Reflections on seville: Rediscovering the african Jamaican settlements at seville plantation, st. Ann's bay

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Archaeological and historical investigations at Seville Plantation have produced a broad body of data that can be used to examine the conditions of slavery and enslavement in Jamaica. It is hoped that archaeological studies like the Seville project will encourage introspective exploration of Jamaica's past by illuminating both the complexity of social interaction and the contexts of dynamic creativity embedded in Jamaica's cultural landscape. Archaeological research is an important tool for uncovering the heritage retained within Jamaica's plantation sites. Since this essay is reflective in nature and designed to summarize what has been and can be learned at Seville, I will begin by setting the stage of my 1987 return to Jamaica, when I began the exploration of the former British colonial sugar estate that is now Seville National Historic Park. In May 1987 I turned off Jamaica's North Coast Road, just west of the town of St. Ann's Bay, and slowly proceeded up the palm tree-lined lane that serves as an entrance to Seville Plantation. The estate, which takes its name from Sevilla la Nueva, the sixteenth- century Spanish settlement located within its boundaries, was a large sugar estate founded soon after the British took Jamaica from the Spanish in 1655 (see Woodward, this volume). The plantation comprised some 2,500 acres consolidated in 1670 by Richard Hemming. Sugar was produced as a cash crop by an average of 275 enslaved laborers from its founding through the abolition of slavery in 1838. For several years following emancipation, Seville continued as a sugar plantation utilizing wage- labor tenants; in the later nineteenth century production shifted first to bananas and finally to copra, derived from coconut palms. The population of the laborers' villages decreased dramatically with emancipation; however, a small group of tenants continued to live on the estate until the mid- 1880s. As I made my way up the road in 1987 I was taken back in time and filled with questions. Extending from the sea all the way up the fertile strip of coastal alluvium were fields in which sugar cane had once been grown. Both the sugar cane and the laborers who produced it were gone from the cultural landscape of the 1980s; however, their former presence was vivid in my mind. I was curious about what we would learn about the enslaved laborers who once worked these fields. As I drove inland the landscape around me transitioned to foothills framed by mountains. At this point I encountered the estate's sugar- processing works. The sugar works include the ruins of water and cattle mills, a boiling house, and a complex of related processing and storage buildings. Although these structures were overgrown with brush and their roofs had collapsed, they still projected a dominant presence on the landscape. These ruined buildings served as a reminder of the long hot hours of crushing and boiling sugar cane endured by men and women brought from Africa as enslaved labor to produce the lucrative and addictive commodity of sugar (see Mintz 1985). To the right I could see the less obvious but nonetheless curious layout of a series of barbecues, or flat slabs of mortar that were used during the days of slavery to dry pimento berries (allspice, Pimenta dioica), the fruit of the richly aromatic endemic bay laurel tree that grows throughout the lower hilly sections of the plantation. More recently, these features rotated between pimento drying and the drying of copra when coconut palms replaced sugar as the estate's primary crop in the late nineteenth century. Copra production remained a significant feature of the estate's landscape until the 1980s. The combination of sugar and pimento works projects elements of the plantation's social and economic complexity. The estate overseer's house lies within this complex of works and is built upon an earlier cattle mill. This overlap of historical features highlights transitions through time in the industrial growth and managerial structure of the estate. The cattle mill had been replaced by a waterwheel located on the Church River, a year- round source of power made even more reliable by the construction of a dam and a short aqueduct. From the earliest days of the estate's operation in the 1670s, the crushing of cane via a cattle mill represented a form of industrial production; the shift to water power reflects an intensification of industrial production. The transformation of the old cattle mill to a new manager's house reflects a shift in the scale of management to the point of production, as well as a greater social and spatial distance that developed between the planter and the laborers of the estate in the late eighteenth century. The question I pondered concerned how the shifts in industrial production and management strategies were reflected in the conditions and lifeways of the enslaved. As one moves past the works, the road turns and cuts a diagonal path up the hill. Farther up the hill, and set within a context of a formal lawn and garden, is the planter's residence, known in Jamaica as a Great House. The Great House is associated with stables, a kitchen, and a bake oven; from its hilltop vantage point the Great House looks out over the cane fields, the bay, and the sea beyond. From the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries, this house would have stood out as a significant structure to anyone coming into St. Ann's Bay by sea; the building was used as a directional vector by mariners entering the bay, as evidenced by a map of the St. Ann's Bay region made in 1721, curated at the National Library of Jamaica. The Great House was built to project the wealth and social prominence of the planter; just as it had been in the past, the Great House complex remains a dominant feature on the historical landscape, even as its role has shifted from a locus of authority and power to its current one as a museum in which the story of the plantation is told. The managerial houses of the planter, overseer, and timekeeper have endured and provide clues as to the temporal and geographic scales of the sugar estate landscape. The survival of these buildings and their continued prominence in the landscape sharply contrast with the virtual absence in 1987 of any structural remains invoking the presence of the people of African descent who had worked on the estate. Moreover, the embedded implications of power and authority were dug into the landscape in the form of a trench fortification at the front edge of the Great House grounds, immediately above the steep slope up from the plain below. This trench was described as a "rifling lawn . . . with a battery of eighteen small guns en barbette" by naturalist Hans Sloane in a discussion of his visit to the estate in 1688 (Sloane 1707-25; Armstrong and Kelly 2000:378). Finally, the prominence of the planters was memorialized by an array of formal gardens and the placement of a planter cemetery on the eastern edge of the formal lawn. Virtually all of the major structural elements of the seventeenth- To twentieth- century English sugar estate founded by the Hemming family were visible during my 1987 visit. The overall landscape retained the general pastoral character and the spatial outlines of the former agricultural industrial complex but without the contrasting context of the underlying economic and social conditions that made this Jamaican sugar estate and hundreds like it so economically profitable and socially oppressive. Notably absent from the visual landscape were the houses of the hundreds of laborers of African descent who had been enslaved on this large estate from its founding in the 1670s through 1838 and who remained on the estate during the post- emancipation era. My challenge was to locate the settlements associated with the enslaved labors of Seville Plantation, define the boundaries of their living areas, and excavate their houses and yards in order to give these sites and the people who had once lived in them a presence in the landscape. In May 1987 I engaged this challenge, knowing that the ruins of these sites were there to be found although they were missing from the visual and interpretive landscape of the late twentieth century.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationOut of Many, one People
Subtitle of host publicationThe Historical Archaeology of Colonial Jamaica
PublisherThe University of Alabama Press
Number of pages25
ISBN (Print)9780817356484
StatePublished - 2010

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Social Sciences
  • General Arts and Humanities


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