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Sugar, Slavery, and What They Left Behind

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Chinese Porcelain Cross Section. 

It is a fitting irony that archaeologists, when teaching students how to distinguish Chinese porcelain fragments from other ceramic ware types, describe the highly-fired kaolin and feldspar paste as having a vitrified “sugary” texture. European and American demand for porcelain vessels produced in southern China during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was driven by the exceptional wealth generated from sugar production across the Caribbean and South America.  The elite consumption of sugar in its myriad raw and processed forms--granulated, molasses, rum, confections, baked goods and punches—required a dizzying array of ceramic vessel types. These vessels, from tea bowls to chocolate pots and punch bowls, often sat on specialized furniture made of hardwoods imported from sugar-producing tropics.


Chinese Porcelain Saucer and Cup, 
© Victoria and Albert Museum.

Sugar, and its associated accoutrements, played a critical role in the “consumer revolution,” a phenomenon that many social and economic historians agree was among the most significant developments in modern history. The availability and importance of tropical comestibles and luxury goods accelerated throughout the 17th, 18th, and early-19th centuries. The rapid expansion of the market for sugar, spices, and precious metals required enslaved and coerced labor across the tropical Caribbean and Latin and South America.

As the most prolific sugar-producing region, the Caribbean was also the largest consumer of enslaved people in the Atlantic World. For nearly two centuries, millions of enslaved Africans were forcibly brought to the region to work sugar, coffee, indigo, cattle, spice and lumber plantations.  Enslaved men and women who survived the Middle Passage and the seasoning period in Caribbean port cities were transported to sugar estates where they were housed in small huts grouped together in villages. Forced to live and labor with other people stolen from regions across African who spoke different languages, practiced different religions, and enacted different cultural traditions, they developed strategies to resist and survive enslavement.


Looking into the Stewart Castle Village, Jamaica.

Today these villages are obscured by bush, field, and concrete.  Underneath foliage and asphalt lies some of the best evidence for understanding the daily lives of the enslaved. Since the early 1970s, archaeologists have excavated villages on sugar plantations across the Caribbean. Patterns in the distribution of ceramics, tools, glass, architectural remains, personal effects, and animal bone tell stories of individuals and families, young and old, female and male, cooperating and competing for survival in this new world.


University of West Indies and Johns Hopkins archaeologists taking a break from excavations at Montpelier sugar estate, Jamaica, 1973.
Photographed by Dr. Barry Higman.

Archaeological research has revealed that enslaved individuals, like most people in the early modern Atlantic World, were active participants in the consumer revolution.  Enslaved men and women played critical roles in building and sustaining Caribbean economies during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  Their labor fueled the sugar and coffee estates that drove Atlantic World markets while their own purchasing power was critical to the success of internal markets on islands across the Caribbean.  The development of Jamaica's provision ground system, in which owners allocated land to slaves for use as gardens instead of providing them with regular distributions of food, promoted market activities among slaves. The system put tremendous stress on enslaved individuals and families, requiring already physically debilitated individuals to cultivate gardens, raise livestock, fish and forage to meet their significant nutritional needs. It also put household production at the mercy of unpredictable and often violent island weather, with numerous instances of hurricanes that resulted in mass starvation on the island.

The strain the provision ground system put on enslaved men and women is reflected in island demographics. Jamaica’s disease environment, brutal labor regimes, and regular foods shortages resulted in such high mortality and low fertility rates that there was virtually no natural increase among the enslaved population throughout the eighteenth century. To sustain labor supply, Jamaican planters imported nearly 1 million enslaved Africans between 1700 and 1808, who toiled primarily in the production of sugar. The violence and brutality of Jamaican slavery was inescapable; it tangibly shaped daily social, economic, and political interactions and left indelible marks on the physical, material, and psychological landscape.


Stewart Castle Great House, Jamaica.

Few places on Jamaica are better physical expressions of these tensions than the Stewart Castle sugar estate. Patented by James Stewart I in 1754, Stewart Castle is located a little over 6 miles east of Falmouth, Jamaica in Trelawney Parish. It was initially a small landholding of 167 acres that did not produce sugar on any meaningful scale until after 1776. By 1799, the sugar plantation had grown to 1230 acres, with just under 500 acres planted in sugar cane. During that same year, a detailed plat of the property, including field acreage and type, location of the main house, works, wharf, slave village and provision grounds, was produced by the Jamaican surveying team of Munro, Stevenson, and Innes.

