Sessions on Delle and Clay, 'Archaeology of Domestic Landscapes of the Enslaved in the Caribbean'

James A. Delle, Elizabeth C. Clay, eds.
Emily Sessions

James A. Delle, Elizabeth C. Clay, eds. Archaeology of Domestic Landscapes of the Enslaved in the Caribbean. Florida Museum of Natural History: Ripley P. Bullen Series. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2019. Illustrations, tables. 296 pp. $95.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-68340-091-2

Reviewed by Emily Sessions (Yale University) Published on H-Atlantic (June, 2020) Commissioned by Bryan Rindfleisch (Marquette University)

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Past and Present Domestic Landscapes in the Caribbean

I feel confident in saying that we are all significantly more aware of our own domestic spaces than we were several months ago. As millions of people worldwide have been confined to their homes and apartments by the spread of COVID-19, we have become hyperaware of every inch of these spaces and of every person sharing them with us. We have also become more aware than ever of how domestic spaces define and are defined by economic status. We notice who remains in crowded cities and who has moved to summer homes in the countryside, and we worry for the housing insecure and for those living in group homes and shelters and camps and jails and prisons, for the migrants and refugees and those trapped in abusive homes.

Our new awareness of our own domestic spaces makes this an opportune moment to explore the social, political, and philosophical significance of the historically built domestic space. Elizabeth C. Clay and James A. Delle’s new edited volume Archaeology of Domestic Landscapes of the Enslaved in the Caribbean brings together a dizzying breadth of research on the built environments of slavery in the Caribbean to produce an overview of the topic that is both accessible to newcomers to the field and inspiring for experts. As Clay and Delle introduce the volume, the included chapters “focus on the structures and other constructed features that made up the living quarters and villages that housed enslaved Africans and their descendants in a number of Caribbean contexts, including on plantations, in urban areas, and on military installations.” They go on to explain that they include not just built structures but also spaces that were “created by daily practices that can be identified archaeologically,” including yards and other outdoor communal spaces (p. 2).

Such a premise indicates that this book’s major intervention is in bringing together the relatively distant fields that study the landscape and the household, to closely trace the shift between these two scales of space. Furthermore, while there have been some scattered archaeological examinations of the domestic spaces of the enslaved across the Caribbean in recent years, with the work of Barry Higman and Delle himself standing out, the diversity and depth of the chapters of this volume advance the fairly new field significantly while also proposing new and exciting methodologies for the future. In particular, Clay and Delle’s introductory chapter expands the scope of the questions being asked of these sites beyond basic control and resistance to the “multiple and overlapping influences on both planters and the enslaved that led to differences in housing construction and residential organization” (p. 12).

In fact, the novelty of this book lies in the careful, granular examinations of locally specific contexts and the complex negotiations of power that could help explain various archaeological findings. The chapters in the volume are arranged roughly according to geography, allowing the reader to compare contexts with significant similarities but also to appreciate local specificity. The first set of chapters focuses on built environments in the Lesser Antilles, the second set centers on Jamaica, the third set discusses what Clay and Delle call the “geographical periphery of the world of Caribbean sugar production,” and the final set examines contexts beyond the plantation (p. 15).

Clay and Delle summarize several conclusions that apply across many of the chapters in this book. The first is that the end of the slave trade and decline of Caribbean sugar at the turn of the nineteenth century led to visible changes to the built environment for enslaved people. The second is that historical representations of the housing of enslaved people were often idealized and represented a particular rhetoric or claim. The third conclusion that Clay and Delle make based on the studies in this volume is that different divisions or systems of labor produced different impacts on the spatial organization of the built environments the authors examine.

Starting with Todd M. Ahlman’s examination of housing for enslaved and free blacks on St. Kitts from the 1780s to the 1850s in chapter 2, the studies in this volume bring together a range of sources. Ahlman focuses on plats, maps, paintings, and postcards as well as archaeological data on this understudied island. These sources, he argues, demonstrate a diversity of housing construction techniques in St. Kitts, including types of structures that may have existed while slavery was legal but no longer survive today. Ahlman’s attention to activity in the yard in particular yields a rich set of conclusions about the role that different types of housing spaces played in establishing social hierarchies.

