Ethnicity, Race and the Archaeology of the Atlantic Slave Trade


Dan Hicks







The issue of ethnicity has been little considered by British post-medieval archaeology. Archaeology has unique access to evidence of the role of material culture in the expression and negotiation of historical identities. This paper aims to provide a theoretical framework for the study of ethnicity in the post-medieval period.


Many archaeological discussions of ethnicity take a ‘situationist’ approach, emphasising individuals’ choice from a range of available identities. Yet in the study of the West Indian colonial societies of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, in which ethnic identity cannot be considered in isolation from the extreme power relations of nascent racial slavery, the application of a model of ‘individual choice’ is problematic.


In this light, the role of Bristol City Museum in recent successful attempts to present the multicultural heritage of Bristol’s historical involvement in the Atlantic slave trade in is outlined. The potential for the new ‘inclusive’ agenda provided by this initiative to be applied to future archaeological practice is discussed.


An alternative theoretical framework for the archaeology of ethnicity in the later historical period, based upon a contextual approach to material culture and emphasising the global context of cultural interaction, is presented. Through a unified, ‘macro-situationist’ theoretical approach to these issues, British archaeology may begin the crucial process of addressing its previous neglect of the histories of ethnic minorities.


Ethnicity, Race and the Archaeology of the Atlantic Slave Trade

Ethnicity and British later historical archaeology

Later historical archaeology in Britain has traditionally involved illustration of the details of industrial manufacture and, through traditional artefact studies, regional distribution (Johnson, 1996: 187). But recently attempts have been made to move beyond this descriptive paradigm, a cross-section of which are presented in Sarah Tarlow and Susie West’s recent edited volume The Familiar Past? (1999). A wide range of contemporary archaeological theoretical approaches, previously applied to pre-industrial contexts, is provided[1]. What unites these perspectives is an urge to shake off traditional ’post-medievalist’ attitudes, and to rise to the challenge of developing a contextual and interpretative archaeology of the later historical period. Yet behind the baffling array of modern social theorists whose ideas are mobilised is tendency to retain a local agenda.


While the discussions of individual lived experience and practice, consumer behaviour or the appropriation and use of material culture are innovative and important, the overwhelming feeling is of what has been termed elsewhere a ‘self-denigrating polyvocality’[2]. This does not mean, contra Orser (1996: 14), that we should isolate ourselves from the achievements of prehistorians. Indeed, it is argued below that the recent adoption by pre-industrial archaeologists of a ‘global’ interpretative context[3] is of particular importance to later historical archaeology.


The new atmosphere in British later historical archaeology has seen a continued neglect of the issue of ethnicity - despite the presence of significant numbers of Africans, Asians and other ethnic minorities in Britain throughout the past five hundred years[4]. Archaeology has unique access to the material remains of the past landscapes and artefacts through which ethnicities were expressed and negotiated - a potential which has been investigated by American studies of the archaeology of slavery.


At the same time, despite studying the societies at the centre of the original historical model of the ‘modern world system’[5], few attempts have been made to interpret British post-medieval archaeology in a global perspective[6]. Yet any attempt to understand, for instance, the development of the architecture or urban form of eighteenth century Bristol without reference to the economic, cultural and moral exchanges of the ‘Triangular Trade’[7] denies a context which was central to the understanding, motivations and wealth of contemporary Bristolians.


The importance of considering ethnicity and adopting a global perspective, and moreover the crucial relation between these issues in the later historical period, have become increasingly clear during my study of the archaeological remains of colonial landscapes in the eastern Caribbean. In a discussion of the relationship between racial classification and ethnic expression in the new colonial situations of the New World from the seventeenth century, I shall suggest an alternative to the individuating impulses in previous definitions of ethnicity and possible future directions for the archaeology of this important subject.


Defining Ethnicity

The identification of past social identities and cultural differences is central to contextual interpretation of archaeological remains (Shennan, 1989: 1). Previous definitions of ethnicity may be divided between ‘primordial’ beliefs in the innate nature of ethnicity, and ‘instrumentalist’ or ‘situationist’ emphasis upon ethnicity as a category mobilised in social relations for self-interested reasons[8]. Clearly, the recognition in anthropology that there are no ‘people without history’[9], and that those histories involved complex, often long-distance, interaction with other societies, means that a simple primordial notion of pristine ethnic identity is no longer tenable.


Equally, the adoption of an entirely relativistic model is denied not only by the evident considerable influence of ethnicity upon modern political and social interaction, but also by the historical contingency of the development of specific ethnicities. In the case of the colonial West Indies, the contemporary political imperative of recognising African-American perspectives, which have been historically denied by white racism, makes a dismissal of African-American ethnicities in the past entirely inappropriate. The recognition of ethnic histories must then spur us on to an ‘archaeology’ of ethnicity, an anthropologically-informed examination of the generation, change and decline of ethnic identities over time (cf. Harrison, 1995).


