Bryan Edwards drew on his own experience as a British planter in Jamaica to describe 'cottages' of the enslaved workforce. As Edwards was a staunch supporter of the slave trade, his descriptions of the slave houses and villages present a somewhat rosy picture. The houses measured 15 to 20 feet long and had two rooms. They were built with posts driven into the ground, wattle and daub walls, and rooms thatched with palm leaves. The floors were of beaten earth and a fire was lit at night in the middle of one room. He describes the possessions of the enslaved couple;
"...of furniture they have not great matters to boast, nor, considering their habits of life, is much required. The bedstead is a platform of boards, and the bed a mat covered with a blanket; a small table; two or three low stools; an earthen jar for holding water; a few smaller ones; a pail; an iron pot; calabashes [hollowed out gourds] of different sizes (serving very tolerably for plates, dishes and bowls) make up the rest". Edwards 1793 II, 126
Enslaved domestic workers or craftsmen had larger houses, with boarded floors, and;
"...a few have even good beds, linen sheets, and musquito nets, and display a shelf or two of plates and dishes of Queen's or Staffordshire ware." Edwards 1793 II, 127)
Enslaved workers who lived and worked close to the owner's household were in the position to receive rewards or gifts of money or other items. John Pinney on Nevis gave his boilers check shirts if the sugar was good, while enslaved women who gave birth were presented with baby linen (Pares 1950, 132). The enslaved labourers could also purchase goods in the market place, through the sale of livestock, produce from their provision grounds or gardens, or craft items they had manufactured.
Archaeology is often the only way to recover detailed information on the possessions of the enslaved workers, since the items were rarely recorded in documents. Archaeology can reveal their tools and domestic vessels and utensils, such as ceramic pots. It can also provide insight into their leisure activities, such as smoking and gaming represented by clay tobacco pipes or marbles. Finally it can also provide information on their dress and fashions, through the recovery and analysis of items such as dress fittings, buttons and beads. For information on artefacts from slave villages investigated in the SKNDAI project, see New River, Jessups and Spring artefacts.