Plantation Technology in the West Indies

Port St. George Project Investigates Eighteenth Century Sugar Plantation on Nevis.

In July and August of 1997, students from the Industrial Archaeology program at Michigan Tech conducted the first systematic survey and excavations of sugar plantation and harbor complex on the island of Nevis, in the West Indies. Colonial artifacts found during the excavation helped date the active period of the site from the late seventeenth through the early nineteenth centuries. Recovered material included slave made colonoware, gunspalls, typical European colonial wares, and trade porcelain. Industrial artifacts found include an iron windmill mainshaft, parts of a vertical three-roller cane mill, and iron cauldrons.


Photo: Michigan Tech graduate student Amanda Gronhovd screens material from excavation Behind her is the wall of the two story complex

Photo below: The island of Nevis from the northwest. Nevis Peak shrouded in clouds.

Although Columbus sighted the island in 1493, the island remained unmolested by Europeans until English colonists arrived from the neighboring island, St. Kitts, in 1627, establishing tobacco, indigo, and ginger plantations. By 1650, however, sugar production came to dominate the colony's economy. Sugar production, and the trade in slaves which sustained the industry, drove Nevis to the forefront of the emerging global economy of the eighteenth century. Located at the northern end of the Leeward islands just west of Antigua, Nevis was well situated for colonial enterprise. Once so prosperous from the sugar and slave trade that it was called the "Queen of the Caribbees," today only stone ruins remain as silent testimony to the industrial past. Nevis is better known as the birthplace of Alexander Hamilton, and where a young Captain Horatio Nelson met, and married, Frances Nesbit, in 1787. Nelson was in command of a squadron of ships sent by England to prevent trade between Nevis and the new nation of the United States, in violation of the Molasses Act. The island's dominance of the sugar trade was eventually eclipsed during the era of steam powered mills, nevertheless, Nevis continued to play an important role in the industry until the mid nineteenth century.

Abandonment by planters, and the lack of extensive development has allowed several archaeological sites to escape disturbance. Remains of plantations, stone windmill towers, boiling houses, and other elements of the sugar industry decorate the landscape. In a few locations, late nineteenth century steam engines can still be found on their original mountings. However, many of the island's historic structures remain undocumented, and adaptive reuse of building materials by Nevisans is beginning to take a toll on the historic industrial landscape.

Unique among these vestiges of industry is the site located on the dry, windswept, southern side of the island, at Indian Castle Bay. In 1704, the Nevis Council declared the harbor located at the bay a "shipping place" in order to facilitate and encourage sugar production and settlement along the island's south coast. Historic documents refer to the site as the "shipping place of St. George Parish." Remains of the Indian Castle Estate stand on the cliffs overlooking the harbor.

Photo: Example of stone architecture found at the site complex. The view looks through a doorway arch into a room with a 2 meter wide fireplace. The room served as a field office for the project crew.

At the invitation of the Nevis Historical Conservation Society an expedition from Michigan Tech, led by Master degree candidate Marco Meniketti, and Professor David Landon, traveled to Nevis to investigate the ruins. Several structures are imperiled with destruction from erosion and collapse, and the NHCS has been concentrating its efforts on documenting the buildings. Because the location also served as a port, the NHCS was also interested in identifying structures associated with shipping.

The crew from Michigan Tech surveyed the site and documented several structures associated with sugar production, including a stone windmill, sugar works, and a two-story complex which may have served as a harbor warehouse. Drawings produced the year before by Caribbean Volunteer Expeditions, from New York, were a significant aid to field work and provided a benchmark for determining the rate of deterioration of site structures. In a span of less than one year one wall of the two-story complex, which stands on a cliff overlooking the harbor, were found to have collapsed into the sea.

The cliff side complex, measuring more than 50 meters by 70 meters had within its walls a stone cistern, a vaulted chamber supporting a staircase, a "kitchen," and two long "galleries."

Photo:The cliff side complex. The outer wall of the complex has collapsed to the beach. The 40 cm thick undulating mortar floor of the structure is visible along upper portion of photo.


Excavations revealed iron cauldrons, probably used for molasses collection, set into an undulating mortar and cobble floor. The undulations created drainage channels which fed directly to the cauldrons. While iron cauldrons of various types can literally be found everywhere on the landscape in Nevis, these were the first ever found in situ from the eighteenth century.

Photo:Michigan Tech student Tanya Elliott records an iron cauldron exposed in an excavation unit.



Diving teams under the direction of Marco Meniketti also conducted a preliminary underwater survey of the harbor area, finding numerous iron concretions, architectural artifacts, and two cannon. The ordnance is indicative of either shipping or coastal defenses of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries when the island was under constant threat of invasion by French forces. A detailed account of the submerged cultural resources can be found in the soon to be published 1998 edition of Underwater Archaeology by the Society for Historical Archaeology.

Photo:Expedition diver Lisa Meniketti examines a stone block covered in thick marine growth.

The project team completed a map of the plantation site and produced detailed drawings of several structures. Iron artifacts of presteam era milling and sugar manufacturing were also recorded in detail. Future projects at the site are under consideration.

For more information contact: Marco Meniketti, 2635 Hopkins Ave., Lansing, MI 48912



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