The main failure of the instrumentalist theory of ethnicity lies in its theory of agency, which borrowed from the influential ‘transactionist’ approach of anthropologist Fredrik Barth, best exemplified by his study of the political organisation of the Swat Pathan of Pakistan and Afghanistan in the 1950s (Barth, 1959). Recording individuals’ affiliation to ethic identities for self-interested reasons, Barth identified self-categorisation as the force maintaining ethnic boundaries over time[10]. But as Asad (1972) has pointed out, the stratified nature of Pathan society underlines the fact that historical shifts in collective position and class interest, rather than individual motive or identification, defined shifts in ethnic identity.


Asad’s point may be generalised. Unless we are to adopt a Thatcherite disbelief in society, we cannot (contra Jenkins, 1997: 166) hold that collective social forms appear ‘as emergent patterns generated by the ongoing ins and outs of individuals interacting’. Siân Jones has similarly criticised the apparently arbitrary ‘choice’ of distinctive cultural forms in instrumentalist’ models. Her answer is that

‘the self-conscious expression of ethnicity through material culture is linked to the structural dispositions of the habitus, which infuse all aspects of the cultural practices and social relations characterising a particular way of life…[T]he manifestation of inter-ethnic relations, and the expression of ethnic difference, are linked to cultural practices and social differentiation within the group’ (1997: 120-1; my emphasis)


The appeal of using the concept of habitus is that Barth’s free-floating ‘subjective identities’ are contextualised (Shennan, 1989: 16). Jones explores this approach in a reappraisal of Romanization in Britain. She highlights the different contextual meaning of the material culture recovered by archaeologists according to ‘locales’ - whether rural or urban, public or private, military, etc.


But how do we define the ‘group’ within which Jones sees ethnicity being worked out? Jones hints at but does not explore the creation by the expansion of the Roman empire of ‘new forms of social interaction and social relationships’ for ‘Roman’ and ‘native’[11].To add a further scale of analysis to her study, we may use Woolf’s (1990) location of Roman Britain within a world system to imagine a Romanization in which a package of styles, attitudes, practices and items of material culture - the idea of ‘Roman’ ethnic identity - was available in peripheral Britain for adoption and display. Such a model would push us to identify a semiotic dimension to the Roman world system[12].


The position adopted here aims to complement Jones’ local scales of analysis and individual habitus by raising the possibility that ethnogenesis and ethnic identity are partly the result of participation in a global system of cultural interaction[13]. As a working definition we may define ethnicities as self-defined social categories, ‘emerg[ing] as situational consequences of increasing contacts’[14], while retaining a consciousness of the categorising role and extreme power relations of the racial slavery, which emerged on the plantations of the New World.


Ethnicity and New World Slavery

The seventeenth century saw the development of a proto-capitalist plantation economy in Brazil, the Caribbean and the Chesapeake. From the mid seventeenth century, the eastern Caribbean saw the subjugation of the native Carib population, the forced transportation of white Irish indentured labourers (in what has been called the ‘Irish slave trade’[15]), and the development of the African slave trade. An estimated total of nine and a half million African men and women were brought to the New World as slaves (Curtin, 1969), and several million more may have died during the ‘Middle Passage’ from West Africa.


British, Dutch, French, German, Spanish and Swedish and came together in trade and war. Cutting across social class and national origin, religious identities included significant Jewish communities, Protestants, Catholics and non-conformists, as well as African and Native American religious traditions. A process of complex ethnogenesis and cultural interaction between black, white and red[16] took place. This was underwritten by shifting hegemonic racial categorisation[17], worked out in the oppressive new regimes of the plantation. I want to explore these processes of domination/race and resistance/ethnicity before considering their archaeological visibility.



Irish populations in the Eastern Caribbean

The complex development of ethnic categorisation is exemplified by English attitudes to the Irish population of the eastern Caribbean. As early as 1634, an estate on Montserrat was described in the diary of one Father Andrew White as ‘a noble plantation of Irish Catholique, whome the Virginians would not suffer to live with them because of their religion’. The complex attitudes towards Irish populations in the New World are further evidenced by English Protestant rule on Montserrat leading to Catholic services taking place in secret, isolated locations[18].

Anti-Irish attitudes were reinforced by a general fear of rebellion, especially after the revolts of Irish servants on St Kitts in 1666 and on Montserrat in 1667. By the late 17th century, the Irish in the Leeward Islands are recorded as comparing their situation to that of black slaves. In 1701 anti-Irish legislative action was taken on Nevis to prevent ‘papists’ and ‘reputed papists’ from holding public office or coming to the island as settlers[19].

In the early eighteenth century while an ‘equation…between African Negroes and slavery’ developed in the Americas[20], an increasing incorporation of the Irish population into the white community took place - treated ‘if anything…as tolerable social misfits’ (Beckles, 1990: 522).

