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Louis P. Nelson, Architecture and Empire in Jamaica

New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016
Daniel Maudlin
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Louis P. Nelson, Architecture and Empire in Jamaica, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016

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1In this fascinating and well-written account, Louis Nelson places the domestic architecture of eighteenth-century Jamaica in the wider context of the British Atlantic world. Beautifully produced by Yale, Architecture and Empire in Jamaica aligns architecture–the production and consumption of buildings–with the production and consumption of empire. Based on extensive fieldwork, Nelson positions the design, construction and occupation of buildings, particularly housing, as evidence of the multiple flows and exchanges in capital, people and things that criss-crossed the British Atlantic Empire through the early modern period and which intersected and coalesced in Jamaica. It is a postcolonial architectural history. However, Nelson does not spell out postcolonial theory rather he presents a highly readable narrative that is imbued with but not uncomfortably dominated by theory. Throughout people are to the fore as the spaces, places and materiality of buildings are used to investigate the textures and meanings of lives lived in eighteenth-century Jamaica. In doing so Nelson approaches buildings as artefacts of human culture; manmade things that can be interpreted in order to understand a people and place better. This is a particular approach to architecture that integrates buildings, peoples and landscapes in the production of “cultural landscapes” and which reflects Nelson’s background in North American material culture studies as represented most directly by the Vernacular Architecture Forum's journal Buildings and Landscapes (of which Nelson is a former editor). Indeed, the use of character-led vignettes to introduce subjects and chapters shows the influence of writers such as Bernard L. Herman, a leading light in American buildings and landscapes studies and the vaf. No bad thing. Again, theories of material culture are evident to those who know the significance of sentences that “frame” cases studies or introduce “landscapes of…,” but this is lightly-handled and the text reads equally well for those unfamiliar with such things. Combining the lessons of material culture studies and postcolonial history, therefore, the result is not a straightforward buildings-and-dates architectural history of colonial British Jamaica but a broader, and more significant, analysis of the ways in which one particular site of human activity evolved within a wider network of other sites around the North Atlantic Rim including West Africa, North America and Britain.

2A central question in Architecture and Empire in Jamaica is how colonial life on a small tropical island on the edge of empire followed or diverged from patterns and practices elsewhere in that empire, not least in its hub or heartland: Britain. For the white population life in Jamaica was a life of privilege and luxury but also one defined by exceptional circumstances. Therefore, the domestic architecture of plantation houses, town houses and merchant’s stores is hybrid as their owners sought to reconcile the desire to fit within pan-transatlantic norms of taste and decorum alongside the absolute need to adapt as British and North American house forms were intolerable in the Caribbean heat. The Jamaican house needed to be open and airy so while decoration and ornament to doors, architraves and stairs remained familiarly British or British American, piazzas were added to the front and rear of houses, walls became louvred panels and enclosed central passages became open central halls. Moreover, the experience of hurricanes meant that the typical British or British American two-story Georgian box became the characteristic single-story Jamaican house with low-swept roof. Nelson makes the interesting point that the evolution of these adaptations does not denote regional provincialism—a want of metropolitan refinement—but intentional adaptations by those with the very best elite tastes. It is also interesting to see how such adaptations morphed into creolization as patterns of plantation ownership changed through the later-eighteeth century. The great plantation owners of the early to mid-eighteenth century saw themselves as “Britons in Jamaica” and strove to replicate British elite practices in Jamaica, a principle they applied as much to house building and garden design as to personal dress and behavior. This was a mobile transatlantic elite that spent their lives shuttling between activities and concerns on both sides of the Atlantic. However, by the later-eighteenth century the wealthiest plantation owners had become absentees who spent their wealth and time on estates in Britain. The lesser, though still very wealthy, plantation owners who remained resident in Jamaica became a creole culture; that is, one that becomes detached from the mother culture and develops its own practices independently from that mother. Therefore, divergences in building practices that began as practical adaptations of British standards to Jamaican realities became signifiers of a distinct white culture that was no longer British. Adaptation, or rather appropriation, is also shown in the flowering of Caribbean plant motifs and black figures in British fine and decorative arts of the period. The point is that not only, of course, did Britain benefit financially from sugar and the slave trade and that many buildings were built to accommodate that trade and its beneficiaries but that the elite in Britain intentionally used the image of Jamaica and its enslaved people in their self-fashioning and display whether in portraits, porcelain or on buildings.

