Friday, 11 September 2009

‘Material Improvements’: the Archaeology of Estate Landscapes in the British Leeward Islands, 1713-1838

 [This is a book chapter, published in 2008, that was based on my fieldwork in St Kitts. For a full account of the Caribbean fieldwork, see my 2007 book The Garden of the World. The full version of this chapter, with all the references and footnotes, is in Estate Landscapes, edited by Kate Giles and Jon Finch. It forms part of an ongoing interest I have in how research in historical archaeology can inform our understanding of postcolonial heritage. Cite this paper as D. Hicks 2008.  ‘Material Improvements’: the Archaeology of Estate Landscapes in the British Leeward Islands, 1713-1838. In K. Giles and J. Finch (eds) Estate Landscapes: Design, Improvement and Power in the post-medieval landscape. Woodbridge: Bowdell and Brewer, pp. 205-227.]

Photograph of Wingfield Estate from the early 20th century, showing 18th-century aqueduct and the chimney for a 19th-century steam engine (from archives of the St Christopher Heritage Society).

[To read the full version of this paper, with the references and footnotes, see the chapter in Estate Landscapes]

This paper examines the archaeology of sugar estate landscapes in the Leeward Islands in the Caribbean, during the 18th and 19th centuries. It sets this study in the context not only of Caribbean studies, but also historical archaeology generally and post-medieval landscape studies in the UK in particular. It considers how the approaches of landscape archaeology can highlight the material (rather than purely ideational) dimensions of the changing estate landscapes of the colonial Caribbean, and the attendant conceptions of materiality that were bound up with colonial ideas of improvement. It points to some of the ways in which the archaeology of colonialism can inform that most British of fields of study - the history of the post-medieval English landscape – and to the potential of decentring our conceptions of ‘Britishness’ in British post-medieval landscape archaeology.


The global contexts of British imperialism are an increasingly common theme in historical archaeology. Focusing upon material remains to produce new accounts of the local complexities and contingencies of empire, such work is characterised especially by an acknowledgement of the central role of materiality – objects, landscapes, buildings - in the practice of colonial relations. However, the study of the estate landscapes has been surprisingly uncommon in plantation archaeology in the New World, despite the central importance of agricultural estates and plantation slavery to the 17th-, 18th- and 19th- century histories of the much-excavated regions of the island Caribbean or the Chesapeake.

In the Caribbean, the development of historical archaeology has often been informed by perspectives from historical geography. Pioneering work carried out over the past three decades includes Lydia Pulsipher’s studies of the historical landscape of Montserrat, Jerome Handler and Frederick Lange’s studies of slave cemeteries in Barbados and Douglas Armstrong’s study of a sugar plantation in Jamaica, and is increasingly built upon by new studies – as demonstrated by the recent collections of Jay Haviser, Paul Farnsworth and Kenneth Kelly and Mark Hauser. However, such work has rarely aimed to contribute to thinking in historical archaeology elsewhere in the world: as Michel-Rolph Trouillot has observed for cultural anthropology, so also in historical archaeology the Caribbean region remains an ‘open frontier…where boundaries are notoriously fuzzy’; a diverse and ‘undisciplined’ field that has rarely been able to contribute to metropolitan perspectives ‘lessons learned on the frontier’.

This chapter examines aspects of the archaeology of sugar estate landscapes in the Leeward Islands in the eastern Caribbean during the 18th and early 19th centuries in relation to British studies of post-medieval landscapes. It aims to use the idea of ‘improvement’ as a way of exploring two themes. Firstly, it considers how the approaches of landscape archaeology can highlight the material (rather than purely ideational) dimensions of the changing estate landscapes of the colonial Caribbean, and the attendant conceptions of materiality that were bound up with colonial ideas of improvement. Secondly, it points to some of the ways in which the archaeology of colonialism can inform that most British of fields of study - the history of the post-medieval English landscape – and to the potential of decentring our conceptions of the ‘Britishness’ in British post-medieval landscape archaeology.


The archaeology of plantations and designed landscapes forms a significant part of historical archaeology in North America and the Caribbean. Much of this work has been focused upon excavation and artefact analysis rather than the above-ground archaeology of estate landscapes. Rich and sophisticated studies of the close relationships between people and things in colonial plantation contexts have been developed: for instance in Laurie Wilkie’s study of Clifton plantation in the Bahamas, which has explored the importance of the consumption of European-made commodities to African-Bahamian identities. Where such approaches have been extended to landscape and architecture, most notably in Anne Yentsch’s account of the household of Charles Calvert (an early 18th-century Governor of Maryland), surviving material culture has been woven together with documentary sources, producing richly textured historical ethnographies of changing households over time.