Racial Slavery and capitalism

The Irish example throws the changing definitions of black slaves during this period into relief. A general shift to social definition by phenotype appears to have taken place, perhaps forming the origin of racial slavery, between the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, as the Caribbean plantation economy developed and the Atlantic slave trade grew. This is the thesis of Robin Blackburn, who sees on these plantations the development of ‘a slavery quite unlike what had existed in any part of the Old World. Unlike Roman slavery, it afflicted only those of black African origin or descent’[21], and involved new regimes of surveillance and social identification defined primarily by skin colour[22]. As Eric Williams famously wrote, ‘slavery was not born of racism: rather, racism was the consequence of slavery’. This was not so much as a strategy to justify inequality, but as a result of the unimaginable harshness of the plantocracy[23].


However, some historians have sought to locate the origin of modern slavery and anti-black racism in the pre-industrial societies of the Old World. The ‘origins debate’ (Vaughan, 1995) has centred on whether the plantation economies of the New World represented a departure from Old World slavery and attitudes towards race. Indeed at first glance it may appear that the institution of slavery persisted from antiquity and through the medieval period, providing the source of ‘the mental habits and institutions of European racism and colonialism’[24].


As David Brion Davis points out, black slave labour had been used on sugar plantations in the early sixteenth century on the Portuguese colony of São Tomé in the Gulf of Guinea (1997: 18). He sees medieval origins for the racial slavery of São Tomé, and suggests that anti-black racism was then simply applied to the New World plantation economies[25]. Similarly, Sweet has dismissed the model of a New World origin for anti-black racism as a ‘mechanistic economic explanation’, and appears to find racial slavery in fifteenth century Iberia[26].


Davis and Sweet fail to examine the system of social relations in which slavery existed. The slavery exemplified by the West Indian plantations of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries saw a new scale and intensity, and a new social disembedding of Africans - a ‘degradation of the slave condition’[27]. The new racial nature of slavery was related to more general proto-capitalist processes of alienation and commodification, and the emergence in the eighteenth century of a new nationalist language of political legitimisation in Europe, which accompanied the growth of industrial capitalism and bureaucratic government[28]. While not inventing ‘the Other’, capitalism made use of the concept and ‘promote[d] it in new ways’ (Harvey, 1990: 104).



Having defined the structural relationship between the nascent capitalism of the plantocracy and racial slavery, how do we approach the new ethnicities, which developed, on the New World plantations? In discussing African-American ethnicity, it is important to emphasise the dehumanising horror of the Middle Passage, which involved an alienation from African identities - a ‘social death’[29]. But a challenge to such ‘catastrophism’ and an identification of a distinct African-American culture derived from an African heritage has been central to accounts of American black history since the anthropologist Melville Herskovits (1941) first refuted the ‘myth of the Negro past’ by recording ‘Africanisms’ during his fieldwork in South America, Trinidad and Haiti.

American historical archaeology and Ethnohistory

African-American ethnicity has received considerable attention from American historical archaeologists[30]. In the 1970s, American historical archaeology’s stucturalist approaches to material culture (Glassie, 1975; Deetz, 1977) were brought together with an ‘ethnohistorical’ agenda. Ethnohistory sought through interdisciplinary study to redress the imbalance in the representation of minority social groups in the documented social history of early America[31]. The archaeology of slavery developed as ‘the archaeology of the inarticulate’[32]. The ‘untold histories’ of black slaves in the past were sought in the material record.


Thus Handler and Lange’s classic analysis of the Newton Plantation on Barbados sought to bring together documents and artefacts for ‘ethnographic’ interpretation from the perspective of historical ‘slave culture’. Their interpretation of colonial and locally manufactured artefacts recognised that the same item may have been used and discarded in very different ways by slaves, planters, middle- and lower-class whites, and freedmen of different socio-economic strata[33].


The results of this agenda are clear from a glance at the subsequent fieldwork on Barbados, now one of the best researched islands of the eastern Caribbean. Throughout, the overwhelming emphasis has been upon artefacts and mortuary archaeology[34]. The physical anthropological analysis has attempted to ‘enhance our understanding of the lifeways of Barbadian slaves and the material conditions of their lives’[35]. Artefact studies have directly addressed issues of ethnic identity by attempting to identify West African origins of African-American material culture. Occasionally, items of West African provenance have been identified[36], but the simple establishment of the presence of people of African descent in the Caribbean seems ‘a bit beside the point’[37].



Rather, it is the character of African-American ethnogenesis in the Caribbean, and of the other interlinking ethnicities of the region in this period of massive cultural interaction, which are at issue.

