The plantation buildings
Sugar plantation probably in northern St Kitts, showing the windmill, animal mill and boiling house. Image Reference NW0005, as shown on www.slaveryimages.org sponsored by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and the University of Virginia Library. Courtesy of authors Jerome S Handler and Michael L Tuite Jr.
In addition to the sugar works, which included the mill, boiling house and curing house, plantations had a main house for the plantation owner or often for the manager, and a house and offices for the white overseer and clerks who kept the plantation records. Many estates also had buildings for storing the processed sugar and rum, trash houses for the dried cane (called bagasse), which was used as fuel in the boiling house, and stables for the animals. Some estates also had hospitals (called a ‘hothouse’). Enslaved Africans lived in designated villages located on the estate. The aim of the St Kitts-Nevis Digital Archaeology Initiative is to understand better these villages through the archaeological record.
An 18th century sugar plantation house at Fairview, St Kitts
Most of the main houses had a stone ground floor and timber upper floor. Planters had learned from experience that houses with timber floors were better able to withstand earthquakes or hurricanes than buildings constructed entirely of stone. The houses were designed with wide shades and window shutters to protect against the sun. Inside they had a main hall and bed-chambers, but the houses themselves were not always large; planters often invested more in their factory buildings than their houses. Kitchens were normally separate, to avoid the heat of the fire and the smell of cooking.
View of the colonnaded loggia of the main plantation house at New River, Nevis
The Scottish traveller Janet Schaw stayed at Olivees Plantation, St Kitts, in 1774, which was owned by William Hamilton, a lawyer and prominent member of St Kitts society. Her description of the great house could hardly have presented a greater contrast with the houses of the enslaved labourers:
"The great hall... and every thing in it is superbly fine; the roof lofty, and ornamented in a high degree. It is between fifty and sixty feet long, has eight windows and three doors all glazed; it is finished in Mahogany very well wrought, and the panels finished in with mirrors. This you would believe would render the heat unsupportable, which its situation however prevents, as it stands pretty high up Mount Misery, which yields a cool and delightful shade to the back part of the house, while the front has the sea, shipping, town and a great part of the Island in prospect, and the constant sea-breeze renders it most agreeable. The drawing room and bed-chambers are entirely fitted up and furnished in the English taste, ...this is esteemed the finest house on any of the Islands" Andrews and Andrews 1921, 124
By the later 18th century many plantation owners did not live in the islands but had returned to England, such as John Pinney, the owner of Mountravers on Nevis, who returned to a new house in Bristol, with his slave Pero as his personal servant. Thomas Beauchamp, whose slave Myrtilla is buried in Oxhill churchyard in Warwickshire was possibly another planter who returned to England with one of his enslaved workers. Some planters employed managers or attorneys to look after their property. Often managers were less careful than the owner with the plantation, the crops and the enslaved workers. Plantation owners frequently complained that managers were ill-treating slaves, allowing the plantation to fall into disrepair, and spending money on fine living themselves.
Grave of Myrtilla, an enslaved African woman, belonging to Thomas Beauchamp, buried in 1706 at Oxhill, Warwickshire, UK