In the archaeology of landscapes, however, such nuanced work is less visible. Gardens and estates in the Chesapeake and Caribbean have been studied through processual approaches to spatial patterning, through post-processual, and often Foucauldian, understandings of the effects of the built environment in relation to the structures of social power, or through awkward combinations of the two. Despite the broader regional traditions of North American ‘landscape archaeology’, plantation estate design has often been presented as simply illustrative of, and embedded in, the ideologies of capitalism and slavery. So, James Delle’s (1998) Lefebvrian study of Jamaican coffee plantations aims to ‘read’ capitalist power relations in local ‘spaces’, inspired by studies of designed landscapes as evidence of ‘spatial inequality’. Similarly, some ‘critical archaeologists’ in the Chesapeake associated with the Archaeology in Annapolis project have built upon its studies of gardens and towns by exploring how the designed landscapes and architecture of plantations were ‘important arena[s] in ideological struggle’ and the ‘construction of difference’ under 18th-century merchant capitalism. The limitations of such approaches are clear in Charles Orser’s discussion of ‘plantations and space’, which offers a general definition of plantations as ‘a capitalist kind of agricultural organization in which a number of laborers produce a certain kind of crop under the direction of others’:

‘The size of [the planter’s] house can be viewed as a physical manifestation of plantation power…A plantation’s landscape is a bounded universe with clear limits…the spatial arrangement of plantation housing should reflect power relations to some degree. It can be expected, given the plantation’s primary economic function, that plantation houses were located closest to the work places of their inhabitants. Thus the millwright…lived near the mill pond and the mill building…and the landlord’s servant lived near the landlord. However, what may be more indicative of power relations are the relationships between individual buildings themselves. In other words, the relationships between the buildings should have carried a social meaning created to reflect, among other things, the power relations enacted within the dominant mode of production at the plantation’

Such approaches tend simply to ‘read off’ power relations from unchanging, two-dimensional spatial organisation, modelling ‘the plantation’ as a category of comparative analysis: obscuring the complexities of local variation and historical process.

Meanwhile, in British post-medieval landscape archaeology, generalising studies of power and ideology as reflected in designed landscapes have been no less common. The ‘improving’ impulses of agricultural enclosure and polite landscapes have been examined as part of the ideology of capitalism, producing compelling and revealing analyses of the ‘physical processes’ of landscape change. They have nonetheless been restricted by a normative conception of the general emergence of ‘industrial capitalism’. While, as Mary Beaudry has put it, historical archaeology is at its best not when aiming simply to ‘contribute…to our understanding of sweeping and amorphous cultural processes’, but when also striving ‘to inform us of the intimate and unheralded details of day-to-day life’, ‘landscape archaeologies of capitalism’ tend to smooth out the complexities and contingencies of particular circumstances, of particular regional or colonial situations for instance. The challenge for archaeologists is to find ways of weaving together fi ne-grained studies with broader scales of analysis: a task for which landscape archaeology, which is characterised by an ability to work across different geographical dimensions, is particularly well placed.

Two British archaeologists have recently used the idea of ‘improvement’ as an alternative way of examining elite landscape changes in Scotland during the 18th and 19th centuries. Chris Dalglish’s study of improvement in the southern Scottish highlands traces a radical shift from nucleated townships (bailtean) and shielings to new patterns of dispersed settlement and isolated farmsteads. In his comparison of Kintyre and Kilfinan, Dalglish acknowledges that ‘Improvement’ was adopted in different ways in different places. Rather than ‘reading power relations’, Dalglish has emphasised the relationships between improvement, elite and national identity. Similarly, in his examination of ‘improvements’ in South Uist in the Outer Hebrides, James Symonds has suggested that:

‘Rather than trying to impose an “ideological confidence trick”…upon a mass of the population, the actions of the elite were in many ways geared to reaffirming their own social positioning, and to validating their own belief in the ideology of “improvement” through material expressions’

Constructing broader archaeologies of improvement might risk fi nding in improvement a kind of ‘surrogate capitalism’, replacing one grand, evolutionary process with another. But the thoughtful work of Dalglish and Symonds provides insights upon the diversity of improvement: its contextual variation, itinerancy, the materiality of its performance, and the attendant changing conceptions of landscape. This is in keeping with the motivations for interest in improvement in historical geography as:

‘usefully reposition[ing] enlightened culture, away from the prime focus on the metropolitan, libertarian world of London to the more regulated rural world of the landed estate’.

Such ‘repositioning’, however, holds the potential to include still wider geographical contexts. In their studies of British agrarian landscapes, historical geographers have emphasised the significance of the notion of ‘improvement’ during the post-medieval period, whether between the 1780s and 1860s, or between 1730 and 1914. In their classic statement on ‘landscape design and the idea of improvement’ Stephen Daniels and Susanne Seymour described how from the 1730s ‘improvement’ was related to new elite landscape designs ‘on a large scale and with great attention to detail’, and hence to the management of parks and estates, and beyond:

‘Landscape in Georgian England was not just a matter of conventions of taste; it was a highly complicated discourse in which a whole range of issues, which we might now discriminate as ‘economic’, ‘political’, ‘social’ and ‘cultural’ were encoded and negotiated…. The concept of improvement was integral to these negotiations. Initially used to denote profitable operations in connection with land, notably aristocratic enclosure, by the end of the 18th century ‘improvement’ referred not just to a variety of progressive farming practices but to a broad range of activities from music to manufacturing, with a series of overlapping resonances – financial, pragmatic, moral, educational, aesthetic. A central issue of 18th century polite culture, at least from a conservative point of view, was the relation between improvement in various spheres of life; the discourse of landscape provided a way of both diagnosing disharmony between these spheres and brining them into balance’.

Daniels and Seymour, following Alistair Duckworth and Raymond Williams, suggest that the ‘key word’ of improvement was itinerant. Williams sketched how between the 16th and 18th centuries ‘improving’ shifted from describing ‘profitable operations in connection with land’ to a ‘wider meaning of “making something better”…often in direct overlap wiTheconomic operations’, and then to ‘the characteristic “improve oneself”’, whereupon ‘such phrases as “improving reading” followed’:

‘Jane Austen was aware of the sometimes contradictory senses of improvement, where economic operations for profit might lead to, or might hinder, social and moral refinement. In Persuasion [1818] (ch. v), a landowning family was described as ‘in a state of alteration, perhaps of improvement’. The separation of the general meaning from the economic meaning is thereafter normal, but the complex underlying connection between ‘making something better’ and ‘making a profit out of something’ is significant when the social and economic history during which the word developed in these ways is remembered’.

