restricted access 7. Nevis and Antigua: A Tale of Two Villages

From: Creole Clay

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135 7 Nevis and Antigua A Tale of Two Villages It was my grandmother who told me—she says she went to Saint Kitts to sell her pots and a gentleman came up to her and asked her, “What will you call these?” And she said, “You want to know?,” and he said, “Yes.” And she said, “Pay me first.” He asked her how much was for the pot and she told him, and he paid her. So she took the pot and she drop it and he said, “O me Gard!” and she said, “It’s ‘O me Gard’ they name.” —Almena Cornelius, potter, Nevis The islands of Nevis and Antigua lie in the northeastern Caribbean in the Leeward Islands group and have in common many geographic, historical, and social characteristics. Both are relatively small, although Antigua, Nevis’ direct neighbor fifty-two miles to the east, is three times its size. They are each members of a two-island state—the official country names are Saint Kitts and Nevis, and Antigua and Barbuda—and have similar histories as economic fixtures in the colonial world of the English sugar plantation. In each country a single village, Newcastle in Nevis and Sea View Farm in Antigua, is publically recognized as the established center for traditional pottery production on the island. Similar versions of the “O me Gard” (i.e., “Oh my God”) story are told in these islands when describing traditional pots, implying a strong connection in parable form, if not also in ceramic history and practice. Pottery making was once the dominant industry in the two villages, and is today represented by a strong leader who has consciously maintained the tradition throughout her lifetime. Production methods follow a similar pattern to those seen in Saint Lucia, with women of African descent using local clays to shape traditional forms by hand, and finishing the work in open bonfires. The functional pottery vessels made in Nevis and Antigua are markedly similar Figure 7.1. Almena Cornelius grew up in a multigenerational family of potters in Nevis and started her own career making flowerpots, yabbas, monkeys, and coalpots in her early twenties . She has been the leading member of the New Castle Pottery cooperative studio and retail outlet since it was founded in 1981. 136 Creole Clay to the catalogue of forms produced in Saint Lucia, with subtle variations in the naming of particular pots and in the details of shapes, handles, and lids. However, close examination of the techniques used to make the pots demonstrates several fundamental differences in ways of handling the clay. While these techniques are definitely within the spectrum of African ceramic heritage, when compared with Saint Lucia the differences clearly indicate alternate points of origin in West and Central African. The Potters of Newcastle, Nevis Newcastle sits at the northern tip of Nevis, less than two miles across the sea from the dry saltpans on the long southern tail of the neighboring island of Saint Kitts. On contemporary maps and road signs the village is called Newcastle, but local residents insist that the name was originally two words: New Castle. Historically this village has been the center of pottery production for both Nevis and Saint Kitts, and Newcastle is bordered to the east by the villages of Potworks and Brick Kiln, names that indicate the earlier existence of plantation potteries. Flush with sugar profits in the second half of the 1600s, Nevis was one of England’s richest overseas possessions, dubbed the “Queen of the Caribbees” and made the Map 4. Saint Kitts and Nevis. Created byWilliam L. Nelson. Nevis and Antigua: A Tale of Two Villages 137 political center of the Leeward Islands colony. In the eighteenth century, however, the fortunes of Nevis began an inexorable decline from the combined forces of a devastating earthquake, an attack by the French that included the theft of three thousand African slaves, and the increasing exhaustion of the soil from sugarcane monoculture. By the time of emancipation in 1834 landowners were in full flight, prices for estates were at an all-time low, and the needs and concerns of Nevisians received far less attention than did the inhabitants of the much larger island of Saint Kitts. In discussing the post-emancipation period in Nevis, historian Brian Dyde states that the grueling conditions of plantation labor “provided a powerful incentive to men and women to have nothing more to do with estate work, and the number of share-croppers, subsistence peasants...


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