The 1799 plat is the only map of the property but ruins of documented structures remain visible today. The shell of a massive fortified masonry great house and privy stand near the center of the estate. Wharf piers and a few masonry walls of a storehouse from which hogsheads of sugar were shipped to England hug the rugged coastline. The remains of an overseer’s house overlook the ruins of the boiling house, cattle mill platform, and mill pond. The plat also shows at least 43 structures located on approximately 45 acres as “Negro Houses”. Cobble piles representing remnants of Spanish-walled houses, a grave, and a cut limestone foundation mark the location of the large village that once housed over 330 enslaved people by the early-nineteenth century.

Stewart Plat Detail

1799, Detail of the Monroe, Innes, Stephenson plat of Stewart Castle.

The plat is a remarkable snap shot of the plantation on the cusp of the nineteenth century and an indicator that its owner at the time of the plat’s creation, James Stewart II, was in financial trouble.  Surveys such as the one that resulted in the Munro, Stewart and Innes plat were often commissioned when a property was sold or mortgaged. A brief family history of the Stewarts suggests that James II paid more attention to his military and political ambitions than his economic interests and was forced to mortgage the plantation in 1797.  Born in 1763, Stewart II was a Custos of Trelawney Parish and a Lieutenant Colonial in the Militia.  His prominent involvement in the Maroon War of 1795, in which he led the third column of the Trelawney militia against the Maroons, likely led to the addition of numerous fortifications around the Stewart Castle main house in the late eighteenth century. The overzealous nature of the physical defenses around Stewart Castle, including a fortified privy, armored courtyard, interior cistern for holding water during a siege, and nearly 100 gun ports built into various parts of the compound, speaks to Stewart II’s concern for his personal security. The majority of the defenses face inland, toward the Cockpit Country and the Maroons and, perhaps more tellingly, toward the village that housed 330 enslaved people. The lack of attention to defenses along the water suggest that Stewart’s main concern lay in the ability of the Maroons to attack and incite the enslaved population that substantially outnumbered white planters on the island throughout the eighteenth century.


Interior courtyard of Stewart Castle Great House, Jamaica. 
Note the gun ports around the courtyard.


18th-century wine bottle glass mortared into the top of the courtyard wall to prevent people from climbing into the Great House complex.
Stewart Castle Great House, Jamaica.

Violent slave revolts in Jamaica were not uncommon and Stewart II had much to fear. He had allocated the estate’s poorest agricultural land as provision grounds. On this marginal land, enslaved people were required to grow food for their survival. Stewart also placed the village and sugar works in locations that minimized travel between the two, thereby reducing visibility for productivity, since neither the provision grounds nor village were observable from the main house or the overseer’s house. Beyond the inherent brutality of slavery in Jamaica, the defenses at the Stewart Castle Main House, along with the fact that Stewart allocated some of the estate’s poorest land as the slaves’ provision grounds, attests the intense psychological and physical stress placed on the men and women Stewart owned

Deep in the bush, cobble piles representing remnants of Spanish-walled houses, graves, cut limestone foundations, and extensive terracing mark the location of a large slave village that housed these enslaved men, women and children. In 2007, archaeologists from The Digital Archaeological Archive of Comparative Slavery (DAACS, georectified the 1799 Munro, Stevenson, and Innes plat with a modern topographic map of the area to pinpoint the exact location of the now densely overgrown Stewart Castle slave village. A thick surface scatter of late-eighteenth century domestic artifacts spreads over 50,000 square meters. Over the past decade, excavations and survey at the village have uncovered thousands of artifacts that help give voice to the enslaved that lived there between the 1770s and 1830s.


UWI and UVA students excavating the Stewart Castle Village, Jamaica.


Ceramics and bottle glass fragments at Stewart Castle, Jamaica.


Facetted Glass Bead. Excavated from the Stewart Castle Village.

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Brass Hardware, possible furniture ornament. Excavated from the Stewart Castle Village.

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Jeweled Knee Buckle. Excavated from the Stewart Castle Village.

Rich deposits of fish bone and discarded marine shell indicate the enslaved men, women, and children worked together fishing and foraging for dense protein sources that supplemented a mostly plant-based diet. Sherds of imported ceramics and wine bottles, which would have been repurposed to hold oils and liquids extracted from ground provisions, dominate the assemblage. Some households used metal utensils and iron pot fragments to cook and serve food; others relied on biodegradable gourds, wood, large leaves, and shells for food preparation and consumption. Tobacco pipe fragments, a jaw harp, and a marble speak to the formation of a community that may have gathered for music and play. Five recovered glass beads are direct links to the African slave trade. Costly objects imported from Europe, such as jeweled knee buckles, metal buttons, fashionable ceramics, and furniture ornaments indicate that at least some enslaved households participated in the local markets, likely selling or trading garden produce, fish, poultry, and homemade items for these goods. Archaeologically recovered knives, blades, and a sugar cane machete were likely used by enslaved laborers in both their gardens and in the cane fields. Enslaved men and women wielded these blades to cultivate the white sugar that made white men obscenely wealthy while also cultivating small, marginal plots for household provisions and market produce. The over-fortified Stewart Castle Great House demonstrates that these blades made the white men and women who lived at Stewart Castle nervous. They were the main weapons used against white people in slave revolts across the island.


