Marine Shell and Small-Island Slavery in the Caribbean

Original Article
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Abstract

Caribbean slavery on plantations perched on very small islands that could be only a few dozen acres in extent was likely very different from slavery on the major islands. This article considers the results from three years of excavation and survey on the 150 ac. island of Little Jost van Dyke, British Virgin Islands, focusing on a cotton-farming plantation occupied by both free and enslaved people from about 1720 to 1790. The questions of oversight and control, as well as access to resources—frequent topics in plantation archaeology that are somewhat different here—frame the discussion of the limits and advantages of small islands and the effects of these on daily life and the structure of communities. A particular focus is given to the data provided by the study of marine-shell ecofacts recovered in the excavations and what these data can reveal about foodways, economy, and movement around the landscape. The article concludes that those enslaved on such smaller islands often had certain opportunities for movement and economic improvement denied those on larger or landlocked sites, but also serves as a reminder that these opportunities could not counter the impacts of enslavement.

Keywords

shell use shellfish acquisition plantation archaeology enslavement Caribbean British Virgin Islands 

Extracto

Con toda probabilidad, las prácticas esclavistas caribeñas en plantaciones ubicadas en islas de reducido tamaño, con una superficie de pocas hectáreas, difería significativamente de aquellas que se podían observar en islas de mayor tamaño. Este artículo analiza los resultados de tres años de excavaciones y estudios en la isla de Little Jost van Dyke, en las Islas Vírgenes Británicas, con una superficie de poco más de 60 hectáreas, los cuales se centran en una plantación algodonera donde trabajaron libertos y esclavos entre 1720 y 1790, aproximadamente. Aspectos como la supervisión y el control, así como el acceso a los recursos—temas recurrentes en la arqueología de las plantaciones que son ligeramente diferentes en este caso—enmarcan el debate de los límites y las ventajas de las islas pequeñas y los efectos de dichos límites y ventajas en la vida diaria y la estructura de las comunidades. Se presta una atención especial a los datos suministrados por el estudio de ecofactos de conchas marinas encontrados en excavaciones y lo que estos nos revelan acerca de los hábitos alimenticios, la economía y los desplazamientos por el territorio. El artículo concluye que los esclavos recluidos en estas islas más pequeñas solían disfrutar de ciertas oportunidades de desplazamiento y de mejora económica negadas a aquellos situados en enclaves más grandes o del interior, pero también nos sirve de recordatorio de que dichas oportunidades no suponen un atenuante de los impactos de la esclavitud.

Résumé

Dans les plantations perchées sur les très petites îles des Caraïbes, de quelques douzaines d’acres seulement, l’esclavage était vraisemblablement très différent de celui des îles principales. Le présent article considère les résultats d’activités d’excavation et de fouille de trois ans réalisées sur l’île de Little Jost van Dyke de 150 acres appartenant aux îles Vierges britanniques. Ces activités se sont concentrées sur une plantation de coton occupée par des personnes libres et des esclaves de 1720 à 1790 environ. Les questions de surveillance et de contrôle, ainsi que celle de l’accès aux ressources—des sujets fréquents de l’archéologie des plantations, qui sont quelque peu différents ici—dressent la trame de fond de la discussion des limites et avantages des petites îles, et des effets de ces derniers sur la vie quotidienne et le tissu des communautés. Une attention particulière est consacrée aux données fournies par l’étude d’artefacts écologiques sous forme de coquillages marins récupérés lors des excavations, et à ce que ces données peuvent révéler sur l’alimentation, l’économie et les déplacements locaux. L’article conclut que les esclaves restreints à des îles plus petites avaient de certaines perspectives de déplacement et d’amélioration économique qui étaient refusées à ceux vivant dans des régions plus grandes ou enclavées. Il rappelle aussi que ces perspectives ne pouvaient pas contrer les effets de l’esclavage.

Notes

Acknowledgments:

My thanks to Historical Archaeology associate editor Helen Blouet and the anonymous reviewers of this article for very constructive suggestions. Major funding for this project was provided by the National Science Foundation under Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant No. 0929563. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. This project also received major funding from the British Virgin Islands Department of Culture, the American Philosophical Society’s Lewis and Clark Grant, the BVI Heritage Conservation Group, and the British Studies Center and Archaeological Research Facility of the University of California, Berkeley. My thanks to Laurie Wilkie, Rosemary Joyce, Kent Lightfoot, Ethan Shagan, Luce Hodge-Smith, Angel Smith, the Vanterpool family, especially Kelvin Vanterpool and Mario Leonard, Karl Dawson, Mitch Kent, Geoffrey Brooks, Joseph Smith-Abbot, Nancy Woodfield-Pascoe, Brenda Lettsome-Tye, Joann Hill, Susan Zaluski, the Jost van Dykes Preservation Society, Marilee Meyer, and Tom Wake.

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Copyright information

© Society for Historical Archaeology 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Behavioral SciencesUniversity of Michigan––DearbornDearbornU.S.A.

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