Explore the documents

The Common Records of Nevis and St Kitts

Documents relating to the slave villages investigated by the St Kitts-Nevis Digital Archaeology Initiative were found in several locations. On Nevis and St Kitts, records dating to the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries have been preserved in courthouses and archives.On Nevis the earliest available records are housed in the Courthouse in rolls deposited there since the beginning of the 18th century. Here as on St Kitts, the earlier Nevisian records were destroyed during the French attack on the island in 1706. On both islands important records were copied or enrolled into the volumes kept there for the benefit of inhabitants, known as the Common Records; records copied included wills, manumissions or grants of freedom to slaves, conveyances of property, often including the slaves as chattels, records of debts and mortgages and many other records precious to their owners. In Nevis the Common Records are still kept in the Courthouse; on St Kitts they have been moved into the care of the National Archives.

Colonial government records

The earliest records of enslaved Africans owned by each plantation are included in the lists of island inhabitants that were for the English government in London. This population information was used to determine the strength of the militia, which would defend the islands against foreign aggression, notably from France. These show that even by the early18th century, the African-Caribbean slave population outnumbered those of English descent.

Archives of family records

Many of the original records which were brought to the court house for copying or enrolment have probably been lost, but a few survive in the papers or archives of the families who owned land on the two islands. These include the records of the Pinney family, which owned Mountravers estate on Nevis. The Pinney Family Papers are now in the Special Collections of the library of the University of Bristol. Records of the Maynard family, which owned part of the New River estate, are now in the Suffolk Record Office at Ipswich. The records of the Jessop and Ede families, the owners of Jessups plantation on Nevis, are now in the Southampton City Archives, as part of the collection deposited there by the firm of solicitors, who ultimately acted on the family's behalf. Among the plantation estates investigated for the project only the Spring on St Kitts was not represented by an archive surviving in England.

Sales of property

The documents in the Common Records provide much information about the various slave villages and their inhabitants. The classes of documents include those relating to sales of property. Slaves were regarded as chattels or possessions and are often listed along with the buildings and livestock. Examples transcribed for this project include those for the New River and Jessups estates; we have included along with these the documents relating to the sale of some of the plantations adjacent to these estates, for instance Wards adjacent to Mountravers, and Tower Hill adjacent to Jessups. Through these we can begin to see a whole landscape of slave villages and speculate on the networks of family and friendship that might have linked these different communities. In some lists of slaves there are clues to their origins, occupations and status. These are explored more fully in the accounts on this web site of the individual plantations.

Documents relating to the sale of estates are found also in the archives of family records. The Maynard and Jessups records include many documents of this type.

The sale and freeing of slaves

Some documents relate to particular slaves. These include sales of individual slaves, such as those at Mountravers, notably John Pinney’s purchase from Joanna Jones in 1765 of Pero Jones and his sisters Nancy and Sheeba, again entered in the Nevis Common Records. Pero and his sisters must have taken their surname from Joanna and her deceased husband Mathias Jones. Pero eventually came to Bristol with his master and died there in 1798. Pero is remarkable for having a published biography. A bridge in Bristol now bears his name (Eickelmann and Small 2004). A second type of document relating to individual slaves was the manumission or grant of freedom. By having this entered in the Common Records a freed slave was assured of their freedom. Myrtilla Dowse, herself a freed slave, ‘for ever set free from servitude and slavery’ her own negro woman slave Grace Weeks whom she had purchased from John Pinney. Myrtilla Dowse’s signing of the manumission to have the document entered into the Common Records was witnessed by one William Weeks. We might ask whether this was a relative of Grace Weeks or her earlier owner, from whom she took her surname.

Before emancipation

The movement against slavery had begun in the later 18th century and won its first success with the abolition of the slave trade in 1807. With the abolition of slavery planters commenced a process of amelioration, executing measures which might make slavery more amenable to the world. They also tried to create measures  that might mitigate the consequences of abolition, notably compensation for the dispossessed owners of freed slaves. A number of documents relating to the slave villages investigated cast light upon these events. On St Kitts, McMahon’s map of the island, completed in 1828, quantified the land under cultivation for sugar and facilitated the process of compensation. The registers now in the St Kitts archives listed the number of slaves belonging to each plantation and contributed to the calculations as to what financial compensation should be paid to the owners. On Nevis no such map was made, and no slave registers have been traced, either in the island archives or in the National Archives in London.

After emancipation

On Nevis historians have related how the abolition of slavery was followed by the emergence of a freed peasantry. Documents provide some insight into this development. At New River freed slaves working on the estate might have been seen much as a successor to the enslaved workforce, their names being pencilled on the draft of a lease of the estate in much the same way that their enslaved predecessors were diligently listed in the earlier conveyances of the estate. There were, however, some significant changes. Freed slaves were now able to purchase house plots, and the occasional inventory of the possessions of a relatively poor Nevisian provides an insight into the material life of this emerging free population.

Despite these drastic changes the journal of Walter Maynard, a visitor to the New River plantation in 1842-5, suggests that planters did not view these events as earth shattering. His entries were concerned solely with the gentry pursuit of game; the changed lives of the freed slaves and the work of the plantation are never mentioned.

Plans

Only a few plans showing the investigated slave villages have been located in the documents. The most carefully drawn of these is on the map of Jessups Plantation surveyed in 1755 and delineated in 1761. This is very much a plan made to display the wealth of a prosperous West Indian plantation owner, a map that could be displayed as a work of art and an elegant exercise in cartography. But the plan of the slave village itself is also of great interest to archaeologists, as it appears to depict the footpath that still threads its way through the site of the village, and could therefore be an accurate representation of the number of houses in the village, approximated at 22.

The plan of New River estate shows only  a general locale of the slave village, marked as “Negro Houses” on the key. But it does enable us to consider its location in relation to the plantation house, also shown on the same map. The village was downwind but uphill of the house and genteel garden beyond the colonnaded loggia of the house and also would have been visible from it. At Jessups, the village was to the north of the plantation house and works, and also probably within sight of the house, Interestingly too, the village, like that at New River, was also located downwind from the plantation house and garden. The villages were perhaps thusly situated from the main house complexes so that the smells of the village would not be wafting over the plantation house and garden, and also in sight of the house. McMahon’s map of The Spring on St Kitts shows that here too the slave village was visible from the house and upwind of it.

These documents enable us to see that the role of the slave village as an indicator of the owner’s wealth was thus as much part of the plantation culture of these islands as it was of the contemporary English colony of Virginia, where the relationships between slave villages and planters’ houses have been considered by Dell Upton as deeply symbolic black and white landscapes.

Excerpt of 1828 McMahon Map showing the location of The Spring Estate and slave village.