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  • Architecture and Empire in Jamaica by Louis P. Nelson
  • Edward Chappell (bio)
Louis P. Nelson
Architecture and Empire in Jamaica
New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2016.
x + 313 pages, 250 color and black-and-white illustrations.
ISBN: 978-030-021100-9, $85.00 HB
Kindle, $68.00

Readers worried about the vitality of meaningful fieldwork in early modern buildings need look no further than Louis Nelson's new Architecture and Empire in Jamaica for reassurance. It is all the more heartening that the book grows in part from a fruitful series of architectural field schools held for about a decade. The book substantially raises the bar for other field school faculty. And it does much more. This is a major work that deserves reading by everyone interested in the Caribbean, slavery and race, Georgian gentry culture, and architectural interpretation. It offers a wide-ranging and briskly readable account of Jamaican, West African, and British buildings embodying the story of eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century African enslavement, the middle passage, and life in Britain's then-most-lucrative colony.

The book begins in Ghana; addresses buildings of defensive character or imagery in Jamaica, Britain, and Ireland; then focuses six chapters on significant varieties of Jamaican buildings; and concludes with a Jamaica-centric return to Britain. Much popular attention has turned in recent years to the slave-trafficking coastal castles in West Africa, but Nelson uses detailed explanation and compelling graphics to make traded people's experiences in the Ghanaian strongholds and slave ships palpable.1 He explores how after 1751 the Parliament-funded British Company of Merchants Trading to Africa consortium created and refined "slaving machines" (the author's term) for efficiently and brutishly channeling ever more newly enslaved people through the dungeons to the ships, a process that peaked in the 1790s.

Those who survived the voyage to Jamaica were stripped, oiled, and sold in the city of Kingston and the coastal towns. Plantation owners commonly bought people on deck, until merchants persuaded the colonial assembly to ban shipboard sales in the 1790s. Thus developed a third-party regimen of holding and reselling Africans. Nelson descriptively conjures the pivotal scene of such sales at merchants' houses or stores, for which we lack the illustrations that U.S. abolitionists later used to depict Southern auctions.2

The violent landscape is a thread binding the chapters together, well exemplified by the handful of seriously fortified late eighteenth-century rural houses that survive, primarily in ruins. Defensive features in this peculiar group of buildings reflect white fear of independent Maroons, particularly during the Second Maroon War (1795–96), and more generally of slave revolt. Nelson extends this interpretation to his reading of more conventional houses built by white landowners, both on the island and back in Britain and Ireland, which, he argues, expressed a similar paranoia in their symbolic evocations of domination.

Nelson also shows how storms, earthquakes, and the harsh climate shaped building in Jamaica. In the chapter "Heat and Hurricanes," he explores the evolution of low roofs and mixed wall materials as a response, drawing in the cinematic and instructive loss of Jamaica's wicked Port Royal to earthquake and tidal wave in 1692. Here, he follows architectural historian James Robinson's lead in seeing lessons both resisted and learned from earlier Spanish construction practices on the island.3

Output of Jamaican sugar and rum was the engine that drove British trade from the early 1700s until emancipation in the 1830s. Nelson accessibly explains the processes of production, especially the milling of cane and its costs to human life, which followed harvesting and preceded boiling, curing, and shipping. Planters were highly attentive to improvements in the efficiency of the rollers in the mills and the power that drove them. The latter shifted from mules to cattle, then to water, and ultimately to steam. Overshot waterwheels were an improvement over undershot wheels. With the exception of cattle mills, however, all these advancements depended on a substantial scale of production. Smaller planters continued to use older methods requiring less initial investment. Rum, made by distilling molasses, a byproduct of boiling the cane, was a second commodity with a ready regional...


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