Williams suggested that the ‘agricultural revolution’ was in reality ‘no revolution, but the consolidation, the improvement, the expansion of an existing social class’. Improvement shifted across ‘soil, stock, yields, in a working agriculture’ to ‘the improvement of houses, parks, artificial landscapes’, and into polite social life – ‘Cultivation has the same ambiguity as improvement: there is increased growth, and this is converted into rents; and then the rents are converted into what is seen as a cultivated society. What the ‘revolution is for, then, is this: the apparently attainable quality of life’.

This itinerancy can be explored further. For example, Sarah Tarlow has extended the temporal dimensions of ‘improvement’, noting its appearance in literary sources from the early 17th century as well as clearly continuing in currency and importance into the 20th century. The geographical mobilities of ‘improvement’, however, moving across the mercantile and estate landscapes of the British Atlantic world, are equally striking. Richard Drayton has observed how the notion of improvement was central to English colonial activities from the early 17th century, representing a distinctive blend of agricultural, economic and political interests. The colonial contexts of ‘improvement’ range from Kew gardens through the geographical networks of plant science, across the Scottish highlands, and Ireland, and more widely still. For the cultivation of sugar cane, Griggs has recently traced the improving activities of the Colonial Sugar Refining Company in New South Wales, Australia, between 1864 and 1915: including the introduction of ploughing, fertiliser use, land drainage and new paddock design. In this vein, and building upon their previous work on improvement, Susanne Seymour, Stephen Daniels and Charles Watkins have studied the close relationships between the development of Sir George Cornewall’s Moccas estate in Herefordshire and his La Taste estate in Grenada (1771­-1819). By ‘examining landed estates and their owners in an imperial context’, Seymour et al demonstrate a series of ‘overlapping concerns…especially in terms of the management of land, labour and finance’ at the two sites.

The idea of studying colonial contexts to inform the study of British society ‘at home’ has been explored in other fields. In postcolonial literary studies, Edward Said’s examination of the exclusion of references to Sir Thomas Bertram’s Antiguan sugar plantations from his fictional rural elite landscape Mansfield Park has inspired the acknowledgement of the infl uence of imperial worlds upon highly ‘English’ cultural situations. Said famously observed how Austen described social life in the households and landscapes of the elite as ‘implicated in the rationale for imperialist expansion’:

‘The “attainable quality of life”, in money and property acquired, moral discriminations made, the right choices put in place, the correct “improvements” implemented, the finely nuanced language affirmed and classified’

Here, Bertram’s Antiguan estate landscapes are ‘held in a precise place within Austen’s moral geography’ of improvement, as Austen ‘connects the actualities of British power overseas to the domestic imbroglio within the Bertram estate’.

Equally, historical studies of the colonial Atlantic have seen the emergence of what David Armitage has termed ‘cis-Atlantic’ accounts, aiming to provide a counterpoint to Victorian national historiographies by writing the history of particular locations in wider Atlantic perspective. By seeking to define the uniqueness of a particular situation ‘as the result of the interaction between local particularity and a wider web of connections’, such historical studies bring ‘methodological pluralism and expanded horizons’.

Such impulses, across literary, geographical and historical studies, are united by an awareness of the entanglements of empire with metropole. In the study of Caribbean sugar plantations, such perspectives are indebted to another Williams: Trinidadian historian Eric Williams’ 1944 study Capitalism and Slavery. The ‘Williams Thesis’ argued that the development of British industrial society was closely bound up with the cultural and economic capital produced by the sugar islands of the eastern Caribbean. Similarly, in his classic examination of the relationships between urban and rural situations, The Country and the City, Raymond Williams acknowledged the ‘larger context’ of the British empire, and its profound effects upon British imagination and landscape from the late 19th century: perspectives that can be applied before the 19th century as well.

Seeking to bring together Eric and Raymond Williams’ perspectives upon estate landscapes, in both Britain and the Caribbean in transatlantic perspective, the next section of this considers the changes in estate landscapes in St Kitts during the 18th and early 19th centuries.


This section considers the development of ‘material improvements’ described by Caribbean historian Jack Greene – which were ‘practical’ as well as purely ‘aesthetic’ – in the landscapes of the eastern Caribbean during the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries, using St Kitts as a case study. From the 1620s, British colonists established plantations on islands such as Antigua, Barbuda, St Kitts, Nevis, Montserrat and Barbados. Until the last decades of the 17th century, these landscapes were characterised by great agricultural diversity. The cultivation and processing of a range of tropical staples, including tobacco, coff ee, sugar cane, cotton, ginger, indigo, pimento, and cocoa, was undertaken within walled or palisaded enclosures, not unlike the ‘bawns’ of 16th-century Ireland or 17th-century Virginia in which houses for planters, indentured servants and slaves were also built. Provisions such as cassava, manioc and sweet potatoes were also cultivated. Documentary sources describe close interaction and partnerships with native Carib populations in agricultural practices in the early decades of settlement. The extent of pastoral and ranching activities and of clearance for a frontier timber trade at this time has been little studied, but may also have been significant.

