Slave villages in St Kitts

The site of the slave village at Hermitage, St Kitts

A team of British archaeologists studied the slave villages in two areas of St Kitts in 2004 and 2005, using the detailed McMahon map to locate the sites. The team, Jon Brett and Rob Philpott, with colleagues Lorraine Darton and Eleanor Leech, surveyed a number of sugar plantations in the parishes of St Mary Cayon and Christ Church Nichola Town.

They found that the locations of slave villages shared some common features. They were usually close enough to the main house and plantation works that they could be seen from the house. This allowed the owner or manager to keep an eye on his enslaved workforce, while also reinforcing the inferior social status of the enslaved.

The villages were located carefully with respect to the plantation works and main house. On the St Kitts plantations, the slave villages were usually located downwind of the main house from the prevailing north-easterly wind. In the mid-18th century Reverend William Smith described a similar scene when characterising the location of the slave villages on Nevis;

"They live in Huts, on the Western Side of our Dwelling-Houses, so that every Plantation resembles a small Town". The location meant that "we breathe the pure Eastern Air, without being offended with the least nauseous smell: Our Kitchens and Boyling-houses are on the same side, and for the same reason". Smith 1745, 225-6; cited in Mason 1993, 126

In 1724 Father Labat drew his idealised design for an estate layout based on his 12 years' experience of managing an estate on the French island of Martinique. His design shows one or two rows of slave houses set downwind of the estate house. They are close to the animal enclosures, so the labourers could keep watch over the livestock, and set below the plantation house which stands on a small hill. (Watts 1978, 386)

In the St Kitts plantations, the slave villages were usually located downwind of the main house from the prevailing north-easterly wind. Villages were often located on the edge of the estate lands or in places that were difficult to cultivate such as areas near the edge of the deep guts or gullies. Placing them in these locations ensured that they did not take up valuable cane-growing land. At the Hermitage the slave village stood beside the high sea-cliff, and was marked by a boundary bank, which perhaps originally supported a fence or hedge. Others lay in the base of valleys, such as The Spring, beside a much steeper gut or gully, where access for laden carts of sugar cane was difficult.

The site of the slave village at the Spring, St Kitts

We found no architectural trace however of the houses at any of the slave villages. Not surprisingly, the remains of wooden huts, with thatched roofs, would in any case leave few traces on the surface. However, possible platforms where houses may have stood have been observed at Ottley's and the Hermitage within the areas shown on the McMahon map as slave villages in 1828.

After emancipation, many newly freed labourers moved away from the plantations, emigrating or setting up new homes as squatters on abandoned estate land. The movement of emancipated slave populations and establishment of new villages away from the old plantation lands suggest that some slave villages were abandoned soon after emancipation; others may have remained in use for the labourers who chose to stay on the plantation as paid workers and rented their house and land.

The first village for newly free labourers, Challenger's on St Kitts, was set up in 1840 when a customs officer John Challenger sold or rented small lots out of a tract of land to newly free labourers. Other villages were established on steep unused land, often in the deep guts, which were unsuitable for cultivation, such as Ottley's or Lodge villages in St Kitts. (Dyde 2005, 158-9)

Main street of Challenger's, the first post-emancipation village in St Kitts