Creole pottery and ethnicity

The importance of this issue is highlighted by the debate within American archaeology, recently outlined by Orser, about the ‘origin’ of Colono-ware[38]. This is a locally-produced clamp-fired smoothed or burnished ceramic found in late seventeenth and eighteenth century contexts on plantations in the Caribbean, Virginia and South Carolina. The ceramic is entirely replaced by European-type glazed pottery in nineteenth century assemblages. At first it was interpreted as ‘Colono-Indian ware’ (Noël Hume, 1962: 4), appearing to be the result of a mixture between European vessel forms and Native American coarse and unglazed fabrics. Noël Hume explained the fact that the pottery was found in contexts associated with slave accommodation on plantations by arguing that Colono-Indian ware was produced by Native Americans and bartered to African-American slaves. The image of Native Americans bartering commodities to slaves, or perhaps even to Europeans (Baker, 1972), to survive under colonialism was always an improbable one[39].


The ethnohistorical critique led to the dismissal of Noël Hume’s interpretation and African-American slaves were defined as the main producers of the renamed ‘Colono-Ware’[40]. This hypothesis was appealing because historical archaeologists could at last ‘prove their contribution to knowledge’ by demonstrating a material connection between Africa and the American South and the Caribbean[41].


More recently Matthew Hill (1987: 138) has argued that the distinctiveness of Colono-ware pottery is not its similarity to African or Native American ceramic traditions, but its marked difference from European pottery. Orser takes Hill’s argument further, emphasising ‘a system of resistance and cultural diversity that strove to set itself apart from the dominant, European culture’. Such an interpretation is based upon the view of Colono-ware not as a ‘cultural marker’, but as ‘represent[ing[ a process of interaction’[42].


By focusing upon local Creole processes of cultural syncretism archaeologists may define and explore ethnicity as a ‘contextual phenomenon’[43]. The most exciting new development in the study of African-American ethnicity has been an increased awareness of the importance of a detailed understanding of historical West African societies, traditionally viewed as unchanging and monolithic.


Ferguson’s (1999) analysis of decoration on eighteenth century bowls from South Carolina identifies marks which bear great similarities to ‘cosmograms’ recorded in central Africa (cf. Ferguson, 1992: 114-6). If we are to establish the shift of ‘cultural’ forms from Old World to New, the social and cultural systems of all societies referred to, including West Africa - the local circumstances within a global system[44] - must be examined (Posansky, 1999). Similarly, if we are to use a knowledge of West African decorative traditions to inform the interpretation of motifs on Chesapeake pipes[45], the local and global historical processes of the slave trade must contextualise our study[46].


One example of the global processes which could be used to contextualise our interpretation of West Indian ethnicities is Berlin’s (1996) convincing case that a distinctive Atlantic Creole culture developed from the trade between Portuguese and Africans in West Africa in the fifteenth century, which led to the local development of an increasingly hierarchical social structure[47]. This realisation underlines the imperative to contextualise the generation of New World ethnicities in terms of the historical shifts in the Atlantic slave trade.


Global process and local identity

In the discussion of Siân Jones’ study of ethnicity above, I suggested that a model of the historical processes of ‘global’ interaction could be added to her approach. World systems theory is primarily concerned with economic history. But having identified the global structure, can discussion be confined to ‘economic’ spheres? In the case of the Triangular Trade, Eric Williams’ thesis (1944) that profit from the West Indian sugar plantations was a major factor in British industrialisation has been widely dismissed[48]. But recently it has been suggested that the supply of West Indian sugar was influential not because of the industry’s role in capital accumulation, but in its role as the first mass-produced luxury commodity, creating a modern consumer market in Britain[49].


This argument turns the capital-accumulation model of British industrialisation on its head (Austen & Smith, 1992: 197). But by looking beyond the ‘the general economics of wealth accumulation’[50], we may begin to identify the prime importance of apparently epiphenomenal or ‘superstructural’ elements of the historic world system, and attempt to set historical ethnicities, like consumption, in a wider structural framework[51] (cf. Goodman et al 1995).


I have outlined the position of current research on the domination through racial classification and the resistance through the assertion of ethnic identity in the colonial Caribbean and the Americas. An awareness of colonial and ethnocentred bias has led to a preference among some analysts to discuss ‘resistance’ rather than ‘domination'[52], but such a reaction risks maintaining the same colonial agenda ‘[reading] identity through conflict, cross-cultural encounters through conquest, race through racism’ (Bartels, 1997: 46-7). One alternative perspective is to view the global and historical dimensions of Creolisation as a context through which we can untangle the threads of local variability of black, white and red ethnicities[53].


