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
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
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, Department of Social Sciences, MTU, 1400 Townsend Dr, Houghton, MI 49931
Department of Social Sciences,
Michigan Technological University Houghton, MI
Email | Phone: (906) 487-2113
| Fax: (906) 487-2468