While the French Companie des Isles had begun ‘a definite policy of encouraging the cultivation of the sugar cane’ from its formation in 1635, it was not until the last decades of the 1600s that the sugar cultivation began to dominate the landscapes of the French and English Caribbean Leewards. Under the Treaty of Utrecht (1713), British involvement in the slave trade was radicalised. Under the same 1713 treaty, the French areas of St Kitts were ceded to Britain, and during the fifty years to the end of the Seven Years War, the island developed as one of the foremost British ‘sugar islands’. Government plans to ‘improve’ the colony upon the ceding of the French lands by dividing up sugar estates into small, planned farms, thereby encouraging the development of a ‘yeoman class’ in an island that ‘looked like a garden’ failed, and instead a new island landscape of fewer, larger estates emerged, filled with open, green fields of sugar cane, as:

‘Economies of scale threw the balance in favour of the planter who possessed several hundred acres of arable land, and improved sugar works, and a labour force of [hundreds of] Negro slaves’.

Planters bought up adjacent land, forming estates that ran, like the Pinney Estate on Nevis, ‘from the sea to the mountain’. Small cattle mills were replaced with new windmills, dedicated to the processing of each estate’s own sugar. Larger fields and the new sugar monoculture brought changes in labour organisation: larger numbers of unskilled labourers, organised into gangs, were provided through a dramatic increase in the number of slaves. Where white indentured agricultural labour had formed, alongside African slavery, a major part of the mixed economy of the 17th century, gang labour now became synonymous with slavery. White servants were increasingly unwilling to labour in the large gangs of regimented workers that hoed the ground, planted the sugar, weeded the fields, and cut the cane, as a transition from the ‘paternalistic hierarchy’ of servants and fewer slaves to ‘industrial slavery’ took place.

Some of the changes in estate landscapes that accompanied the shift to sugar monoculture are visible the developments at the adjacent estates of Wingfield and Romney, near Old Road, St Kitts, between 1713 and the effecting of slave emancipation in 1838. This area was the subject of a programme of archaeological landscape survey, standing buildings recording and documentary research in 2001, which formed part of a broader study of the landscape archaeology of sugar landscapes in the eastern Caribbean between the early 17th century and the 20th century. A water-powered sugar mill was established at the newly-styled ‘Wingfield Manor’ during the late 1670s by Christopher Jeaffreson (1650-1725), an East Anglian merchant, on the site of an earlier enclosure and works. Jeaffreson described establishing the works in a letter dated 12 May 1677 to his Father-in-Law:

‘I goe on expending money upon my plantation, in hopes it will repaye mee with interest; but I must have patience, for it will require tyme, as well as a large expense, before the sugar-worke can be perfected. It is now esteemed here a great folly for a man to expose his tyme or goods to the hazard of indigo or tobacco, sugar being the only thriveing and valuable commodity.’

From the 1690s Jeaffreson managed the estate from Dullingham House in Cambridgeshire through his Ensign in St Kitts, Mr Thorn, but from 1713 Wingfi eld was leased: between 1713-1728 to General L. Lambert, and then between 1728-1758 to Charles Pym. The relationship between Wingfield and the adjacent Romney estate became closer from 1742, when the Earl of Romney (Robert Marsham, 1712-93), owner of the Romney estate on St Kitts and the Mote in Maidstone, Kent, married Charles Pym’s daughter and heiress Priscella. Romney took over the lease of Wingfield in 1756, and for at least 30 years, from 1758 the Wingfield and Romney estates were managed as a single enterprise.

An inventory of Wingfield taken in 1713 listed only a few slaves, ‘an old boiling house and walls’, ‘four mill posts and one bridge tree of the island wood’ and ‘one deal water spout rotten & of no value’, along with ‘a few negro houses’. Over the next century, however, documentary and archaeological evidence demonstrates that a series of improvements were undertaken. The sugar works were continually remodelled in a highly complex construction sequence. The boiling house was entirely rebuilt on two occasions during the 18th century, each time rearranging the boiling and flue systems in order to increase capacity and effi ciency. A massive, impressive brick and stone aqueduct replaced an earlier wooden launder, with impressive arches and fine brick dressings. A brick-built bell tower was added to the roof of the works.

A new Great House was constructed in the first half of the 18th century, replacing an earlier Jacobean house on the lower ground, high up above the works among the open, green cane fields. Commanding wide views, the house was approached by a new terraced road that wound uphill towards it, past the impressive works facade on their approach. An area of slave accommodation was located away from here, along the western banks of the Wingfield River, below the crest of the hill on which the plantation house was built.

 Wingfield was managed as a single enterprise with Romney from 1756, and a new sugar works at ‘ Romney Manor’ was constructed. In this new arrangement, a new culvert was provided from the water wheel, through which the water passed, before being channelled along the side of the road to the new works. A new, substantial stone bridge over the Wingfield River between the Wingfield and Romney works was constructed. The road from Wingfield to Romney now passed below the aqueduct, around the Wingfield works, across the stone bridge, and along the side of the valley flanked by impressive stone terrace walls.

In 1819, an advertisement for the lease of Wingfield described the improved estate:

‘To Let: The Plantation called Wingfield Manor situated in the Parish of St Thomas, Middle Island to the westward of Little River in the Town of Old-Road, the Property of Major John Jeaff reson, and now in the occupation of the Right Honourable Earl Romney, consisting of 960 Acres of Land, of which the Cane Land and Pasturage are inferior to none in the Island. The Cane Mill is turned by an abundant Stream of Water, and the Estate commands peculiar advantages. Immediate possession, with the standing Crop of Canes and Provisions, may be had. For the Terms and Particulars, apply to R.W. Pickwoad.’