Turning to colonial Europeans in the New World, Mark Leone has built upon Deetz’s structuralism by making use of the of the idea of the ‘Georgian Order’ - a general rubric of the individualisation and standardisation of material culture and social practices - as a point of entry into the ‘cultural’ dimension of emergent capitalist social relations in colonial America (Leone, 1988; Johnson, 1996: 202-4). The immense possibilities of adding historical contingency, geographical connections and local variation to anthropological structural-symbolism have been explored further in prehistoric archaeology[54]. The concept of the Georgian ‘package’, the local manifestations of which may vary considerably, could be used as an organising principle for the archaeological interpretation of colonial European social identity - for analysis alongside the other ethnicities of the colonial world[55]. Part of this white ‘package’ would inevitably be the ultimate standardisation of the eighteenth century - the development of racial slavery.


A Respectable Trade?

The issues raised above may be explored through a consideration of recent attempts to address the multicultural heritage of Bristol. After the termination of the London-based Royal Africa Company’s monopoly of English trade with West Africa in 1698, Bristol grew to be the second largest slaving port in Britain. Although eclipsed by Liverpool in the mid 18th century, the 109 years before abolition in 1807 saw over 2000 slaving vessels from Bristol to West Africa (Richardson, 1996). The transactions of the triangular trade included the sale of manufactured items to West Africa, and the importation of sugar and tobacco from Caribbean slave plantations.


In 1997, Bristol City Council organised a series of events to mark the quincentenary of Cabot’s voyage from Bristol to mainland America. During preparations for the ‘Cabot 500’ activities, public consultation meetings were organised. At a This picture can be found at:
5/hicks1.gifmeeting in the St Paul’s district of the city, strong reservations were expressed by members of the black community about the uncritical and celebratory tone of the Cabot 500 festival, bringing to a head feelings of ‘official’ silence about Bristol’s historic role in the slave trade[56]. To address this issue, the Bristol Slave Trade Action Group was established in 1998: an informal coalition of city councillors, members of the black community, museum workers, teachers and academics. Several projects resulted from the Group’s meetings in the City Museum and the Malcolm X Centre.


Publicity leaflet from the Respectable Trade Exhibition. © Bristol City Museum & Art Gallery, 1999.


Firstly, a major exhibition on Bristol’s involvement in the Atlantic slave trade, A Respectable Trade?, was held at Bristol Museum and Art Gallery in 1999. It became the most successful in the museum’s history, attracting over 160 000 visitors during the six months for which it was open[57]. Each part of the Triangular Trade was illustrated by a striking range of artefacts and documents from Bristol, West Africa and the Caribbean: British sugar cutters, furniture and snuff boxes, and abolitionist literature; brass manillas traded from Bristol to Ghana, Ibo masks and tools, and iron shackles; plans of Caribbean sugar plantations, and clay pipes recovered during archaeological excavations on Nevis. ‘Lifelines’ of slaves and merchants were presented though audio tape listening posts. A permanent slave trade exhibition is due to open in Bristol in April 2000[58].


The Action Group’s meetings also led to the creation of a ‘Slave Trade Trail’ around Bristol (Dresser et al 1998), highlighting the trade’s influence upon the development of the urban landscape, and the survival of this legacy in the fabric of the modern city. The Trail includes the sites of sugar refineries[59], the Corn Exchange, Commercial Rooms and premises of the insurance and banking companies, and the domestic architecture of merchants’ houses[60]. The Trail has been complemented by the This picture can be found at: of a new footbridge in the docks area of the city after Pero, a black slave brought back to Bristol from Nevis by the planter John Pinney in 1783[61].



The opening of Pero's Bridge, St Augustine's Reach, Bristol, 16th March 1999. From left to right: Patrick Robinson and Paul Stephenson (Bristol West Indian Parents' and Friends' Association), the Lord Mayor and Lady Mayoress of Bristol, Paul Boatang MP, and Councillor Paul Smith. The bridge was designed by sculptor Eilis O'Connell.


However, the Slave Trade Trail underlines the difficulty of defining the limits of the city’s ‘multicultural’ heritage (cf. Horton, 1999). For instance, Clifton Hill House[62], now a University hall of residence, was built by Isaac Ware between 1746 and 1750 for the Bristol merchant Paul Fisher (Mowl, 1991: 62-3). Fisher’s fortune was derived from the Atlantic trade, and on this basis the house was included in the Slave Trade Trail mentioned above. Yet this wealth created not only the grand Palladian exterior of Clifton Hill House, but an early example of a British Rococo interior, characterised by intricate decorative stucco work depicting exotic animals, rare plants, and employing a figurative style ‘received from the Moors and Arabs’ (Ware, 1756: 522)[63]. Fisher was by no means alone in his cosmopolitan tastes: a distinctive regional Rococo style developed in South-West England and Ireland in the eighteenth century (Mowl, 1999)[64]. The strength of the Rococo in Bristol was part of a particular intersection between merchants’ industrial wealth and their international aspirations.

This picture can be found at:


A rare example of evidence for the historic black population of Bristol. Tombstone of Scipio Africanus in the graveyard of Henbury Parish Church, Henbury, Bristol. Photograph: © Bristol City Museums & Art Gallery, 1999.