Chapter 3, by Marco Meniketti, traces continuities between pre-emancipation housing forms and existing housing forms known as “country cottages” in Nevis. Meniketti, like Ahlman, makes excellent and convincing use of a range of material, including archival sources, published primary sources, and plantation sites and estate maps, as well as the contemporary presence of domestically useful plants. His archaeological data also comes from an impressive array of sites. He makes a compelling argument that portable houses enabled a different set of labor negotiations for freed peoples after emancipation, an argument echoed by Kenneth G. Kelly in chapter 4.

Meanwhile, Kelly focuses on the daily experiences of enslaved people on plantations in Guadeloupe and Martinique. Kelly’s research encompasses a broader scale than many of the other contributors to this volume: his chapter examines entire villages, including the walls around them and the house layout within the village. Kelly also discusses variations in house yard plans and possible meanings of this variation. Throughout the chapter, he argues decisively that “improved” housing and more ordered arrangements of the homes of enslaved people reflected negotiations that accompanied the reestablishment of slavery in Guadeloupe in 1802 and 1803 (see especially page 84). These changes also served to allow increased surveillance of workers. Kelly bolsters his case by ending his chapter with evidence that this shift did not happen in Martinique, where the enslaved population did not experience emancipation.

In chapter 5, Hayden F. Bassett studies three different locations associated with the Good Hope estate in northern Jamaica to understand variations in housing within a community. Bassett focuses in particular on the yard as a social space and on different types of “domestic loci” on the plantation (p. 93). He concludes that kinship networks and time might have shaped material conditions more than occupational hierarchy, and that “architecture was one important medium through which people conveyed their position ‘at their own expense’” (p. 88). Bassett’s granular look at social relations within a group provides a methodology to think past the imposed spatial logics of the enslaver and disaggregate enslaved populations using architectural findings.

Chapter 6, by Delle and Kristen R. Fellows, uses data from Marshall’s Pen, a plantation in central Jamaica founded in 1813, to illuminate the difference between sugar and coffee plantation systems on the island. Delle has worked on and published on Marshall’s Pen for years, and his familiarity with the site is evident in his excellent use of original archives, including personal letters from plantation owners and his rich archaeological findings. Delle and Fellows read this evidence, especially architectural variety in housing both in size and construction technique, in relation to the quick rise in Jamaican coffee after the Haitian revolution and to the British government’s abolition of the slave trade in 1807. They also describe variation within use of housing spaces, according to artifact finds, indicating a productive new direction for research.

In chapter 7, Allan D. Meyers makes a strong case that the layout of houses for enslaved workers on Newfield Plantation on Cat Island, in the Bahamas, reflected the influence of John Wood the Younger’s A Series of Plans for Cottages or Habitations of the Labourer (1781) and wider reformist/abolitionist critiques of the institution of chattel slavery. This, in turn, indicates that the Bahamas was firmly within the reach of humanitarian movements, despite scholars who argue to the contrary. Meyers demonstrates how Wood’s plans were enacted in the built space of the plantation, as well as how these designs changed to accommodate local natural features.

Chapter 8, by Clay, examines how diversified agricultural systems in French Guiana shaped domestic architecture and built space on plantations. Clay reports on a uniformity across the houses excavated in French Guiana, which shows that diversified agriculture was not an easier or more relaxed system of labor than plantation monoculture as some scholars have claimed. This uniformity also points to the presence of skilled builders, including masons and carpenters, and might be a result of the abolition and reform movements of the early to mid-nineteenth century or the end of the slave trade and a corresponding need on the part of enslavers to sustain the population of enslaved workers.

