Academic journal article The Journal of Caribbean History

Lady Nugent and Tom Cringle on the Veranda: Early Nineteenth-Century Observations on a Caribbean Architectural Feature

Academic journal article The Journal of Caribbean History

Lady Nugent and Tom Cringle on the Veranda: Early Nineteenth-Century Observations on a Caribbean Architectural Feature

Article excerpt

Introduction

"[I]n this verandah a great deal of their life is led. "'

Anthony Trollope was referring specifically to the people of Georgetown, British Guiana, when he made the observation quoted above, but his remark could be said to apply equally to the entire Caribbean region. By the time of Trollope's tour of the West Indies and the Spanish Main, in 1858-1859, verandas (or verandahs), then commonly known as piazzas, were ubiquitous architectural features in the Caribbean. Even before George I ascended the British throne, the veranda, so typical of Caribbean Georgian architecture, was a common feature of houses built for the white plantocracy. In a letter from Jamaica written in1711, Charles Leslie noted that

The gentlemen's houses are generally built low, of one story, consisting of five or six handsome apartments. . . . they have generally a piazza to which you ascend by several steps, and [which] serves for a screen against the heat, and is likewise a way of enjoying any coolness which may be in the air.

Drawing on evidence derived from two well-known published works that record on-the-spot observations at the time, this study examines the role of the veranda or piazza in early nineteenth-century Caribbean, mainly Jamaican, colonial society. It explores the various ways in which this characteristic architectural feature was used, and suggests possible reasons for its continuing popularity.

Probably the best-known contemporary works that describe daily life in Jamaica during the first decades of the nineteenth century are Lady Nugent's Journal and Michael Scott's Tom Cringle's Log. The former is a personal journal kept by Maria Nugent, the American-born wife of the British governor of Jamaica from 1801 to 1805, the latter an autobiographical novel that contains vivid descriptions of different places in the Caribbean, including Jamaica, where many of the episodes are set. Both books reveal much about verandas and the various ways in which they were used, and the following discussion begins with an examination of Lady Nugent's observations on the subject.

Lady Nugent's Journal

Describing Clifton House, near Kingston, Maria Nugent wrote, "Its form is the usual one, of one story with a piazza, &c.",3 while, with its "galleries, piazzas, porticoes &c.", the splendid house at Bushy Park was "truly Creole".4 In England and the English-speaking world, piazza is an alternative word for veranda, but it has largely fallen into disuse in this sense. Gallery and portico are terms that can also refer to veranda-like features, while porch is another word sometimes used with similar meaning. This last word is invariably associated with an entrance. Lady Nugent rarely used the word veranda in her Journal, piazza clearly being her preferred term. It was a word used for the verandas of houses, both great and small. The Maroon settlement of Chariest own had "little huts up the sides of the hills, each having a piazza in front",5 a feature which, for Lady Nugent, contributed to the picturesqueness of the scene, but about which she had nothing more to say. We can only conjecture why the descendants of runaway slaves built verandas on their simple dwellings, and how the black population used these structures. Lady Nugent's Journal is much more informative about the verandas of the houses of the wealthy white population and an examination of her observations throws much light on the important role that these features played in the daily life of colonial Jamaica. Before proceeding, it is useful to note the use of plurals in the extract from Lady Nugent's description of Bushy Park, quoted above. While many Jamaican houses had (and have) only one veranda, usually at the front, back and side verandas were common.

In over thirty references to verandas, which she usually called "piazzas", Lady Nugent reveals a wide range of uses to which the Jamaican veranda was put. Although many of her observations relate to Government Pen, the governor's country estate near the then capital, Spanish Town, others refer to houses that she and her husband visited on their travels around Jamaica. …

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