The changing estate landscapes of Wingfield and Romney provide a useful point of entry to studying the material dimensions of improvement in St Kitts during the 18th century. Sugar planters were ‘combination farmer-manufacturers’. The industrial nature of their plantations, involving the processing of sugar cane as well as its cultivation, made constant experimentation possible. These experiments, in the fields and the sugar works, were fuelled by fast-developing new concerns with the productivity and the application of scientific techniques to agriculture. An Antiguan Committee described in 1788 how ‘all…probable improvements in the Instruments of Husbandry have from time to time had a fair trial’. New Asian varieties of sugar cane - such as ‘Otaheite’ and ‘Bourbon’ - were introduced during the 1780s, partly as a response to new concerns about the impact on harvests of pests such as caterpillars and sugar ants. Where appropriate, great attention was paid to water management, whether for water power or irrigation. Fertilisation with dung developed across the eastern Caribbean from the second half of the 18th century. The use of ploughs in cane fields developed in Antigua from the 1750s in Antigua, and was in ‘almost universal use’ there by 1820.

A more efficient sugar cane crushing machine, with three horizontal rollers was invented in 1754 by John Smeaton: and widespread use of horizontal roller crushing machines in the eastern Caribbean had developed by the 1790s, and the ‘tied headstock’ was introduced around 1830. Further developments in sugar cane crushing included the use of solid iron rollers (rather than iron-clad wooden rollers) from 1721, and the invention of a device known a ‘doubleuse’, which automatically fed the sugar cane back through the rollers. Concerns over efficiency in the use of waste crushed cane or ‘trash’ were alleviated through its use as a fuel for the boiling house furnaces from the early 18th century, and considerable amounts of coal was imported to St Kitts during the late 18th century to increase the efficiency of the boilers further. In the boiling houses, the use of clarifiers (or ‘cold receivers’), and the mixture of juice with lime to promote crystallisation, became far more common from the mid 18th century. From around 1775 hydrometers were used at some estates to measure the specific gravity of cane syrup before transfer to the curing house, and use was made of the vacuum pan, which increased the efficiency of evaporation by allowing it to take place under vacuum, after its patenting in 1813. In 1808, microscopes were sent from London to one group of planters for the examination of the effects of different procedures on sugar crystallisation. Centrifuges were introduced during the early 19th century, separating the molasses from the sugar granules in order to speed up the curing process.

At the same time, the improvement of estates also involved the negotiation of the complex systems of elite kin relations and land tenure that had been established during the 17th century in the creole gentry society of the eastern Caribbean. A small number of established families dominated land ownership and the Islands’ Assemblies and Councils, and the careful development of pedigrees through exogamous marriage relations was central to the development of West Indian landed dynasties, especially in the face of a new emerging Atlantic merchant class. Many of these incoming merchant-planters were educated Scottish merchants who joined the planter societies of St Kitts and Antigua after the Act of Union. During her visit to these two islands in 1774, Janet Schaw described how important Scottish identity could be in everyday polite social life:

‘Just as we were preparing for Tea, my brother, Dr Dunbar, Mr Halliday, the Collector, and Mr Baird, the comptroller, and a very pretty young man called Martin came to us. Here was a whole company of Scotch people, our language, our manners, our circle of friends and connections, all the same.’

Scottish doctor Walter Tullideph, who came to Antigua in 1726, described the manner in which such Scottish men joined planter society. In 1736 described how he had:

‘married an agreeable young widow by whom I gott Possession of a very fine Estate to which I am making additions and improvements and am likely to have an heir of my own.’

After arriving, Tullideph soon began to sell English commodities to planters as his brother’s factor, worked as a doctor, and combined these trades by retailing medicines and drugs. He provided credit to planters by using his connections to borrow from London and lending at a higher rate of interest in Antigua. In a series of transactions over eighteen years, Tullideph proceeded to enlarge the estate from 127 acres and 63 slaves to 536 acres and 271 slaves. Similarly, in St Kitts the medically trained poet James Grainger (c.1721-1766) married a wealthy heiress, Daniel Matthew Burt, soon after arriving on the island in 1759. His wife’s name was an amalgam of three of the planter families to whom she was related, reflecting her remarkable connections to an established plantocratic dynasty. Her father was William Pym Burt, related to the Pyms who leased Wingfield Estate until 1758 (see above), and her paternal grandfather was William Burt of Nevis (d. 1707).

These incoming merchant-planters, from East Anglia and Scotland, brought distinctive attitudes to the ‘improvement’ of estate landscapes that engaged with the social and material relations of the gentry societies of St Kitts and Antigua. In the concluding section I shall examine how such ‘improvements’ were related to new conceptions of materiality - the entanglements of people, objects and landscapes – and to the broader geographies of the British colonial imaginary.


