African Diaspora Archaeology in Guadeloupe, French West Indies. (News & Notes)

By Kelly, Kenneth G. | Antiquity, June 2002 | Go to article overview

African Diaspora Archaeology in Guadeloupe, French West Indies. (News & Notes)


Kelly, Kenneth G., Antiquity


In May 2001 an initial investigation into the archaeology of the African Diaspora was begun in Guadeloupe, French West Indies. In this first concerted effort to identify archaeological remains associated with the living spaces of enslaved Africans in the French West Indies, historical cartographic data was used to identify, locate and facilitate a preliminary survey of village sites associated with 17th-19th-century plantation sites. Historical archaeological research of this era in Guadeloupe has focused on industrial remains of plantations which remain prominent in the landscape due to their substantial construction, yet the lightly built structures housing enslaved Africans have not endured (Delpuech 2001). It has been amply demonstrated elsewhere in the Caribbean and in North and South America that archaeology can help to elucidate the experiences and adaptations of enslaved Africans.

During the 18th century, the French colonies of the Caribbean were economic powerhouses, with well-developed slave-based plantation economies housing over 50% of all enslaved Africans in the Caribbean, yet our understanding of the conditions of, and responses to, slavery in the region are based on research from the British colonies. Of the many differences between the colonies, the most important was the French Revolution which engendered enormous social upheavals. In the Caribbean, it led to revolution in St Domingue followed by the establishment of Haiti; in Guadeloupe it caused the unprecedented abolition (in 1794) of slavery and its re-establishment eight years later. Here, historical archaeology can contribute to a more complex and nuanced understanding of the social consequences of slavery in the French West Indies.

The goals of the initial research season were: to determine historical sources available for targeting potential sites; to develop a methodology for locating such sites; and to determine whether village sites associated with enslaved Africans were present and intact. While some British possessions have extensive series of maps and plans (Higman 1988), these apparently do not exist for French colonies. There are only a few such maps of Guadeloupe; happily, the Carte des Ingenieurs du Roi (CIR), produced in the 1760s, is very detailed, depicting the entire island and every plantation. Each sugar estate is shown, with individual buildings noted, including industrial works (a symbol shows the presence of windmill, watermill or animal mill). Villages occupied by enslaved Africans appear as collections of individual buildings apparently reflecting the actual village layout. Some are shown as parallel rows of houses on either side of a roadway, some are randomly distributed clusters, while others are orderly villages laid out on a grid pattern. Roads and geographical features are well represented; comparison with modern topographic maps demonstrates a great degree of conservatism in the road network.

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