Rossignol on Chenoweth, 'Simplicity, Equality, and Slavery: An Archaeology of Quakerism in the British Virgin Islands, 1740-1780'

John M. Chenoweth
Marie-Jeanne Rossignol

John M. Chenoweth. Simplicity, Equality, and Slavery: An Archaeology of Quakerism in the British Virgin Islands, 1740-1780. Tallahassee: University of Florida Press, 2017. 266 pp. $74.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-68340-011-0.

Reviewed by Marie-Jeanne Rossignol (University Paris Diderot) Published on H-Slavery (December, 2019) Commissioned by Andrew J. Kettler (University of California, Los Angeles)

Printable Version:

John Chenoweth is an anthropologist and archaeologist whose work has led him to investigate Quakerism in the British Virgin Islands (BVI) between 1740 and 1780. Those islands did not belong to the “colonial core” due mainly to their particular geography, and thus only a “poorer version of the plantation economy developed there simultaneously with the arrival of Quakerism” (p. 3). Chenoweth's Simplicity, Equality, and Slavery focuses on the Quaker community that briefly thrived in this isolated context, relying on archaeological excavations which were conducted primarily on one small island, Little Jost van Dyke, between 2008 and 2014. Using and interpreting those archaeological findings but also meeting-house archives and other documents, Chenoweth investigates two major questions, one being how Quakerism operated in this unusual context, how people experienced their religion materially, and the other being how the Quaker planters “negotiated” their slave-owning at a time when this type of property was becoming increasingly unpopular among Quakers within other British colonies and the metropole. Issues of economics and social status are key elements in Chenoweth’s argument, while the archaeological work takes into account material vestiges left by the enslaved as well as by the planters themselves. At the end of the book are two appendices: A covers “Statistical tables for the British Virgin Islands in 1815 and 1823” by reproducing an 1826 report on “captured Negroes” while B lists the “Artifacts from Excavated Contexts.” The book also includes black-and-white photographs of the islands, archaeological findings, and maps of the various sites where excavations were conducted.

Beyond methodological explanations, the introductory first chapter provides a brief but clear introduction to the central Quaker tenets (such as simplicity, equality, and pacifism) and the rise of the Quaker community. As Chenoweth expertly explains there and at other times, Quaker simplicity could mean modesty and thrift but was fully compatible with wealth as prosperity made the practice of religion easier. In the same way, the equality preached by Quakers should not be confused with modern egalitarian ideas, which is why BVI Quakers did not feel absolutely compelled to free their slaves. Chapter 2 examines the specific history of the European settlement of the BVI, islands with little agricultural potential. On Little Jost van Dyke, only the Lettsom family and their slaves settled in the eighteenth century, which made recent archaeological work there convenient and coherent. On the island where the Lettsoms’s house was identified, archaeologists found a commonly identifiable Caribbean slave village plus a few other structures, including a water tank and graves. One of the Lettsoms, John Coakley Lettsom, eventually became a famous doctor in London and founder of the Medical Society of London, so the written record can also complement some of the material findings about the family. Though not presented as representative, the connection between such an isolated settlement and a London figure is particularly well explored, and forms one of the very good moments in the book as it highlights the overall imperial context in which even small planters operated.

Records of the BVI Quaker meeting (Tortola Monthly Meeting) were kept as of 1740. In chapter 3, based on archaeological findings and other data, Chenoweth portrays the Lettsoms as very modest planters by Caribbean standards. Yet they wanted to perform a higher status by building their “country house” on an isolated, yet very visible island location, while other places would have made more economic sense (p. 75). This concern for status was also reflected in their choice of sending their son to England to be educated as a gentleman. The Lettsoms may very well have joined the Quaker community in search of networks and access to powerful people. Archaeological research on the house shows that it was improved over time and thus economic progress may have followed in the wake of social betterment. 

Chapter 4 examines the issue of meeting houses on the island, with excavations conducted at the Fat Hogs Bay meeting house, and investigates their social meanings. One apparent contradiction is to be found between the Peace testimony central to Quaker religious tenets and the need for weapons in the Caribbean context of slavery and possible foreign invasion: “guns were as omnipresent among BVI Quakers as they were among other planters” (p. 121). In this specific context, even the violent behavior of certain Friends could be condoned. Quakerism as experienced in those remote islands was necessarily different from London or Philadelphia, and what it meant specifically is the object of chapter 6. As time went by, Quakerism in the BVI was increasingly characterized by social control instead of opportunity. This change coincided with rising class differences on the islands.

In chapter 7, Chenoweth enlarges the issue of class differences to include non-Quakers and slaves in the discussion. While Pennsylvania Quakers led the way in matters of emancipation, and London sent recommendations, in the BVI “racial stratification” was central to self-definition, and on Little Jost Van Dyke, slaves and masters lived in separate parts of the island (p. 156). Though poor, the Lettsoms felt superior to their slaves, whose housing was flimsy by contrast with their own very visible house. Neither were BVI Quakers pioneers in gender equality. Yet as chapter 8 emphasizes, Quakers in the BVI, in their own way, lived by their religious tenets (simplicity, for instance), which they also transformed. As social inequalities grew, tensions eventually divided the Quaker community in the BVI, with Quakerism meaning local unity and community for some, and links to the wider world for others. What caused the end of the Quaker community was not a decision to emancipate slaves, whose spiritual salvation was not seen as a priority. Chenoweth concludes by insisting that the study of religion must extend to the practice of religion and should not be limited to written texts.

Although Chenoweth writes very clearly and sets out his arguments in a nuanced and persuasive way, this book is primarily targeted to fellow archaeologists who will be able to appreciate his field work and conclusions. Yet as a student of Quakerism, I enjoyed the book thoroughly. I never questioned Chenoweth’s analyses, except maybe when he examines “ceramics choice and use” and writes: “while the Lettsoms were performing thrift and Quaker simplicity, those they held may have been performing economic success, both using the same materials in opposing ways” (pp. 168-69). It is very difficult to know what the enslaved on such small islands felt or may have felt, especially as regards economic success, due to the absence of written records and the paucity of material vestiges. But local Quakers, and the Lettsom family more particularly, provide Chenoweth with a real opportunity to explore the making of a Quaker community. Archaeological data combine with written documents and records to suggest a complex reading of what it meant to be a Quaker, a planter, and a slave-owner in a remote and hostile environment. Though Chenoweth never challenges the local Quakers’ commitment to their faith, he shows how their spirituality combined with the need for community support and commercial networks, and how planters negotiated key Quaker values (simplicity and equality) to adapt them to their own preoccupations (economic advancement, racial hierarchy). This book is thus an important contribution to the study of Quakers and slavery in the British Atlantic world.


[1]. Marie-Jeanne Rossignol and Bertrand Van Ruymbeke eds., The Atlantic World of Anthony Benezet (1713-1784): From French Reformation to North American Quaker Antislavery Activism (Leiden: Brill, 2017).

Citation: Marie-Jeanne Rossignol. Review of Chenoweth, John M., Simplicity, Equality, and Slavery: An Archaeology of Quakerism in the British Virgin Islands, 1740-1780. H-Slavery, H-Net Reviews. December, 2019. URL:

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.