As well as simply understanding estate landscapes as illustrative of, or engaged in, the ideology of capitalism or slavery, the material focus of landscape archaeology can also explore the changing approaches to people and things that formed part of Georgian improvements in colonial estate landscapes. And rather than just underlining how designed landscapes were understood in different ways by different people, rather than ‘duping’ subaltern populations into compliance or false consciousness, archaeology can be used to consider how the improvement of estate landscapes was part of a new set of attitudes and practices that related to the boundaries between people and things, by presenting material, both natural and artificial, as animate and active. It is difficult to think beyond understandings of improvement as concerned with meaning or ideology, especially because the infl uential account of the historical geography of improvement (e.g. Seymour and Daniels above) formed part of a more general approach to designed landscapes. This was set out by Stephen Daniels and Denis Cosgrove most clearly in the opening lines of their seminal statement on ‘the iconography of landscape’:

‘A landscape is a cultural image, a pictorial way of representing., structuring or symbolising surroundings. This is not to say that landscapes are immaterial. They may be represented in a variety of materials and on many surfaces – in paint on canvas, in writing on paper, in earth, stone, water and vegetation on the ground. A landscape park is more palpable but no more real, not less imaginary, than a landscape painting or poem. Indeed the meanings of verbal, visual and built landscapes have a complex interwoven history. To understand a built landscape, say an eighteenth-century English park, it is usually necessary to understand written and verbal representations of it, not as ‘illustrations’, images standing outside it, but as constituent images of its meaning or meanings. And of course every study of a landscape further transforms it meaning, depositing yet another layer of cultural representation. In human geography, the interpretation of landscape and culture has a tendency to reify landscape as an object of empiricist investigation, but often its practitioners do gesture towards landscape as a cultural symbol or image, notably when likening landscape to a text and its interpretation to "reading".’

Such a reduction of the material dimensions of landscape to ‘the status of landscape as image and symbol’ similarly characterises Daniels and Seymour’s historical geography of ‘improvement’ (1990). As Tim Ingold has argued, approaches such as those of Daniels and Cosgrove tend falsely to divide mind from matter, meaning from substance. In the context of ideas of improvement, landscape archaeology can reveal not only changing elite ideas but also how they were worked out in practice:

‘the sites from which philosophes gathered their evidence, the settings in which their ideas took shape, the networks through which they were disseminated, the contexts in which they were interpreted’

In the study of estate landscapes, at the heart of this issue is our conception of the relationship between design and material practice: whether the design of a landscape is envisaged as separate (following Daniels and Cosgrove) – an index of ideas, attitudes or ideologies – or as bound up with the more complex processes of the creation and enactment of estate landscapes on the ground. Where archaeologist James Delle’s discussion of ‘the imagined spaces of plantation theorists’ discussion is limited to ‘cognized plantation layout’, an alternative view would understand designed landscapes such as plantations as enmeshed with material enactment, or performance. As historian Robin Blackburn has argued:

‘the planters of the English Caribbean and North America…saw themselves as sovereigns of all they surveyed.…The Great Houses of the planters received African adornments, while echoing the Palladian mansions of the English or French aristocracy, the latter in turn being influenced by Versailles. Since plantation cultivation destroyed the forests, the planters has little difficulty finding sites with commanding views. They did not build fortresses or castles but theatres of gracious living.’

During the 18th century, the design of Caribbean estates was increasingly informed by literature on ‘plantership’, which guided the practice of plantation management and improvement. Samuel Martin’s Essay on Plantership (1750), described by James Grainger as ‘an excellent performance’, argued that the properly managed plantation:

‘ought to be considered as a well-constructed machine, compounded of various wheels, turning different ways, and yet all contributing to the great end proposed.’

Martin’s publication, in its fifth edition by 1773, outlined the ‘art of managing’ a plantation, and encouraged planters to gain ‘proper qualifications’. He set up a ‘school of ‘plantership’ at his ‘ Greencastle’ Estate in Antigua from the late 1740s. As seen at Wingfield above, the creation of carefully designed landscapes was a significant part of sugar planters’ improving activities. Thus, William Beckford recommended the laying out of slave quarters:

‘in strait lines, constructed with some degree of uniformity and strength, but totally divested of trees and shrubs.’

Special slave quarters were set apart from the ‘polite’ landscape: in contrast with the early arrangements of smaller numbers of slaves and indentured servants living alongside planters. In 1745, William Smith wrote of Nevis that slaves:

‘live in Huts, on the Western Side of our Dwelling Houses...because we breath the pure Eastern air, without being offended with the least nauseous smell; Our kitchens and Boyling-houses are on the same side, and for the same reason.’

The focus in such arrangements in the emerging plantation management literature was upon the day-to-day business of running a plantation – the performance of management in the landscape. Some planters’ manuals, such as William Belgrove’s Treatise upon Husbandry or Planting, even provided a month-by-month schedule of activities. More intervention in and regulation of slave lifestyles took place, and included the imposition of carefully regulated time-management, and dramatically increased surveillance.

In the performance of estate management, the ‘various wheels, turning in different directions’ described by Martin constituted the larger ‘machine’. The heterogeneous elements of the estate were juxtaposed, including not only the agricultural and technological elements described above, but also natural, animal and human slave components. Through techniques of management, planters aimed to ensure and improve the productivity of all elements of this assemblage. Thus, the ‘situation’ of an estate, in relation to geology, wind and soil for instance, was emphasised. Planters and overseers concerned themselves with the nutrition of slaves by encouraging ‘provision grounds’. In 1764, James Grainger drew on his medical training in publishing an Essay on the more common West-India Diseases: the ‘first work from the anglophone Caribbean specifically devoted to the diseases and treatment of slaves’. Scottish-trained plantation doctors and a thriving import trade in medicines contributed to the health of slaves. Such ‘improvement’ of the health of slaves fitted well into the impulses towards the optimisation of production through science.

