A Caribbean Feasibility -- the Nevis Heritage Project

Article excerpt

A team of archaeologists organized by the Department of Archaeology at the University of Southampton (UK), in association with the Nevis Historical and Conservation Society, conducted a series of feasibility studies in 1999 to determine whether the prehistoric and historic social landscapes of the Caribbean could be researched from one island, as a case study, in advance of both rapid development and frightening natural destruction.

On the tiny island of Nevis, one of the Leewards in the Eastern Caribbean, the airport expansion scheme recently destroyed one of the oldest standing English fortifications in the Caribbean (FIGURE 1) (Morris et al. 1999), while Hurricane Lenny removed sand and palm trees to reveal two new colonial forts just last year. Torrential rainfall, uncontrolled by centuries of sugar-cane production, erodes prehistoric sites daily (FIGURE 2). These sandy middens are prime landscaping resources for new golf courses or building materials for hotels and homes.

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Nevis, located just northwest of Antigua, is only 90 sq. km but witnessed 2500 years of prehistoric migration and settlement (Wilson 1989) prior to English colonization in 1628 and subsequent preindustrial, global investment. For 50 years she was the centre for British government, and by 1704 African slaves produced more sugar on Nevis than any other Caribbean island. Over the past 10 years, however, tourism has become the main source of wealth for Nevisians. And with this important change has come the destruction of a very special heritage.

The Nevis Heritage Project has already (1) identified sites suitable to explore the changing later prehistoric period of the Caribbean; (2) discovered that 13 batteries and small forts had been built there by the English during the 17th century to defend the island against Dutch and French attack (and at least seven of these still exist including two underwater); (3) observed that major landscape planning of the island took place during the 17th century; and (4) recognized that the principal remaining town still preserves much of its colonial character both above and below ground and in its harbour. The past lives of Amerindian, African and European inhabitants can still be investigated at settlement sites, town plots, sugar plantations, slave villages and post-emancipation wooden houses.

The colonial fortifications have provided the major focus of project work so far. Tessa Machling is researching these small structures to determine their locations, extent, and functions within a framework of heritage management. She is currently surveying the remaining forts and carrying out archaeological assessment with the aim of understanding the dating, phasing and construction of these structures, as well as investigating contemporary historical writings, oral histories and local knowledge to place the structures within a historical narrative. …