While the engagement of Bristol City Museum with contemporary multicultural issues has been very successful, the experience in Bristol over the past three years has also underlined how little can currently be said about the city’s multicultural past. Where traditional social history can define the economic involvement of individuals and places with the slave trade, archaeology has the potential to identify the material remains of a broader ethnic history, involving migrant labourers from different regions of Britain and ethnic and religious minorities; as well as wealthy merchants. With these issues on the agenda, future archaeological investigation of, for instance, the housing of migrant labouring communities or the religious sites of the city’s Jewish community, may begin to redress the previous neglect of the surviving material culture of historical ethnic minorities, and a contextual model of the development of the urban population and landscape of Bristol may be developed.



Having found the ‘situationist’ emphasis[65] of mainstream ethnicity theory inappropriate for the dual process of hegemonic racial categorisation and African-American ethnogenesis, I have sought to place the processes of colonialism and Creolisation in a wider structural framework. The modern world system was a ‘total’ system, and provides a new level of analysis not only for economic transactions but also for the cultural and political interaction, which led to both racism and new ethnicities. Similarly, the new colonial societies were ‘total’ - and a multivocal archaeology must attempt to recognise black, white and red histories through material culture surviving as archaeological remains.


We have a careful line to walk. Attempts to use scientific archaeological methodologies to document African-American ethnicity and slave life in isolation from the contemporary political agenda of black history carries significant risks[66], while on the other hand the imposition of contemporary agendas may bias interpretation of archaeological remains[67]. And the central issue of ‘ownership’ of the sites of institutionalised and quotidian anti-black violence needs to be addressed[68].


In the case of the eastern Caribbean, the most promising avenue for achieving a true archaeology of ethnicity is perhaps the analysis of the strange new landscapes of colonialism into which past identity was written - the planters’ houses and slave villages of plantations, churches and synagogues[69], land cleared, enclosed and worked by free, indentured and slave labour, and artefacts and architecture brought together from the traditions of three continents in new circumstances. The landscape perspectives developed in British pre-industrial archaeology have the potential to revolutionise the site- and artefact-based archaeology of slavery[70].


Ultimately the implication of adopting a world-systems perspective on the archaeology of ethnicity is that after local processes have been identified at site- and regional-level they must be tied together with archaeologies of the societies with which they were historically connected. In the case of the Atlantic slave trade, an integration of fieldwork in the Chesapeake and the Caribbean, West Africa, and London, Bristol and Liverpool would be necessary to fully understand the material remains of a global process - not simply tracing the international economic transactions of the modern world system, but truly identifying it as a multi-level, complex system of social action’[71]. For the British and American traditions of post-medieval and historical archaeology, adopting a global perspective may facilitate the development of a unified theoretical, and integrated fieldwork, agenda. As well as integrating academic perspectives, the acknowledgement of cultural diversity and interaction in the past is central to achieving an ‘inclusive’ perspective in archaeological practice and the presentation of heritage after Stephen Lawrence[72].






We find Bourdieu’s (1984) theory of practice applied to eighteenth century Bristol to investigate the ‘social experience’ of urban life (Leech, 1999). Anthropological theories of consumption (Douglas & Isherwood, 1979) are applied to the ‘material culture of food in early modern England’ (Pennell, 1999). Giddens’ (1984) theory of structuration is applied to the appropriation of the meanings of medieval guildhalls in early modern York (Giles, 1999). And the structuralist analysis of social space (Kent, 1990) is applied to the English country house (West, 1999). Back


Yoffee and Sherratt, 1993: 7. Or ‘a shift from being the “handmaiden to history” to being the “handmaiden to prehistoric archaeology’”’ (Kathlean Deagan, 1988: 10) criticising American historical archaeology (quoted in Orser, 1996, 14). Back


Frank and Gills, 1993: 18-21; Sherratt, 1993; Woolf, 1990. Back


Fryer, 1984, 1. A black population of London alone of around 20000 in the mid eighteenth century has been suggested (Gerzina, G.H. 1995 Black London : Life Before Emancipation Rutgers University Press.) See also Jones, P and R. Youseph, 1996 The Black Population of Bristol in the Eighteenth Century. Bristol, Bristol Branch of the Historical Association Pamphlet 84 (reprint series). Back


Wallerstein (1974, 1980, 1988). Back


But see Johnson, 1996: 202-4; Egan and Michael, 1999. Back


The triangular trade’ took manufactured items from London, Bristol and Liverpool to West Africa, slaves from West Africa to the Caribbean and mainland North America, and sugar and other plantation products back to Britain. A brief account of Bristol’s involvement in the slave trade is provided in David Richardson’s 1996 The Bristol Slave Traders: A Collective Portrait. Bristol, Bristol Branch of the Historical Association Pamphlet 60 (reprint series). Back


