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Sugar Cane Capitalism and Environmental Transformation
An Archaeology of Colonial Nevis, West Indies
By Marco G. Meniketti
The University of Alabama PressCopyright © 2015 the University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
The Caribbean Defined and the Scope of Archaeology
A West-India estate consists of two parts; the lands, with their adjuncts, buildings, etc., and the living stock, viz. cattle and negroes, all which are as much property of the planter as it is possible for the most authentic statutes of the British Senate and Colonial assemblies to make them.
— Considerations on the Emancipation of Negroes and the Abolition of the Slave-trade by a West India Planter (1788)
The insular Caribbean is formed by three island groups. First among these are the Greater Antilles, encompassing Cuba, Hispañola, Puerto Rico, and Jamaica. Hispañola came to be split precariously between French control at Saint Domingue (Haiti) and the Spanish at Santo Domingo (Dominican Republic). Only Jamaica passed completely from Spanish sovereignty. The Bahamas, where in 1492 Columbus made first landfall, are a second archipelago. The Lesser Antilles forms a third group, comprised of small islands gracefully arcing south from Puerto Rico toward Venezuela like a cascading string of pearls. The largest of the Lesser Antilles are Trinidad and Guadeloupe. Trinidad, originally a Spanish dominion, fell under British control in 1799, after brief periods of Swedish and French control (Figure 1.1). Nevis lies at the northern end of these small land masses (Figure 1.2). With its volcanic cone rising steeply from the center of the island to over 3,232 feet (985 m), in profile Nevis resembles a Hershey's "candy kiss." The island is a mere 35 square miles (56.3 km2), much of it sloped,
The division of the Lesser Antilles into Leeward and Windward Island groups is somewhat confusing, largely arbitrary, and based on cartographic conventions of notorious inapplicability — part geographic and part possession-based. These terms are applied here in only the narrowest definition to the Leeward Group of Nevis, St. Kitts, Antigua, Barbuda, Montserrat, and farther north, the Virgin Islands.
The total land mass of the Lesser Antilles is probably less than that of Puerto Rico. Indeed, the importance of the Lesser Antilles in economic and political history is completely out of proportion to its geographic scale. The Lesser Antilles rides on two separate tectonic plates dividing Nevis and islands to the north, from neighboring Montserrat and the islands south. The southern islands are volcanically active, the most recent eruptions occurring on Montserrat with devastating effect in 1997 and with lesser impact as recently as 2009. Although the volcanic mount that gives Nevis its distinctive shape is dormant, the island nonetheless has active hot springs.
Settlers came to the Caribbean, "not to live, but to make a living," in Lowenthal's (1972:33) prosaically evocative analy sis. An exception to this view can be cited, however, in the Spanish Caribbean, where work at Puerto Real, Hispañola, for example, has shed light on early settlement strategy as intent on true extension of culture (Hoffman 1980; Deegan 1995). However, the general assessment that the historic Caribbean landscape reveals a place for commerce, not for dwelling, coupled with a trend toward absenteeism among the planter class with roots in the early seventeenth century lend credence to Lowenthal's strong synopsis. The first colonists on Nevis carved out a settlement amidst a mature climax rainforest of hardwoods. Clearing land, managing water, and adapting to climate were among their chief concerns in their seemingly frantic efforts to earn quick profits and to survive. That settlements came to be permanent on most of the islands belies the fact that many of the colonies were initiated and designed to generate profits and wealth for the colonizers and the metropole; to serve as outposts, not homesteads.
Of this much we can be certain: the Caribbean frontier was dominated by agro-industrial development founded on varying models of plantations, international economic rivalries, and local adaptations of European designs for colonization. It may be, in fact, that English settlers had a model in mind based on plantation development in Ireland (Delle 1999a; Klingelhoffer 1999). Sugar estates rose to primacy within the colonial context regardless of the market system at the core. The terms "plantation" and "estate" deserve some unpacking. While these terms may seem interchangeable, plantations and estates should be viewed as qualitatively different from one another in sociological and economic context. While plantations were functional economic and industrial enterprises, synonymous with farms, the concept "estate" embodied social and cultural components and must be understood equally from a human social scale. An estate included property, but also slaves, servants, and social position measured through wealth. Estates historically were classified as big, middling, or small based on a mix of acreage and slave holdings. For instance, on Nevis in 1678, big planters were classified as having 50 slaves or more, middling as having 20–49 slaves, and small as having fewer than 20 slaves (Watts 1987:334). For the same year, only 13 of a total 301 estates were considered big, the great majority being small. On Nevis, the term estate was synonymous with sugar plantations, as opposed to any other agricultural enterprise, and implied lifestyle as much as economy. By 1685 wealth disparity among planters on Nevis was extreme, which led to social instability. This demographic would play a key role in economic development, as few rich men aspired to individual fiefdoms.