3The same question is also asked of slave and freed black dwellings in Jamaica; to what extent did they adapt African forms and practices to life in the Caribbean? Here Nelson argues convincingly that, contrary to other analyses that have sought to establish cultural ties between slave populations and Africa—the intentional inscription of cultural memory—the simple earth buildings of the slave village represent only the basic utility of shelters made from what’s immediately to hand (and free) in forms dictated by the structural qualities of those materials be it earth, straw or palm. He applies the same principle of structural determinism to the simple timber-framed houses built by freed slaves where the use of timber framing over African earth and thatch reflects their (very) relative prosperity in the capacity to buy sawn timber and apply European house carpentry techniques. Other studies show that this was not an atypical colonial experience. The rejection of “home” building traditions in favor of popular or prevalent colonial practices by recently emancipated colonial settler groups has been noted elsewhere as in the case of Scottish Gaelic groups in British Canada who once free of feudal landowners similarly rejected the turf-built highland blackhouse in favor of timber-framing.

4Indeed inevitably but necessarily, the predominant narrative throughout the book is the adaptation to life within a slaver society. The overarching structure broadly follows the Atlantic slave trade, starting in West Africa, lingering in Jamaica, and returning across the ocean to Britain. At each stop Nelson considers the spaces built to ship, process, work and house slaves. These spaces are juxtaposed with the domestic spaces built and occupied by the white plantation owners and other whites who lived and profited off the slave economy in Jamaica, West Africa and Britain. In doing so, Nelson’s narrative moves continuously between the polite architecture of the Jamaican elite and the vernacular architecture of the black population of slaves and freed men. From chapter to chapter, the contrast between the luxury and display of the white elite and the simple earth or timber bound dwellings of the black population—both enslaved and free—comes across very clearly. So do the inherent tensions in this duality as architecture is interpreted as a locus of power in both its exercise and its resistance. The interiors of plantation houses were/are ornamented, polished and furnished to create polite spaces for scenes of elite white sociability yet the spaces were also—silently—populated with black bodies. The piazza or colonnaded front and rear porches of houses were sites of cool leisure but they were also points of surveillance. Moreover, the masonry-built ground floors of many plantation houses were also defensive structures with loopholes built on the fear of one’s own slaves rebelling. These tensions are also taken down to the waterfront and town center where Nelson examines the wharves, streets and stores built to process the imported and exported goods of a society driven and defined by slavery. To this end, as the chapter title makes clear Nelson places his argument firmly within T. H. Breen’s notion of the “empire of goods.” In this white-run world of trade and consumer excess, urban resistance appears in the form of the Jonkonnu festival which took place between Christmas and New Year when slaves temporarily took control of the streets in parades and performances dressed in European-style costumes and white-faced masks.

5The outstanding part of the book is chapter 4 which examines how, from the sugar works and mills to plantation house, slave village and, sometimes, slave hospital, the various structures, spaces and populations on an eighteenth-century sugar plantation inter-related and enforced relations of power. Placing Jamaica at the forefront of the Industrial and Agricultural Revolutions, Nelson presents the plantation landscape as a highly rationalized system, a machine for the production of money through the sacrifice of humans to the manufacture of sugar. In contrast, however, perhaps the weakest parts of the book are those that tackle buildings in Britain. First, in chapter two the attempt to make a connection between the early fortified plantation houses of Jamaica and the seventeenth-century Ulster plantations in Ireland is vague with no specific connections made and a potentially powerful point is lost. Indeed, the discussion on Ireland is inserted into the middle of a much stronger argument on the precedent of Scottish tower houses based on the specific example of Stewart Castle. Equally, while an important inclusion, the final chapter on Jamaica’s influence on Britain and British architecture is a good account but lacks the insight and originality of the preceding chapters. I hazard that, unlike the chapters on Jamaica, this is because it is not based on extensive personal fieldwork surveys and draws more heavily upon secondary sources. A final quibble is that while a justification is given for focusing predominantly on domestic architecture rather than, say, courthouses or churches—that empire is made by individuals not just the state—it is inaccurate for the book to promise the grander prospect of “Architecture” (of all sorts one assumes?). Overall, while focused on a single island in the Caribbean, Architecture and Empire in Jamaica looks to that island's position in a wider world and is, therefore, a significant contribution to an emergent body of architectural research on the British Atlantic World and the architecture of empire that is gaining ground in British and North American scholarship. Students and scholars of later periods and other empires will not find here a useful account of theories, concepts and models to be used and applied rather they will find an example of how a good (postcolonial) history should be written: loyal to its subject, informed by theories and concepts but focused on a strong narrative.

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Daniel Maudlin, « Louis P. Nelson, Architecture and Empire in Jamaica »ABE Journal [En ligne], 11 | 2017, mis en ligne le 05 octobre 2017, consulté le 27 mars 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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