Review Article

Interaction in Caribbeanscapes

José R. Oliver
Institute of Archaeology, University College London, 31–34 Gordon Square, London WC1H 0PY, UK
(Email: j.oliver@ucl.ac.uk)

Books Reviewed

KENNETH G. KELLY & MEREDITH D. HARDY (ed.). French colonial archaeology in the Southeast and Caribbean. x+250 pages, 30 illustrations, 17 tables. 2011. Gainesville (FL): University Press of Florida; 978-0-8130-3680-9 hardback US$74.95

L. ANTONIO CURET & MARK W. HAUSER (ed.). Islands at the crossroads: migration, seafaring, and interaction in the Caribbean. xvi+314 pages, 25 illustrations, 9 tables. 2011. Tuscaloosa (AL): University of Alabama Press; 978-0-8173-5655-2 paperback $25.

Oliver image

Together the two books reviewed here cast a wide net over the Caribbean and beyond to the south-eastern United States, Central America and northern South America. The first is restricted to the colonial period, while the second ranges from the earliest human occupation to the nineteenth century.

French colonial archaeology

The editors of this volume take as its fundamental premise that there is something distinctive and different about the French colonial 'experience' in the circum-Caribbean area when compared to that of the Spanish and British elsewhere in the Americas, especially in regards to the processes of local adaptations, transculturation, transvaluation (creolisation) and assimilation. Its contributors evaluate both the documentary and archaeological evidence from the south-eastern United States, as far north as Maryland and as far south as French Guiana. With two exceptions, the chapters concentrate on the Gulf Coast and Mississippi basin.

The themes explored—originally at a Society for Historical Archaeology meeting in 2004—are tightly interwoven and form a coherent set of mutually-supporting case studies. The tome successfully remains focused on the key objective: "to explore through historical archaeology, the ways in which French colonists in a variety of settings [urban, rural and plantation] created distinctive ways of life" (p. 6), which contrasts in significant ways with those of the Spanish and British colonies. This volume is most welcome as it considers regions of the Americas that have hitherto been grossly overlooked.

Kelly & Hardy's introductory chapter contains an excellent synthesis, gives the raison d'être of the book and puts the research problems in context. Shalko (Chapter 2) presents the case of the Huguenots settled among dominant Anglo-colonials in South Carolina: instead of wholesale assimilation, their 'Frenchness' remained evident through the distinctive poteaux-en-terre structures in a dominant Anglo-colonial milieu. Rivers-Coffield (Chapter 3) examines the extent to which French refugees and their slaves from Saint Domingue (Haitian Revolution) were able to reproduce their lifeways at L'Hermitage Plantation, Maryland; the settlement layout of the slave quarters suggests that the planters tightened their control over a slave population that was already 'contaminated' by ideas of liberté and égalité from the French Revolution. Both Hester's and Danforth's chapters (4 & 5) focus on the earliest decades of French failed efforts to settle in the Gulf Coast of Alabama. Hester considers the strategies that the ill-prepared colonists developed to resist their 'commoditisation' by metropolitan interests. Using burial data from the earliest known cemetery at the Moran site, Danforth demonstrates that a hastily buried population, mostly young males, shows signs of stressful physical conditions and low socio-economic status and origin in France and Europe.

Scott & Dowdy (Chapter 7) investigate, from the evidence obtained from two sites dating to earlier French and later Spanish periods, how multicultural interactions (of creolised societies) developed in urban and rural New Orleans. They compare the local food remains with the French and Spanish culinary traditions and evaluate the results in terms of ethnic heritage, creolisation and socio-economic status. Hardy's chapter (9) also deals with foodways on the Gulf Coast, reviewing the many sources (including West African and Native American) that contributed to the emerging Creole cuisine, in all its rich variety and regionalisms. The continued presence of faïence ceramics suggests that, while French cuisine was already creolised, 'Frenchness' was displayed through the continued import of French ceramics, even during the Spanish period. Morgan & McDonald (Chapter 8) approach French identity and creolisation by reassessing the nature of 'colonoware' from sites along the Red River, Louisiana. Their analysis shows a strong correspondence between most late colonial to early American earthenwares and those made by Native Americans. They also strongly suspect that African influences, specifically Kongo, were implicated in the production of colonoware, perhaps extending beyond the Red River region.

Early's chapter (6) stands somewhat apart as it is a call to develop archaeological research in a large area of the Mississippi basin that witnessed the war that never was: the second French-Chikasaw War of 1730–40. Her analysis of a rich body of historic documents shows its potential for expanding knowledge about complex French colonial–Amerindian relations (i.e. ethnogenesis) but, given the vast area under consideration, it should incorporate a realistic archaeological sampling strategy.