Nevis as Periphery and Relations with the Core
In a seminal work spanning three volumes, Immanuel Wallerstein (1974, 1980, 1989) developed an approach for understanding the modern phenomena of capitalism, the demise of feudalism, and the relationship between world markets. He framed his approach with the concept of a "world-system."
An assumption foundational to this book is that capitalism could not have prevailed without the emergence of an Atlantic economy associated with a world-system. World-system theorizing was at the center of scholarly research and controversy long before Wallerstein, who, according to Skocpol (1977:1076), built on a "preconceived model of capitalist world economy" contrasting with the economies of empires in its functional division of labor, among other determining characteristics. Viewing this division as occupationally based in the context of empire, Wallerstein framed the world-system labor division geographically. A critical component of the world-system was the colonial development of peripheral regions that served the interests of core states. This basic premise structures economic zones around particular activities with surplus flowing to the core. Just as each zone is differentially rewarded by the system, they also support given sorts of dominant classes oriented toward world markets.
However, expansion of trade alone is insufficient to cause socioeconomic metamorphoses. The ancient world engaged in trade over vast distances for benefit of the state without arriving at capitalism as an economic base. Indeed, an emergent world-system was well underway linking the east and west by way of the pacific Manila fleets of Spain (Schurz 1939; Abu-Lugood 1989).
The maintenance of the system as a whole is dependent on differential strength of multiple states, with strong states providing economic assistance to their emerging capitalist classes to manipulate favorable terms of trade in the world market. This clearly took different forms among the European colonizers of the Caribbean. Skocpol (1977:1078) argued that Wallerstein failed to reveal a mechanism for change from feudalism to capitalism — why it should emerge at all — and that his theory is more a description of history than an explanation of processes, especially failing to offer an adequate explication of the dynamics of capitalism, focusing mainly on market processes, commercial growth, and increased trade worldwide. Furthermore, Wallerstein sidesteps the Marxian insight of "paying attention to institutionalized relationships of producing and surplus-appropriating classes" (Skocpol 1977: 1079).
Wallerstein (1974) demonstrated the strength of capitalism as self-reinforcing; once the system is established, everything reinforces everything. He based many of his conclusions on the emergence of novel forms of credit out of traditional markets (Schneider 1986). Once capitalism becomes the dominant system, its structure allows it to remain dominant. But what is the impetus? How does it become established? It must be recalled that capitalism is not simply a new system of commerce, but a completely new way of structuring society and the constructed meaning of labor, restructuring time and ways of acquiring status (Wolf 1982).
The discussion here focuses on the orientation of Nevis in the periphery-core dialectic as a periphery of the English colonial complex, embracing several islands, and with arms reaching to Africa and Asia. Its population produced commodities valued by England (and later Great Britain) and was a consumer of goods manufactured by the mother country.
In the context of periphery, Wallerstein's (1974) views of world-systems have not gone unchallenged, and this criticism deserves analysis here, as a world-system framework is fundamental to the present study. To reiterate, a chief criticism is that a "world-system perspective distorts our understanding of developmental change by overemphasizing external dynamic ... a focus on the core at the expense of the periphery" (Stein 1999:3). There is some validity in this assertion, and the periphery concept deserves further deconstruction. I make a distinction between primary peripheries, which played leading roles in the development of colonialism and capitalist development, and secondary peripheries, which were marginal in both political and economic arenas. By examining a case within a primary peripheral region, we scale-down to reveal internal dynamics of a periphery, with the expectation that the core state will, nonetheless, dominate in specific exchanges.
Trading companies with their genesis as suppliers to colonies evolved into important gears of the economic machinery stimulating growth in the metropole. At the same time, relations were established between colonial sectors that helped maintain the network. The archaeology suggests that Nevis was so embedded in these processes of development that explicating how these processes ran their course on Nevis may inform us about the process generally, whether we examine the issue through ceramics, shipping, industrial development, or economics. Modern development on Nevis began in earnest after independence in 1983, with little of the vast transformation of landscape so prevalent on other islands that have catered to the burgeoning tourist trade. This "romantic colonial landscape" is not accidental and is fostered by many with economic interests in former estates, especially those who have repurposed them into luxury hotels.
In the classic sense, a "periphery" is a geographic area exploited for the benefit of the core (or center) through economic specialization, with advantage of variations in costs of labor and raw materials being taken by the core with the metropole as the net consumer. (Wallerstein 1974). The concept can be modified slightly here to mean an economic zone apart from the core, regulated by the state apparatus, but networked through socio-economic relations binding the state to the relationship. The core state, nevertheless, benefited from production in the periphery (O'Brien 1982). While the core remains a net consumer, there is greater emphasis on dependency at the core in this conceptualization. Champion (1989:14) forcefully argued that as investment increases, the political structures involved "ensnare the periphery ever more firmly." The opposite is also true; it is the core that becomes ever more ensnared, especially as socio-economc sytems become entrenched. Heuristically, this model allows us to readily comprehend why European powers clung so long to failing colonies and expended so much for so long.
