Slave houses in St Kitts and Nevis

Detail of a watercolour painting attributed to Lieutenant James Lees dated c1795, showing slave villages near Brimstone Hill, St Kitts. Courtesy of the Brimstone Hill Fortress National Park Society, St Kitts, West Indies.

No slave houses survive in St Kitts and Nevis, and very few in the Americas as a whole. The houses of the enslaved Africans were far less durable than the stone and timber buildings of European plantation owners. Therefore documents provide our two main sources of information on slave houses. The first type consists of accounts from travel writers or former residents of the West Indies from the 17th and 18th centuries who describe slave houses that they saw in the Caribbean; the second are contemporary illustrations of slave housing. In recent years, a third source of information, archaeology, has begun to contribute to our understanding.

Slave houses in Nevis were described as 'composed of posts in the ground, thatched around the sides and upon the roof, with boarded partitions'. They were little more than huts, with a single storey and thatched with cane trash. In the inventory of property lost in the French raid on St Kitts in February 1706 they were generally valued at as little as £2 each.

Few illustrations survive of slave villages in St Kitts and Nevis. A series of watercolour paintings by Lieutenant Lees, dated to the 1780s are one exception. His paintings mainly depict the British fort on Brimstone Hill, but also show groups of slave houses. One painting illustrates a slave village near the foot of Brimstone Hill. The eighteen visible huts of the village are arranged in no particular order within a stone-walled enclosure, which is surrounded by cane fields on three sides. The houses have hipped roofs, thickly thatched with cane trash. A striking feature of the village area is the dense mass of bushes and trees, including coconut palms. Another slave village stands beside a fenced compound, connected with the fort. However, as this village may have been associated with the garrison of the fort it may not have been typical  of villages at sugar plantations.

Map of Clarke's estate map, Nevis, dated early 19th century (courtesy of Nevis HCS)

The estate map of Clarke's estate in Nevis, dated early 19th century, shows a slave village on a strip of land between a road on one side and a steep ravine on the other. The village contains eighteen small huts, each with the door in the narrow end, set at roughly equal distances, some with ridged garden plots beside them.

The slave houses of the 18th century show a close resemblance to the late 19th century wooden houses with thatched roofs that appear in the earliest photographs of rural houses in St Kitts.

While the historic pictures provide us with some useful information, they tell us little of the people who inhabited the houses, the furniture and fittings in the interior, and the materials from which they were built. For details such as these we have to turn to written records from other islands and to the evidence of archaeology  - The Digital Archaeological Archive of Comparative Slavery.