- Montpellier Jamaica. A Plantation Community in Slavery and Freedom 1739–1912
When we open any book published by B. W. Higman, we can expect a thoroughly researched, well conceived, and clearly written work. This book is no exception. It is a case study of one of the largest, most populated, and best documented estates in Jamaica, discussing its creation and development over an extended period of time. The analytic tools of several disciplines are applied: history, geography, historical demography, and archaeology.
Montpellier was founded shortly after the British signed a treaty with Cudjo, the maroon leader operating in the nearby cockpit country, making it possible to develop this extended area into a very profitable sugar estate. It developed into three settlements: Old Montpellier and New Montpellier where sugar was produced and Shettlewood, the original settlement devoted to cattle-rearing. After the extensive slave revolt of 1831 in which Montpellier slaves were deeply involved, the entire estate shifted to cattle. Montpellier remained in the hands of its original, absentee-owner, founding family until well into the 20th century. The book includes an enlightening discussion of this family, including the gender relationships within it.
Montpellier was probably atypical of estates during both slavery and freedom: perhaps an extreme example of an absentee-owned estate. The white presence was slight, and transitory. Slave input into village life was extensive, allowing for a certain amount of autonomy. As Higman put it, “The villages were the centers of independent life and the loci of the slaves’ possessions.” (p.114) The geographic distribution as well as the layout and construction techniques of houses are studied and compared, with few firm or dogmatic conclusions about the source of these inputs. Surviving traces of the property and possessions of the slaves were excavated with what appears to this reviewer disappointing results. Nevertheless, one of Higman’s greatest talents is to make the most out of the existing evidence through thorough and systematic analysis, even when this evidence is slim, while being careful not to overstate his case. By combining descriptions of [End Page 478] the activities and the possessions, clothing, and personal adornment of slaves from documentary evidence, complemented by some extraordinarily interesting line drawings by Berryman (circa 1820) which are published in the text, we do arrive at some marvelous, concrete images of the life of the slaves of Montpellier. However, the archeological digs revealed almost entirely British-manufactured slave property: smoking pipes and decorated plates. Even the one decorated plate with African geometric designs was made in Britain. No furniture, no clothing, no jewelry, and only one musical instrument, a Jew’s harp, were found. The digs revealed some marbles and some beads, also of British manufacture, and 4 coins. Some buttons, all dating from the post-emancipation period, were found. No religious materials or sculpture survived. A small amount of animal remains was excavated.
One of the most effective chapters is his discussion of the revolt of 1831, relying heavily on court testimony by the slaves involved. He offers a fine analysis of the Montpellier participants in this widespread rebellion. They were generally skilled, young, black, male creoles with a mean age of 34: two years younger than the mean age of all slaves in St. James Parish. Their mothers were overwhelmingly Africans. Higman goes into exquisite detail about their families, their houses, and their possessions including garden plots and domestic animals. This revolt did, in fact, destroy Montpellier as a profitable sugar-producing estate and was a major event leading up to emancipation. Montpellier’s shift to cattle production was not very profitable. After emancipation, the freedmen were largely driven off the estate and their villages abandoned.
There are a few problems with the analysis in this truly impressive book. Its early, not too credible statements about the isolation and immobility of its slave population are, fortunately, contradicted by analyses occurring later on in the book. It contrasts demographic patterns among settlements in this one estate...