Janet Schaw, visiting Samuel Martin’s Greencastle Estate in 1774, described how the planter effectively reared both slaves and animals through his careful management:

‘Cultivated to the height by a large troop of healthy Negroes, who cheerfully perform the labour imposed on them by a kind and beneficent Master, not a harsh and unreasonable Tyrant. Well fed, well supported, they appear the subjects of a good prince, not the slaves of a planter. The effect of this kindness is a daily increase of riches by the slaves born to him on his own plantation. He told me that he had not bought in a slave for upwards of twenty years, and that he had the morning of our arrival got the return of the state of his plantations, on which there were then no less than fi fty two wenches who were pregnant. These slaves, born on the spot and used to the Climate, are by far the most valuable, and seldom take these disorders, by which such numbers are lost that many hundreds are forced yearly to be brought into the Island…By turning many of the plantations into grass he…is able to rear cattle which he has done with great success. I never saw finer cows, nor more thriving calves, than I saw feeding in his lawns, and his waggons are already being drawn by oxen of his own rearing.’

Through the enactments of estate management, the multiplicities of the estate ‘machine’ were made productive. Most important, however, was the provision of:

‘a well-contrived plan of the buildings, their relative, convenient and appropriate situations, one to another, should be digested, and laid out on a piece of paper, of a size sufficient to have the whole delineated upon it’

As geographer Barry Higman has argued, the sheer quantities of estate mapping in the British Caribbean requires explanation. Over 20,000 maps and plans survive in Jamaica alone. The commissioning of estate maps and plans was part of the improvement, in the sense of being ‘demonstrated’ or ‘shown to be true’, of estate landscapes. Higman is accurate in his observation that the phenomenon of estate mapping , it is due to the existence of:

‘a large group of wealthy individuals resident in Great Britain anxious to visualise their plantations and capable of paying the charges of professional surveyors and planmakers (and, sometimes, pictorial artists).’

While plantation surveys were invaluable for the ‘absentee’ planter who desired documentary evidence of his West Indian possessions, in some cases ‘the plantation map sometimes preceded the reality, enabling planter and surveyor to impose their ideal models of order on the landscape’. The geographical limits of these ideal models were surprisingly loose, however. The phenomenon of ‘absentee landlords’, for instance, has conventionally been seen by economic historians as one that sowed the seeds of West Indian decline. However, from a broader Atlantic context, these absences represented engagements in new, wide mercantile worlds described by historians such as David Hancock, who has explored the importance of cosmopolitanism in the emergence of a British Atlantic world. Merchants such as William Freeman of St Kitts and London had ‘a world of business to do’: ‘the most critical asset a merchant could deploy in the first century of empire was acquaintance in the colonies’.

The material construction and management of estate landscapes in both the Caribbean and Britain was increasingly important in planters’ performance of such cosmopolitanism. Charles Tudway, for instance, after inheriting the Parham Hill Estate in Antigua in 1748 commissioned Thomas Paty in 1758 to build The Cedars in Wells, North Somerset, and combined absentee plantation ownership with a position as MP for Bristol from 1754. The new survey technologies upon which the estate plans relied, in which direct measurement by paces between fixed points in the landscape was replaced by triangulation and chain and angle measurement, were closely associated with the military and maritime arenas to which the eastern Caribbean were especially exposed. The range of new surveying devices –box compasses, quadrants, pairs of compasses, plane tables astrolabes, geometrical squares and early angle measuring devices on tripods (theodolites or ‘circumferentors’) were inspired by sextants and navigation charts. These bundles of paper and cloth, fair copies and embellished plans, were a central part of the new geographical imaginary of the improving planters. Just as in Britain, the improvement of estate landscapes was closely associated with improved transportation, especially by road, so in the Caribbean mobility lay at the heart of the efforts of Scottish improvers in the Leeward Islands.

In the material practices of estate management, complex choreographies of maps and plans, soils, slaves, animals, kin relations, crushing machines, letters, rivers, bricks, verandas, teacups, the wind and rain, were enacted by the planter elite. Productivity appeared to emerge from climate, geology artefacts, people and animals. New attitudes to materiality lay at the heart of the improving impulse – bringing human and nonhuman actors together in the agrarian ‘theatres’ of plantation estates. Through such performances, planters sought to smooth out complexities and inequalities - the violence, horror and uneven materialities of racial slavery. People came to appear as objects or animals: bought, sold, reared, put to work as slaves. Incoherences were evened out, as the boundaries between people and things were blurred. These efforts can be illustrated by considering a poem. The new estate management literature was influenced by the increased interest in Virgil’s Georgics during the mid 18th century. In 1764, soon after his return St Kitts (where he would die two years later), the poet James Grainger, mentioned above, published his ‘didactic poem’ The Sugar Cane! It described, in highly laboured georgic diction, sugar cultivation in St Kitts, presenting ‘some part of the science of husbandry put into a pleasing dress’. Grainger described the Wingfield River, and Romney:

 ‘The brawling Naiads for the planters toil.

Howe’er unworthy; and, through solemn scenes,

Romantic, cool, with rocks and woods between,

Enchant the senses! but, among thy swains,

Sweet Liamuiga! Who such bliss can boast?

Yes, Romney, thou may’st boast’ of British heart,

Of courtly manners, join’d to antient worth.’