An assumption long held, but deserving deconstruction, is that capitalism was a transplant, stowing away with settlers as they entered the New World. At the very least this posits capitalist relations as already systemic, but to date this is unsupported by any real archaeological evidence (Johnson 1999). Indeed, recent evidence hints at the contrary, that economic exchanges between core-metropole and colonial-periphery were feudal in character and benefited the crown (Hoffman 1980). This has been further investigated by Woodward (2011:38) for Spanish Jamaica at Sevilla la Nueva, suggesting the agrarian capitalism was strikingly feudal in character. Individuals found new avenues for economic gain and achievement, and capitalist development was not simply a linear continuation or expansion from processes already in motion. An inchoate feudal capitalism is evident. In his study of plantations on St. Kitts, Hicks (2007a:40) found that agro-industrial feudalism was "the hallmark of early development" producing an indelible impact on the spreading colonial landscape (Hicks 2007a:40). With the advent of the Caribbean trade in luxury commodities, however, a peripheral economic zone was born where rival states engaged in parallel development rather than systemic confrontation.
First settlements transplanted familiar social relations around which initial colonial society was molded. One would expect then for the first settlements to some degree to mirror the core society in structure. In the frontier context these relations gradually changed in character. Diaries of early travelers do not describe settlements in manners fundamentally different from European villages, but do remark on the leveling of rank apparent in dwellings and labor (leaders likely engaged in manual labor alongside commoners, for example).
Historical records compellingly suggest that, as soon as they could afford to, planters on Nevis returned to England and left agents in their place to run plantation affairs, lending further support to the supposition that many were there to "earn a living" in an extractive frontier (Hall 1973; Dunn 1972). Absenteeism was considered a problem. A rare few elected to remain, and these gradually formed the nucleus of a wealthy elite, with aspirations to English aristocracy, sending their children to England for education (Pares 1950). Indeed, over time, the "feudal sugar landscapes" as Mason (1993:103) terms them, changed to manors with all the trappings of classical images of power embedded in landscapes: villas, ordered plantations, and an increase in slaves (Hicks 2007a:41).
Most planters who lived out their lives on Nevis, however, did so out of necessity, being either far too in debt to depart or having holdings too small to turn reasonable profits to support their desired lifestyles.
The Significance of Nevis in Caribbean Research: A Case Study Approach
Case studies can be highly informative and useful in theory building (Vaughn 1992; Eisenhardt 1995; Rossignol 1992) as they "embody causal processes operating in microcosm" (Walton 1992:122). Cases are always hypotheses (Walton 1992:122). Nevis, with its rapid ascendancy from founding as a satellite colony of St. Kitts in 1625, its commanding position of wealth in 1700, to its near abandonment during the collapse of world sugar markets after 1833, uniquely qualifies as the location for the study of capitalism, social transformation, and impact on environment.
This book describes the transformation and development of the built environment — one might say the colonization gradient as derived by Kenneth Lewis (1984), but in island context — as colonies increasingly became networked to a global economic system, modified here to emphasize the synergism arising between core states and peripheral settlements during the pivotal eras of capitalism's ascendance. A model enabling comparison between colonies in a confined area with those on a "limitless" frontier can be constructed when combined with Hardesty's (1985:216) conceptualization of an extractive "industrial frontier." However, not all frontiers are limitless. Colonies in bounded areas may fall under more direct control from the core state and may come to look more like the core state as a result.
Regionally, Nevis stands as an example of the British-influenced Caribbean that can be compared to island colonies under different metropolitan control sharing similar fates during regional decline. Nevis, while at one time the most developed and best defended of the colonies under British dominion, was nonetheless a peripheral region in the sense that the colony was founded for the sole purpose of resource extraction benefiting entrepreneurs and the crown (Meniketti 2006). When the records of settlement for French, Dutch, and even the Danish are examined, we find this was a common circumstance throughout the Lesser Antilles (Batie 1976; Delle 1994; Klooster 1998; Perotin-Dumon 1999; Meniketti 2008).
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Table of Contents
ContentsList of Illustrations,
I. THEORY AND METHOD,
1. The Caribbean Defined and the Scope of Archaeology,
2. Method and Theory,
3. Colonial Settlement and Emergent Capitalism,
4. Nevis History, 1627–1833,
5. An Archaeology of Plantation Industrialization,
6. Decline and Adjustment, 1782–1833,
III. SYNTHESIS AND CONCLUSIONS,
7. Environmental Change in Capitalism's Shadow,