At this point in the volume, Alicia Odewale and Meredith D. Hardy shift to an urban setting in chapter 9, specifically the people enslaved by the Danish Crown and residing in the city of Christiansted, on the island of St. Croix beginning in the mid-eighteenth century. These Afro-Caribbeans lived in a complex of buildings and warehouses and labored at the “wharves, warehouses, military depot/storehouse, in the customs house, scale house (weigh house), the fort, and on the royal plantations that were leased to individuals” (p. 194). Odewale and Hardy find evidence of enslaved people’s autonomy in constructing homes, particularly in the materials used, and they show how these built spaces were shaped by the all-important challenges of access to clean water, protection from frequent hurricanes, and also the hazards of the “close proximity of Danish soldiers and government officials” (p. 206). Finally, in their discussion of glass bottle use to collect and purify water, they present a methodology for understanding artifacts in contexts of reuse and repurposing.   

In chapter 10, Zachary J. M. Beier examines the laborer village in Cabrits Garrison, under the British Army, in Dominica. He reads the enslaved members of the British Army as “a changing labor force that lived in a separate settlement within the walls of a British colonial fort in the Caribbean” (p. 218). Beier is especially interested in the distinction between how domestic spaces were conceived by colonial administrators and how they were used by inhabitants themselves. Simliar to Odewale and Hardy, he understands variation in construction materials to indicate individual control over space in the face of institutional aesthetics.

The final chapter, by Mark W. Hauser, responds to all of the essays in the volume and discusses possible future paths for research. As Hauser states, all of the authors in this volume successfully “attend to expanding the conceptual range of the built landscape as a unit of archaeological analysis” (p. 239). Hauser invites future scholars to expand on this foundation by, first, placing buildings in relationship with other landscape phenomena and in relationship with other sites on the plantation. Second, Hauser sees an opportunity to think “more globally about how the built landscapes of Atlantic slavery might translate to other times and other places” (p. 241). He concludes with questions about how to move beyond presentism in analysis of land use as well as about how to tie concerns during historical periods to concerns of people today, especially given the pressures of the Anthropocene and climate change.

Overall, the essays in this volume succeed in not just charting an almost entirely new area of research but also in proposing ways to use archaeology to understand fraught and contested systems of labor as well as complex constellations of resistance and self-definition. The contributors’ mobilization of archaeological evidence is strong and convincing throughout. Several chapters, including those by Ahlman and Meniketti, however, could have made richer and more critical use of textual and visual sources. Stronger formal analyses of plantation plans and plats, in particular, would have enriched their arguments. Similarly, in framing the volume, Clay and Delle present the reader with a clear picture of the historiography and theory of archaeology of the Caribbean and of the enslaved but disappointingly leave out the rich theoretical frameworks developed by historians, scholars of literature and music, and scholars of critical race theory. Generations of scholars from these fields and others have written on ways to interpret visual and textual evidence from the archives in the face of extreme power disparities; on how and when to try to reconstruct personal motives and acts of resistance through historical analysis; and on the relationships between material culture, lived experience, and performance in the Caribbean specifically, all questions that these authors engage with implicitly throughout the volume. Applying these frameworks to the excellent close archaeological examinations in this book would have deepened the reach of this volume and the conclusions that could be drawn from the material. Finally, the lack of any chapters on the Hispanophone Caribbean is striking, and an examination of the domestic landscapes of Cuban sugar or coffee plantations in the nineteenth century would have been a fascinating counterpoint to many of the essays.

Altogether, this volume and its varied important contributions and the authors’ nuanced and careful readings of fascinatingly specific sites, plots, artifacts, and styles are essential for understanding the diverse experiences of enslaved individuals from the Caribbean as well as the larger sociopolitical processes that shaped the possibilities of domestic spaces and slavery as a whole. It will hopefully be the first of many more such studies examining the social and spatial dynamics revealed by the domestic spaces of enslaved people in the Caribbean.

Citation: Emily Sessions. Review of Delle, James A.; Clay, Elizabeth C., eds., Archaeology of Domestic Landscapes of the Enslaved in the Caribbean. H-Atlantic, H-Net Reviews. June, 2020. URL:

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