Excavating slavery on Nevis and St Kitts

Section of the 1755 plat of the Jessups estate showing the early slave village on the right and the later village pencilled in to the left of the ghut

The St Kitts-Nevis Digital Archaeology Initiative set out to explore several key questions related to the short and long term strategies invented by enslaved people in the Caribbean to survive enslavement and the relationship between these strategies and those used by the people who owned them.

A potter with the Nevis Pottery building outdoor kiln, June 2008

The first set of questions relates to the changes in the location and density of slave settlement relative to the other elements of the plantation landscape, such as the sugar works, the cane fields, and overseer's house. For example, a 1757 estate plat for the Jessup's estate suggests a shift in the location of slave houses from an area of potentially productive cane production near the boiling house and mill to a more marginal landscape nestled against a ghut. Did this shift really occur? If it did, it might indicate a small increase in autonomy for village residents. Was a settlement shift accompanied by change in village size? Did it affect the number of people in a household? And did a shift change the materials used in constructing individual dwellings? Only archaeological investigations can answer these questions.

Firing of the kiln, June 2008

A second set of questions revolves about change in the production of pottery by enslaved people. Archaeologists have long been intrigued by hand-built, open-fired earthenwares on North American and Caribbean domestic sites occupied by enslaved Africans and their descendents. Known as colonoware in North America and Afro-Caribbean ware in the islands, these artefacts have traditionally been interpreted as evidence of the retention of African traditions (Ferguson 1992; Hauser and DeCorse 2003). In Nevis and St Kitts, Afro-Caribbean pottery were probably manufactured and marketed by enslaved specialists, the majority of whom were women. Understanding where these wares were made, and how they were distributed and used is critical to understanding both women's labour and the slave economy of the islands in the 18th century.

Afro-Caribbean pots after firing, June 2008

A third set of issues relates to change in the extent to which people enslaved on Nevis and St Kitts had the means and motivation to participate in what historians call "the consumer revolution" (Carson 1994, 2003; Galle 2006, 2010a, 2010b; Neiman 2005). Galle has demonstrated that fancy European earthenwares and Chinese porcelain and fashionable metal buttons increased exponentially on Chesapeake slave sites in the late-18th century. She hypothesizes that the change is linked to urbanization and economic diversification, specifically the transition from tobacco to wheat cultivation. 

But what about Nevis and St Kitts? Greater levels of autonomy, market participation, and conspicuous consumption, may all be linked to changes in the Atlantic economy. Stagnating sugar prices in the late 18th and early 19th centuries increased pressure for greater productive efficiency among slave owners (Eltis et al. 2005; 2006). The demise of the Atlantic slave trade rewarded owners who achieved this without diminishing the survival and reproductive chances of their labourers (Ward 1988). A possible strategic response was to shift more of the costs of food and shelter onto enslaved people, while providing increased autonomy that might allow them to invent and perfect new ways to pay them, for example through the market exchange of food (Mintz and Hall 1972). Perhaps with greater market participation came both access to cash and mobility, which in turn led to increases in the means and motive, to acquire European consumer goods.

An array of 18th century consumer goods found at the Nevis and St Kitts villages (clockwise from upper left): Green shell-edged pearlware pottery, overglaze Chinese porcelain pottery, pewter utensil handle, rims from a leaded glass drinking glass, decorated tobacco pipe stem imported from the UK, the lip and neck of a wine bottle