Bill Hook, a sugar cane machete. Excavated from the Stewart Castle Village.

Large Iron Blade

Large iron blade. Excavated from the Stewart Castle Village.


The Destruction of Roehampton Estate in the parish of St. James's in January 1832 the property of J. Baillie Esq.
Lithograph, Adolphe Duperly [Public Domain], Jamaica 1833. 
Note the blade and machetes carried by enslaved rebels.

However, perhaps the most evocative find to date is a wrought iron sugar nipper. Used for cutting small pieces of refined sugar from cones, its village provenance raises a host of questions. Did an enslaved cook at the main house carry it to work each day as part of their kitchen toolkit?  Was it stolen from the main house or overseer? Did an enslaved person purchase the nippers to use in their household? Did they use it to cut sugar to make a concoction that was later served in a blue-and-white painted Chinese porcelain vessel, fragments of which were also found at the village? Did the person who broke the porcelain vessel notice the shattered edge looked like sugar?

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Sugar Nippers. Excavated from the Stewart Castle Village.  

Sugar Nipper Did

18th Centuy Sugar Nipper designs.


Transfer-printed Pearlware, c. 1820. Excavated from the Stewart Castle Village.


The majority of research conducted at Stewart Castle has been archaeological and architectural in nature. Dr. Jillian Galle and Leslie Cooper (DAACS\Monticello), Sean Devlin (Mount Vernon), Dr. Ivor Conolley (The Genesis Project, Jamaica) and students from the University of the West Indies, Mona and the University of Virginia conduct archaeological excavations within the fortified compound at the main house and at the slave village. Dr. Lynsey Bates (DAACS) has conducted extensive GIS research on land use at Stewart Castle. Architectural Historians Edward Chappell, Dr. Louis Nelson, Dr. Brent Fortenberry and students from the University of Virginia have recorded the Stewart Castle Great House and Overseer’s House.

Explore the data

The Digital Archaeological Archive of Comparative Slavery.

For nearly 20 years, The Digital Archaeological Archive of Comparative Slavery (DAACS, has worked with archaeologists to make their discoveries freely accessible to scholars and the public. Visit DAACS to read about discoveries at over 80 sites of enslavement in North American and British Caribbean. Explore the artifacts by querying and downloading complete archaeological datasets from each archaeological site. Read more about Stewart Castle at:

Slave Voyages.

Slave Voyages is a digital memorial that raises questions about the largest slave trades in history and offers access to the documentation available to answer them. Analyze the slave trades and view interactive maps, timelines, and animations to see the dispersal in action.


Lynsey Bates.  'Surveillance and Production on Stewart Castle Estate: A GIS-based analysis of models of plantation spatial organization'. B.A. Honors Thesis, Department of Anthropology, Charlottesville, University Press of Virginia, 2007.

Cary Carson. Face Value: The Consumer Revolution and the Colonizing of America. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2017.

Richard Dunn. Sugar and Slaves: The Rise of the Planter Class in the English West Indies, 1624-1713. Chapel Hill: Omohundro Institute and University of North Carolina Press, 2007.

Sidney Mintz. Sweetness and Power: The place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penguin Books,1986.

Steven Panning. 'Exploring Stewart Castle Estate'. Jamaican Historical Society Bulletin, 10(14), 1996a, pp.172-180.

Steven Panning. 'Exploring Stewart Castle Estate'. Jamaican Historical Society Bulletin, 10(14), 1996b, pp. 200-205.

Jillian Galle

Dr. Jillian Galle is the Project Director of the Digital Archaeological Archive of Comparative Slavery, based at the Thomas Jefferson Foundation in Charlottesville, Virginia. She specializes in early-modern Atlantic World material culture and studies how women and men used material culture to navigate slavery and freedom throughout the Caribbean and Southeast in the 18th and 19th centuries. She is the editor of Engendering African American Archaeology (2004) and has published articles in American Antiquity, The Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory, and edited volumes. She is currently editing a volume for the University of Alabama Press titled Beyond the Mansion: 30 Years of Archaeological Research on Slavery at The Hermitage.