Banks, 1996; Jones, 1997: 65-83. Back


Wolf, 1982. Back


Similar ideas may be identified in sociologist Michael Banton’s emphasis upon group identity and affiliation voluntarily embraced by ‘rational’ individuals (Banton, 1967: 1977). Back


Jones, 1997: 129-135. Back


Similar to that in which the ideas, artefacts and attitudes ‘escaped’ from a Bronze Age ‘core’ identified by Sherratt (1993: 43). Back


Frank and Gills, 1993: 43. Back


Sherratt, 1995: 23. Back


Allen, 1994: 258. Back


Fenton, 1957; Sheehan, 1969. Back


For instance the shifting application of the term ‘Negro’, which at first included native Indians, is

traced by Forbes (1993). Back


Pulsipher, 1977: 33, 49. Back


Beckles, 1990: 519, 513, 521. Back


Jordan, 1968: 60; see also Allen, 1994: 29. Back


Blackburn, 1997b: 102. Back


Blackburn, 1997a: 12-25. Back


Williams, 1944: 7. Drake’s (1980: 7) suggestion of the development of racism as a justification of the slave trade misses the point about the quotidian horror of slavery. The definition of slaves as private, alienable commodities and their definition by race were two aspects of the parallel and interconnected emergence of capitalist social relations and racism in the 17th and 18th centuries (cf. Blackburn 1997: 586). Back


Bartlett, 1993: 313. Back


Davis, 1966. Elsewhere (1997: 13) Davis even suggests that ‘a template for the later representation of the Negro slave’ can be identified in the medieval ‘stereotype of the black [sun-burnt], beastly European rustic, personifying the human Id’. Back


Sweet (1997: 144) argues that here, ‘sub-Saharan Africans were unable to escape their inferior status’, and by 1502 ‘the racial attitudes of the Spanish were already firmly fixed’. He identifies anti-black rhetoric in medieval Muslim definitions of skin tone among slaves , and the likening of Africans to animals. Back


Blackburn, 1997a: 585. Back


Hobsbawm, 1990; Gellner, 1983; Anderson, 1983. Back


Patterson, 1982. Back


For a review see Singleton, 1999. For references to published Caribbean historical archaeology sources, cf. The Standpipe-L bibliography of Caribbean Historical Archaeology: Back


Dorson, 1961; Axtell, 1978; Lange & Handler, 1985. Back


Ascher, 1974. Back


Handler & Lange, 1978: 216-229, 227. Back


Handler & Lange, 1978: 171-215; See also Corruccini et al 1982; Corruccini et al 1985; Handler et al 1982; Handler et al 1989; Handler & Corruccini, 1983; Handler & Corruccini, 1986; Handler et al 1986; Lange & Carlson, 1985. Back


Handler and Corruccini, 1986: 113. Back


Handler, 1982. Back


Perry & Paynter, 1999: 301. Back


Orser, 1996: 117-123. Back


There is some documentary evidence of such trade in the Chesapeake (Mouer at al 1999: 91-92). Back


Ferguson, 1978; Deetz, 1988: 367. Back


Orser, 1996: 121. Back


Orser, 1996: 121-2. Back


Mouer et al 1999: 113. Back


For instance Walker (1980: 31-34) identifies different patterns of accommodation and syncretism of African religion according to the slave policies and religious orientation of the slave-owning class in the New World. He suggests that polytheistic elements of African religion were accommodated through the ‘superficial Catholicising’ of deities, whereas this did not occur in Protestant areas. Back


Emerson, 1999. Back


DeCorse, 1999. Back


Berlin, 1996: 254-5; Fage, 1989: 110-111. Back


Usually on the basis that the profits of the sugar industry were relatively small (eg Thomas & Bean, 1974: 914). Back


Mintz, 1985; Goodman, 1993. Such approaches may be contrasted with Wallerstein’s view which, while accepting the importance of sugar, emphasises its role as a source of calories to increase labour capacity (1974). Back


Ekholm & Friedman, 1993: 76. Back


As Sherratt (1995: 3) argues, ‘Putting culture back into society may well be the most crucial operation in providing a realistic description of long-term change’. Back


Said, 1994. But see Miller et al 1989. Back


While, as is argued throughout this paper, maintaining an awareness of the social relations of racial slavery. One example of such an approach is Leland Ferguson’s suggestion that while some overtly resisted enslavement, most slaves ‘ignore[d] European American culture in favor of their own, and in doing so they also ignored and resisted the European American ideology that rationalised their enslavement.’ (1992: 120; my emphasis). Ferguson’s point is that the active use of material culture was central to ethnogenesis: a process that is therefore potentially visible in the archaeological record. Back


eg Hodder, 1990 building on Douglas, 1966. Back


The term is suggested by Johnson, 1996: 206. Back


The depth of grassroots feeling was exemplified in January 1998 by the defacing of a statue of eighteenth century merchant Sir Edward Colston with a slogan naming him a ‘Slave Trader’ (The Times 29/1/1998). For the full slogan, see The Guardian 7/2/1998. Back