Kelly's work on Guadeloupe's sugar plantations is the first in-depth archaeological investigation on what was one of the earliest and richest of French colonies in the Americas. He focuses (in Chapter 10) on the profound transformation of planter-slave daily life just before and after the end of the ancien régime, finding the Napoleonic re-imposition of slavery in 1802 a pivotal stimulus for change in plantation life. La Mahaudière and Grande Pointe plantations show that the impoverished material culture of the late 1700s changed to an increased display of wealth after 1800 that ironically, as Kelley correctly insists, masks the brutality of slave treatment. Bain et al., in Chapter 11—the only chapter to explore a French plantation site (a mission) operated by a religious order, in this case the Jesuits—discuss the fascinating case of the Loyola Plantation site in French Guiana. It considers the evolving lifeways of the plantation in the context of the 'double-mission' of proselytising and maintaining economic viability with an Amerindian labour force that far exceeded that of the African slaves. Yet, the intriguing question of 'Frenchness' in contrast to 'Jesuit-ness' could have been further probed. The book concludes with a critical, incisive overview by De Bry.

This volume is extremely well-argued and documented. It provides valuable insights by maintaining a judicious balance between archaeological and text-based evidence. Further, it opens the gates for expanding comparative research with the French colonial archaeologies of Africa and other areas of the Old World.

Islands at the crossroads

Curet & Hauser's edited collection, originating in a 2006 Society for American Archaeology meeting, focuses on socio-cultural interactions at different scales and in the context of pre-eminently seafaring societies. The temporal scale ranges from the earliest human occupation (5000 BC) to the late colonial period and the area considered extends beyond the West Indian archipelago to embrace the continental areas framing the Caribbean Sea. Discussion also includes the social and technological mechanisms that promoted and supported (or arrested) the trade and exchange networks and movements of peoples. The contributors critically re-examine the conventional application of various problematic concepts, such as islands versus sea, frontiers, migration and, generally, examine samples of the archaeological record to infer the nature and character of the diverse social and culture-contact situations (trade, exchange) and their consequences. The volume is divided into three parts: conceptual or theoretical issues (Chapters 1–3); the different types of evidence for non-local interaction, possible seafaring routes and consequent impacts (Chapters 5–7); and breaking the barriers imposed by the traditional normative perspective (Chapters 8–10).

Curet opens with the unexpected: after over a decade of harsh criticism and rejection of Irving Rouse's migration paradigm, he argues for a reinvigorated 'take' on migration, one where it retains an important causal role in the process of shaping and re-shaping the ethnic and cultural identities of Caribbean societies as well as their interaction networks. Curet proposes that migration entails an understanding of human agency and the sociocultural and technological capacities of newcomers and residents alike and that diverse outcomes can result from such multi-cultural contact. Migration cannot be ignored just because it has become unfashionable.

Rivera-Collazo (Chapter 2) metaphorically appropriates the characters of Shakespeare's Tempest to construct a detailed post-colonial critique of a string of normative paradigms to characterise the culture history of past Caribbean societies. She shows why continental (largely colonialist) perspectives of island archaeology do not match islanders' notions of seascape (I prefer 'Caribbeanscape'), exposes the fallacies of discourses on Archaic societies—simple, nomadic bands of hunter-gatherers—and demonstrates that 'decolonised' portrayals that began nearly 40 years ago are now better supported by data: many Archaic societies did practice horticulture, had stable settlements and displayed social and cultural sophistication. It is a brave stance, since Rivera-Collazo does not shrink from naming names. But all of us who are older and honest enough will recognise that at some point in our careers we have subscribed to the discourse of Ariel or Prospero.

Hauser & Kelly (Chapter 3) discuss inter-island trade of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, in particular scales of interaction. Their discussion centres on "those embodied forms of knowledge which framed colonial relations" (p. 44), illustrated by an analysis of the circulation of Vallauris ceramics. I agree with their call for "decolonizing the discourse of island archaeology" and emphasising the "social processes and cultural decisions regarding apparent boundaries" instead of focusing on "the effects of those social boundaries on social and cultural processes" (p.40).

Callaghan (Chapter 4) presents computer-simulated models of sea-borne expedition routes that connect six chosen 'ports' in the Greater Antilles (including Antigua) with mainland Central America and the Gulf Coast (Mexico to Florida). He evaluates the optimal season for oceanic canoeing and the probabilities of success of drift voyages from islands to the continent and towards the north-western rather than southern regions. Given the ease and low risk of navigation towards the 'northern' destinations he asks: Why is the archaeological evidence of interaction with the north-west negligible compared to the isthmian and northern South American regions? He provides reasonable answers, but I remain unconvinced that trade artefact distributions are "determined largely by the preferences of the 'buyers' along the trading route" (p. 72); not if the exchange is driven by principles of reciprocity.

