Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 10, 2018
Louis P. Nelson Architecture and Empire in Jamaica New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016. 324 pp.; 52 color ills.; 198 b/w ills. Hardcover $75.00 (9780300211009)

In this ambitious, generously illustrated, and beautifully produced book, Louis P. Nelson convincingly shows us that Jamaica and its architecture is not peripheral, but central to our understanding of the British Empire in the long eighteenth century (from 1692, the year of the Port Royal earthquake, to 1838, marking emancipation). Departing from the emphasis of many architectural histories of early modern Americas, Nelson focuses on the movement of people (whites and blacks), goods, ideas, and capital in and around the Atlantic World to reveal the complex entanglement of involvements, identity, and architecture.

In this sweeping history, both West Africa’s coastal forts and merchant houses in the shipping ports of Jamaica are brought into relationship with each other as important nodes in the transportation and sale of enslaved people, and as wealthy absentee Jamaican plantation owners made investments in British cities and built palatial country houses in Britain. At the same time, Nelson demonstrates how empires were connected and often learned from each other. For example, English planters in Jamaica were influenced by Spanish precedents on the island in their construction of galleried plantation houses. This book focuses deliberately on domestic architecture, rather than on the publicly funded buildings of the state, making the case that private individuals and the state are equally central to the making of empire. Methodologically, while drawing on archival materials and secondary sources, the foundation for this book rests on a decade of annual month-long field research projects in Jamaica, where Nelson and teams of students documented everyday architecture through careful measured drawings. Rather than a history of the makers of architecture, this work is concerned with how individuals used space and, within varying constraints, reshaped it to meet their needs.

The book’s introduction does an effective job of laying out the central themes, while each of the nine chapters focuses on specific aspects of the architecture and arts of Jamaica. The first chapter takes us to the European forts on the coast of West Africa, alerting us immediately that architecture in Jamaica can only be understood in the context of the Atlantic slave trade. We understand that the forts are the second of four key spaces—coffle, castle, deck, and dock—that enslaved Africans were subjected to from the time of their capture to their sale to a British Caribbean planter. Nelson takes us through each of these spaces in turn, and in accompanying enslaved Africans, we catch a glimpse of their terrifying spatial and sensory experiences on this journey. By the last decade of the eighteenth-century, the sale of recently arrived Africans was shifted from ships to merchant houses in Kingston, which then sold slaves to plantations. The chapter concludes with an examination of Thomas Hibbert’s fine house in Kingston. In the mid-eighteenth century, Hibbert emerged as the principal slave trader in Kingston, even as he was engaged in debates on the ethics of the slave trade. Nelson shows us how the cellar of the house was altered to accommodate slaves and how the spaces of the building were used to facilitate their sale. In doing so, Nelson prompts us to think of how this national landmark needs to be remembered: as the home of a prominent merchant intimately connected to the slave trade and the middle passage, and as the first building Africans in Jamaica would have experienced on their final journey into slavery.

Jamaica was the only colonial holding in the region that was taken by the British, by force, from the Spanish, a major European power. For close to a century, the British ruled Jamaica from Spanish public buildings, and in occupying them, the British seemed haunted by memories of conquest. There were also other threats. Of all the British colonies, Jamaica had the greatest disparity between black and white populations, and by the 1710s, there were eight blacks for every one white. By the late seventeenth century, slave riots were frequent, and of the numerous slave insurrections, the most notable was Tacky’s Rebellion of 1760. In addition, Maroons (escaped slaves) launched guerilla attacks on British colonials. They signed a treaty with the colonial government in 1739, receiving recognition as independent nations. In the second chapter, Nelson shows that one reaction to these threats in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was for many planters in the northern and western parishes of Jamaica to create defensive houses with corner flankers or pavilions. In order to understand these houses, the account shifts to a fascinating discussion on the location of tower houses in the British landscape, found in much higher concentrations along the Welsh and Scottish borders, regions where there had been violent struggles over land. Strikingly, the majority of these defensive great houses built at this time in Jamaica were constructed by planters who were recent emigrants from Scotland and who drew on the defensive architectural traditions of the Scottish landscape.