In Grainger’s vision, the Wingfield River ‘enchanted the senses’. St Kitts was known by its native Carib name - Liamuiga, or ‘Fertile Island’. Slaves were ‘swains’, and Romney’s pedigree, ‘join’d to antient worth’. Sitting in the shade of a tree by the river, Grainger described a picturesque landscape:

 Then should I scarce regret the banks of Thames

All as we sat beneath that sand-box shade;

Whence the delighted eye expatiates wide

O’er the fair landscape; where in loveliest forms,

Green cultivation hath array’d the land.

See! there, what mills, like giants raise their arms,

To quell the speeding gale! what smoke ascends

From every boiling house! What structures rise,

Neat tho’ not lofty, pervious to the breeze;

With galleries, porches or piazzas grac’d!

Nor not delightful are those reed-built huts,

On yonder hill, that front the rising sun;

With plantanes, with banana’s bosom’d deep,

That flutter in the wind: where frolick goats,

Butt the young Negroes, while their swarthy sires,

With ardent gladness wield the bill; and hark,

The crop is finish’d, how they rend the sky!

It is not simply that these rural idylls sought to obscure slavery and inequality: the theatrical poetic diction was part of a broader effort – seen in the construction of new estate landscapes - to animate the assemblages of the plantation in new ways, and to reconfigure ideas of materiality. As Elizabeth Bohls has argued, this ‘planter picturesque’ was characterised by a certain ‘staginess’. These performative, georgic impulses in colonial improvement sought not only to ‘obfuscate’ tensions or inequalities, but to bring about the new permeabilities between people and things seen both in the ideology of racial slavery and in the new attitudes to landscape improvement. That is, the enactment in landscapes of ideas of improvement facilitated the rendering silent or absent of incoherences, just as at Mansfield Park. Improvement in this colonial context, then, involved the enactment of a new set of attitudes to materialities, which were concerned with breaking down fi rm divisions between places, people and material things. As Chandra Mukerji suggested in her examination of the relationships between designed gardens, national territoriality and material performance, so in the study of colonial improvement rather than ‘see[ing] the creation of material culture as the manifestation of an idea – a realisation of a prior mental state’ we must focus upon how ‘human action and thought emerge from action on the material world’.

It remains to consider how exploring the enactment of ideas of improvement in a colonial context can inform the study of more conventionally ‘British’ estate landscapes. Often, in the early nineteenth century, Caribbean estate landscapes reminded visitors of England. One visitor to the Leewards in the 1820s, for example, described how:

‘the tall and moving windmills, the houses of the proprietors, the works and palm-thatched cottages of the negros embosomed in plantains, present the appearance, as indeed they are the substance, of so many country villages in England.’

But as Elizabeth Bohls has suggested, this was not simply a case of metropolitan ideas being played out in new, colonial landscapes, the study of which might provide new perspectives on our understanding of these ideas ‘at home’, but a situation in which it is probable that colonial landscapes ‘might actually have contributed’ to ‘supposedly metropolitan’ developments. After all, the vast open fields of sugar cane in St Kitts preceded the Capability Brown’s turfed landscapes, in which from the 1760s mansions stood in a ‘boundless sea of turf ’, by more than a generation. Indeed, when we consider the financial connections between West Indian planters and British estate holders in the 18th and early nineteenth centuries, so clearly demonstrated by the Williams Thesis, the observation that the working out of ideas of improvement in the landscapes of the Caribbean might have played a central role in influencing the idea of improvement in Britain is still more compelling.

But this geographical connectedness, and perhaps historical causation, between metropole and colony cannot be studied in isolation from the enactment of new attitudes to places, people and things that, as argued above, characterized improvement in the British Caribbean. Historical archaeologists are well placed to take the lead of historical geographers such as Seymour, conducting further studies of the influence of the British colonies upon British landscape history. The challenge, however, is for archaeologists and landscape historians to consider how the creation of the wider ‘landscapes’ of the British Atlantic world – formed by treating humans as objects, and by producing ‘drug foods’ such as sugar, tobacco and coffee that were consumed into Western bodies - formed part of the new attitudes to people and things that colonial improvements involved. Here, it is clear that our previous neglect of the material geographies of landscape change – the enactment of ‘material improvements’ in colonial as well as British situations - has served to masked our acknowledgement of a crucial dimension of British landscape history, just as the landscapes of Mansfield Park masked the horrors of plantation slavery.


Selected References

[for full references and footnotes see the published version in Estate Landscapes]

Austen, J. 1814, Mansfield Park, London: Nelson.

Cosgrove, D. & Daniels, S. (eds) 1988, The Iconography of Landscape, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Drayton, R. 2000, Nature’s government: Science, imperial Britain and the ‘improvement’ of the world, New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Dunn, R. S. 1972, Sugar and Slaves: The Rise of the Planter Class in the English West Indies, 1624-1713, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Farnsworth, P. (ed.) 2001, Island Lives: Historical Archaeologies of the Caribbean, Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press.

Hancock, D. 1995, Citizens of the World: London Merchants and the Integration of the British Atlantic Community, 1735-1785, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mukerji, C. 1997. Territorial Ambitions and the Gardens of Versailles. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Said, E. 1993, Culture and Imperialism, London: Vintage Books.

Sheridan, R. B. 1974, Sugar and Slavery: An Economic History of the British West Indies 1623-1776, Eagle Hall, Barbados: Caribbean Universities Press.

Williams, E. 1944, Capitalism and Slavery, London: Deutsch.

Williams, R. 1973, The City and the Country, London: Chatto and Windus.

Yentsch, A. E. 1994, A Chesapeake family and their slaves: a study in historical archaeology, Cambridge & New Haven: Cambridge University Press.


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