Caribbean Research

The Caribbean between 1600 and 1800 constituted a microcosm of the emerging global market and aggressive competition between European powers. The English colony of Nevis, situated in the Lesser Antilles, was at the center of this historical development.

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Nevis seen from the Space Shuttle.

 

Colonial Development,

Environment, and Capitalism

Over the past few years archaeologists from several institutions in the United States, under the direction of Marco Meniketti (Ph.D Michigan State University), initiated archaeological landscape studies. The aim of the project has been to synthesize archaeological remains, settlement history, and landscape features during the early phases of European expansion and economic development in the Caribbean. Nevis was selected as a case study because of its historic prominence in world economic affairs and because its scale both compresses and magnifies the critical processes that shaped social systems between the period of first colonization and the creation of a plantation economy. The period of first settlement in 1627 through emancipation in the British Caribbean in 1833 serve as temporal boundaries framing the study. The Historic Colonial Landscape Project focuses directly on the use of space and patterns of living across the physical landscape over time, and in determining how these patterns shaped, or were shaped by, the way people lived and interacted. To offer one further example, a road can be understood as a transportation link for movement of goods, but also as a conduit of social interaction; as a landmark having different meanings to people of different social strata; as a property boundary; as a system for structuring daily routines; or as a physical reminder of status or control. And a road may have different uses or values in different eras. Abandonment of estates either through economic or ecological failure can lead to road deterioration and neglect. The Industrial Landscape Project seeks to include the various communities that were created and impacted by development. This is not limited to the plantocracy, but also to diasporic and creole communities and their modern descendants. Agro-industrialism did not end with emancipation, nor did the influence of the economic system that grew to maturity in the sugar era. Environmental change continued unabated. These projects were designed to shed light on the various processes that helped create the modern Caribbean.

 

Caribbean frontiers were a crucible for processes in the evolution of European expansion and political/economic domination in the New World. The islands were sites of capitalist and agro-industrial experimentation and one arena in which the social relations of the modern world were forged. By exploring the dimensions of agency and causality of capitalism’s global ascendancy from its inception in the Caribbean we can significantly add to our understanding of the colonization process.
Archaeological research on the small yet dynamic island of Nevis sheds light on the rise of capitalism regionally. The evolution of the landscape and the processes of socioeconomic development that played out on Nevis did so, not against the backdrop of the rise of capitalism, but integrated with and in resonance with its rise to dominance, perhaps contributing fundamentally to its ascendancy.
The present study examining the processes that shaped Nevis and its historical trajectory was necessary to fill serious gaps in the historical archaeological record of the region, to provide data relevant to settlement patterns as they relate to economic development in the Caribbean generally, and to inform on how human ecology was affected by capitalism's emergence. The nexus of these processes is found in the colonial landscape. The objective of this study has been to combine archaeological evidence of settlement patterns derived through landscape survey with economic data, drawn from historical sources, to improve understanding of developmental episodes, processes, and attendant consequences within the panorama of Caribbean history.
Current understanding of the earliest phases of colonial settlement in the Caribbean, its spatial organizational, and how capitalism came to dominate the social and economic spheres are vague and based on unsystematic study. This has in part been due to a lack of analysis of colonial landscapes in the Caribbean structured by any strong theoretical frameworks or guiding principles (Leonard 1993) despite the fact that it is there and then that inchoate capitalism and nascent globalization as we recognize it gained momentum and can be studied from its inception.
The fundamental premise for this study is that capitalism was not functioning at the time European presence in the Caribbean increased, but that the establishment and subsequent evolution of the plantation system created an environment in which the new relations of production and capitalist development were nurtured. While I concur with Wallerstein (1974) that basic economic structures enabling capitalism were in place in select regions of Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth century, a shift toward capitalist relations was not. Nor was it inevitable. I reject the concept of a "proto-capitalism" as an effort to get around explicating the mechanism by which change came about.
The Caribbean, is for the purpose of this study, conceived as, not only the leading edge of European cultural expansion, but also the capitalist frontier, when and where both the economic machinery and symbols of the new order by which people understand their society, were in flux. An important dynamic maintaining the impetus was the competition between political and economic interests engaged in proxy conflict throughout the Caribbean region.
Because Nevis is a bounded space, variables relevant to development and decision- making become amplified, and can be more readily recognized and isolated. Variables external to the island, but also necessary for colonial functions, such as transportation, importation of raw materials, or political decisions in the metropole can be brought to light and quantified for analysis in historical context.

The transformed natural landscape of most island colonies reflects political history as well as the social and industrial past. The needs of plantations and pressure applied by the plantocracy ultimately reconfigured other industries in the core through feedback mechanisms and induced innovation in commerce that served as a mainspring for industrial capitalism (Mintz 1971; Williams 1994). Concurrently maritime needs and constraints acted to shape patterns of far-flung settlement as well as industrial-codependence, while at the same time embedding colonies in the wider global economy developed during the sixteenth and later centuries. Spanish colonies in Hispañola and Cuba suffered as Iberian shipping concentrated more on mainland settlements at the expense of insular Caribbean colonies, whereas the Lesser Antilles gained importance through shipping. Additionally, the growth of maritime power among various non-Iberian European nations can be traced to the needs of colonial industry and for defense of colonial holdings—no less true in the eighteenth as the sixteenth century.
At this scale of analysis the “spin-off” industries which supported exchange in the periphery, such as shipbuilding, insurance brokering, refining, manufacturing, trade in slaves and many others, can be analyzed to expose attributes of consumption and market forces vital in the rise of capitalism. An insight to the extent and nature of annual import trade from the West Indies can be gained from Customs House documents. For example, Inspector General Thomas Irving (1790) compiled data for shipping clearing London docks. In 1788 alone the West Indies accounts for 153 ships or 14,009 tons in commodities! Goods included ginger, pimento cocoa, brown sugar. Coffee accounted for 794,00 pounds. Molasses for 53,000 gallons. Hard woods (lignum vitae and mahogany), hides, limes spirits and rum, salt, tar and pitch, and cotton rounded out the shipments. Fish from Newfoundland shipped to the West Indies amounted to 22,196 quintals dry and 803 barrels wet. Fish sent to the Caribbean?

Nevis Heritage Project Southampton Journal of Caribbean Archaeology