British colonials were equally challenged by the heat of the Caribbean and the violence of hurricanes and earthquakes. How they met these challenges is the subject of the third chapter, which also examines the piazza in Jamaica as the product of a number of different sources. Plantations in Jamaica were major sites of improvement, a justification for force and violence, as the fourth chapter reveals. Long before it emerged in other industrial and agricultural settings, the sugar plantation was one of the first arenas for clock-based methods of management. Employing the most recent technologies of milling, and new regimes of labor management, the Jamaican plantation offered a model for improvement and industrialization to Britain. Nelson takes us through the plantation landscape, which included trash houses, slave hospitals, slave barracks, the overshot waterwheel, the boiling house, and the curing house. Apart from torture, there was increasing use of overseers and surveillance to suppress slave revolts and ensure the smooth running of the plantation. However, in many cases the overseer’s house focused on the works with little ability for surveillance over the slave village, where slaves had some measure of freedom and believed that the land they occupied belonged to them. The plantation was also a landscape of fear for enslaved women, providing numerous locales for them to be raped. Chapter 5 shows how elite Jamaicans, enriched by the sale and labor of slaves, saw themselves as Britons in Jamaica and used the wealth from plantations to cultivate refined aesthetic sensibilities to participate in the high culture of Britain.

An examination of merchant house-stores, commercial streets, and wharves in the sixth chapter reveals how Jamaicans participated in an empire of goods, as did the British. As chapter 7 shows, if the defensive house was one reaction to the Jamaican landscape, the Jamaican Creole house, a common house type with distinct features, built across Jamaica by the third quarter of the eighteenth century, was another. Creoles emerge as different from the British, and the Creole house revealed a particular form of sociality that valued physical comfort for whites, white hospitality, racial ambivalence, miscegenation, and violence over black bodies. Hospitality and solidarity between whites and possibly elite slaves were other responses to dealing with Jamaica’s social and racial landscape.

The eighth chapter shifts our focus to free black housing. Even as variations existed showing the wealth of some, the small two-room house was typical, distinguishing it from the buildings of the enslaved, even as the English box-frame technology associated it with the building traditions of free whites. At the same time, the presence of two doors in these houses reveals a resistance to Jamaican laws, as free blacks used their homes and associated landscapes to help runaway slaves resist capture. But Jamaica’s free-black architecture also shows an affiliation with the shotgun houses in New Orleans, which, as in Jamaica, were also associated with the city’s population of black mistresses. The last chapter returns us to Britain to show how elite absentee Jamaicans were important shapers of British cities, even as they purchased and bought castles or houses with corner towers, and less often introduced the piazza in their country houses.

Anthony D. King’s important work on the bungalow in The Bungalow: The Production of a Global Culture (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984) has shown the importance of domestic environments to empire, how this building type became part of a global culture, and how it was also used in non-imperial settings. However, in contrast to Nelson’s emphasis on privately funded domestic architecture, King reveals that the vast majority of bungalows in British India, for example, were constructed by and/or for the state, pointing to varied relationships between the colonial state and private enterprise in the colonial economies of different parts of the British Empire. Architecture and Empire in Jamaica has all the materials necessary for the author to have made an even stronger case for the importance of studying domestic architecture in Jamaica, where a small oligarchy was economically and politically dominant, plantations were domestic settings and industrial landscapes, and merchant houses were homes and spaces of commerce. This is a minor quibble for a book that is rich in insights and a major contribution to our understanding of empire. This important book is a careful study of architecture and material culture in multiple locations, revealing how the flows of people, goods, capital, and ideas crisscrossed, impacting how spaces were shaped and used in both the metropole and colonies of the British Empire. Methodologically, the nuanced analysis of everyday architecture and landscape, based on extensive fieldwork and comparative studies, offers a model for other scholars. It shows us how private individuals were crucial to the project of empire and the important role of domestic architecture in making and unmaking empire.

Preeti Chopra
Professor of Architecture, Urban History and Visual Studies, University of Wisconsin–Madison