Chapter 5 (Hofman et al.) provides, in broad strokes, a synthesis of the major patterns of archipelagic interaction, focusing on the enduring links that the seafaring islanders maintained with homeland regions on the mainland. They discuss the conditions for a 'lifeline', review the colonising scenario, and, using a selection of archaeological materials, show how trade connections expanded or contracted through time along with shifts among the materials (raw and manufactured) being exchanged. As a broad synthesis it captures the current consensus among (most) Caribbean archaeologists, even though one might quibble with the details.

Contraband in the Spanish colonies is examined by Newquist (Chapter 6) in a comparison of late seventeenth-century ceramics from two Franciscan sites: El Convento in Santo Domingo, Hispaniola, and Saint Augustine, Florida. She considers whether 'illicit' materials are due to localised opportunities or whether there is a broader pattern. Differences emerge between the convents. Newquist suggests this may be due to "being more socially and politically acceptable" for Franciscan friars "to use contraband [ostentatious wares] in Santo Domingo than in St. Augustine", the latter being "more peripheral in its access to the transatlantic trade" (p. 102). Perhaps, I would have included a closer examination of how divergences within the Franciscan Order during and after the Council of Trent (1545–1563) affected ostentatious wealth acquisition and landed property (against vows of poverty).

Berman (Chapter 7) brilliantly discusses the evidence of trade and exchange between Lucayan aborigines (Bahamas) and their neighbours in Cuba, Hispaniola and Florida, marshalling a full range of exotic materials from the Bahamas. She discusses likely sources and provenances, but warns that very little scientific testing (e.g. X-Ray Fluorescence) has been carried out. Early exotics (including plants) are partly explained as attempts to reproduce and maintain some of the homeland conditions. Berman convincingly argues that Lucayans, at least since AD 1100, placed high value on acquiring "brilliant" and "shiny" objects that in turn promoted their circulation as raw and/or as finished materials. The data clearly supports Berman's argument that the "intensity of interaction decreased from south to north" and that "political relations [are] "likely to be a contributing factor" (p. 132).

Armstrong and Williamson (Chapter 8) analyse nineteenth-century assemblages from a merchant's household and workshop at the Magen's House site in St. Thomas (Virgin Islands). They use historical accounts, census and tax data as well as archaeological remains to explore the broader implications of its occupants' social interaction, highlighting the importance of working with multiple datasets to comprehend how the residents 'navigated' between that intimate, local scale of relations of production and consumption and the broader transatlantic trade.

Rodríguez Ramos (Chapter 9) considers the extant evidence for pre-colonial interaction between the Greater Antilles and the Isthmus of Panama-Colombia, a region that has long been ignored by archaeologist in both regions, but that he has, almost single-handedly, brought to the fore. During the earliest Archaic (4000–500 BC), he notes, the evidence is all about "things that grow" (plants and related implements), followed by "things that glow" (500 BC to AD 700), such as jadeite items, and ending (AD 500–1500) with "things that show", ranging from portable objects (e.g. wooden benches) to architectural features (e.g. bateyes and plazas). Certainly, I agree that there are outstanding parallels in the materials (especially plants) and objects, even in the iconographic details, between the two regions, but much work is required to rule out instances of parallel convergence. The study's great value lies in showing the folly of assuming that all sources and trade interactions in the Antilles were with north-eastern South America. The danger might be that some colleagues might now focus exclusively on the lower Central American region. Clearly, Rodríguez Ramos's intent is to keep a Caribbeanscape perspective, as reinstated from the dormant circum-Caribbean scope that Julian Steward had proposed long ago.

Siegel's chapter (10) is about interaction and landscape from the perspective of competitive polities and territorial expansion, but with emphasis on the archaeological evidence from Puerto Rico. Some of his arguments may be familiar to Caribbeanists but his is a much updated and well-researched exegesis, with some critical consideration of dissenting views. He concludes that the evidence points to "an ideology of domination" where ambitious chiefs aim to gain more followers and control more territory. Losers in campaigns of conquest will either follow the victorious or join another polity. From my perspective (and bias) there is much to agree with in this essay, but there are details in interpretation that I would cheerfully contest, most particularly his assumptions about what constitutes a (civic-)ceremonial centre and his use of size as a the only variable for identifying relative ranking. It is not clear yet that such ranking (using plazas and bateyes as proxy) should be translated exclusively in terms of hierarchical relations of domination and subordination.

The editors' closing chapter is an insightful, critical overview of the key points. It suggests ways of approaching interaction and exchange in future studies: to identify the nature and dynamics of the interaction, rather than worry about where boundaries may lie, will minimise and bridge the "many issues related to the isolationism of scholars operating from 'different' culture areas" (p. 232).