Similar museum exhibitions, focusing upon oral history, had previously been held by other British museums, such as Birmingham Museums’ ‘Change in the Inner City’ in 1984, and Southampton Museum’s ‘Caribbean Heritage Project’ in 1984-86 (Belgrave, 1990). Back


Bristol and the Transatlantic Slave Trade, a permanent gallery with free entry in Bristol Industrial Museum, Wapping Road, Bristol opens on Saturday, April 15, 2000. Opening hours are 10am-5pm, Saturday - Wednesday (April - October); 10am-5pm, Saturdays and Sundays (November - March). Further details are available from Bristol City Museum Press and PR Office on (+44)(0)117 922 2650. Back


There are at least known 21 sites of eighteenth century sugar refineries in central Bristol. These are detailed in Jones, 1996: 14-15. Back


Including 29 Queen Square, now the regional offices of English Heritage, but owned by Bristol slave trader Henry Bright in the mid 18th century. Back


The April 1999 newsletter of the Bristol Racial Equality Council celebrated the opening of the bridge as a ‘watershed’ event in race relations in Bristol, coming as it did only a few weeks after the publication of the Macpherson Report (see footnote 72 below). Back


Perhaps appropriately, the venue of a recent conference on The Archaeology of Industrialisation (The Joint Conference of the Association for Industrial Archaeology and the Society for Post Medieval Archaeology, held in October 1999.) Back


Quoted in Mowl, 1991: 63. Back


For instance Thomas Goldney, who manufactured guns at his works in Coalbrookdale for trade to Africa from Bristol, undertook an extensive garden project at Goldney House, Clifton in the 1730s. As well as complex water features, an Orangery, a garden house and a Gothick tower, between 1737 and 1764 Goldney constructed a grotto, which still survives. In 1739 the grotto’s interior walls were spectacularly covered with exotic shells and stones, while the quarry tiles for the floor were brought from Coalbrookdale (Stembridge 1982, 17-19).  Back


‘Situationism’ is defined in the discussion of ‘Defining Ethnicity’ above. Back


Leone & Potter, 1988: 308; Perry & Paynter, 1999: 301. In the worst (although unintentional) case cited by Leone and Potter, Kelso’s (1984) study of the Kingsmill plantations in Virginia discussed white owners and planters under the section heading ‘People’ while slaves and slave life were discussed under the heading ‘Things’. Handler and Lange’s use of the bodies of slaves as an archaeological resource alongside artefacts risks a similar unintentional result. Back


Nassaney (1989) describes the involvement of members of the modern Narragansett tribe in the interpretation of the archaeological remains at RI 1000, a seventeenth century Native American burial site in New England. Interpretation of the site in terms of ethnic resistance to colonialism (Robinson et al 1985) appears to represent a mis-reading of the archaeology because of this political pressure. Back


Compared with Native American sites, there has been virtually no discussion of the political issue of who ‘owns’ the archaeology of slavery. Back


For recent archaeological research into the synagogue and the historic Jewish population on Nevis in general see Back


Although a great deal of landscape archaeological research has been conducted in American historical archaeology in the past decade. See Kelso & Most, 1990; Miller & Gleason, 1994; Yamin & Methany, 1996. Back


Hopkins, 1982; my emphasis. Back


Mark Horton (1999) has discussed the implications for contemporary archaeology of the Macpherson report on the Inquiry into the racist murder of the black teenager Stephen Lawrence in London. Horton uses the report’s identification of ‘institutionalised racism’ not only in the police, but also in other public institutions - education, public service and local government - as a springboard to highlight the need to address the lack of a multicultural agenda in British professional and academic archaeology and heritage management. Back





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Thanks are due to Richard Harrison, Mark Horton, Roger Leech and Andrew Sherratt for their comments on an earlier draft of this paper, and to Sue Giles of Bristol City Museum and David Small for providing primary sources for the discussion of the A Respectable Trade? exhibition. Thanks are also due to Matthew Johnson, University of Durham, who acted as referee for this paper.



Dan Hicks is a full-time PhD candidate based in the Department of Archaeology, University of Bristol. He has a general interest in British and American historical archaeology, and is researching The Landscape of West Indian Plantation Estates c.1650-1838. He has over ten years’ experience in professional archaeology, including time at Warwickshire Museum Field Archaeology Section, Oxford Archaeological Unit, and Gloucestershire County Council. He graduated as a mature student in Archaeology and Anthropology from St John’s College, Oxford in 1997.


Contact details:    Department of Archaeology, University of Bristol, 43 Woodland Road, Clifton, BRISTOL BS8 1UU UK.

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