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Historical Archaeology Gives a Voice to Past Inhabitants of Little Jost

"Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; as snug as a gun.

Under my window a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:"
—From "Digging" by Seamus Heaney

This year, archaeologist John Chenoweth, assisted by a team of research students, spent his third summer in the BVI excavating and recording data from a dig site on Little Jost Van Dyke—the 18th-century home of the Lettsoms, a family of Quakers.

Mr. Chenoweth began his anthropological study of the Quaker community while completing his master’s thesis. “I got my master’s at U Penn, which turned out to be a site associated with Quakers,” he said. In fact, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania was founded by a Quaker, William Penn. “I found it very interesting from an anthropological point of view. It’s sort of a contradictory religion. There’s this big religious structure about meetings that tell you how to live your life…and yet the whole point of Quakerism is that you don’t need a church; you don’t need a minister; you don’t need anything between you and God.”

According to Mr. Chenoweth, whose research on Little Jost Van Dyke will contribute to his doctoral dissertation at UC Berkeley, when Quakerism first started in the mid-17th century, many members of the faith took on missionary roles and brought their religion to the Caribbean, hoping to convert the masses. “There were communities of Quakers in Jamaica and Barbados, and to a lesser extent in Antigua and Nevis in the 1600s,” he said, mentioning the difficulty of studying those populations because of the unreliability of the recordkeeping at the time. “It’s really hard to say who lived where, and even if you have a list of the members of the meeting, you don’t know which plantation you’re looking at belonged to which family…so it’s difficult to talk about where the Quakers were.” The uniqueness of the Lettsom family on Little Jost is that they occupied an entire island. “I thought this would be very helpful because, by itself on an island, it means that everything on that island, in theory, is connected to them,” he said.

John Chenoweth digs for artefacts on Little Jost. Photo courtesy of John Chenoweth.

By the 1700s, the other Quaker communities in the Caribbean had dissipated, Mr. Chenoweth said. “Either the members decided that Quakerism wasn’t for them, or they moved back to England,” especially many in Jamaica who departed after a large earthquake in 1692. “So, by the 1740s, when the community here started up, there were virtually no Quakers in the Caribbean…and that’s what makes this community interesting, in part, is that it sort of popped up at a time when there were no other similar communities that had managed to survive.” He then added, “I’d like to be able to say how or why, but that’s part of the question that I’m trying to explore here, how Quakerism is connected to the Caribbean environment—the slave economy, the plantation economy, the social environment that was down here between the Quakers and the white planters, the free African-descended people and the enslaved people.”


As we stood outside his research team’s home base by Smugglers Cove while one of his research assistants sifted through bags of dirt searching for artefacts, Mr. Chenoweth recounted when he read about the community of Quakers that moved here in the 1740s, he thought, “‘That’s really different and really odd.’ The strangest thing about them is that they owned slaves, and that makes no sense whatsoever because Quakers believe in complete equality and non-violence.”

The contradictory behaviour of the Quakers, specifically slave-owning Quakers, seems to be part of what drives Mr. Chenoweth’s interest in his research, but he also clearly possesses a desire to speak for those who have been previously silent. “One of the things I’m really interested in is the relationship between the owners and the enslaved people,” he said, “partly because historical archaeology’s real strength is telling the story of people who weren’t able to write their own history.” One of the main differences between historical archaeology, which Mr. Chenoweth describes as archaeology of the last 500 years, and prehistoric archaeology is that “you can take the bits and pieces of trash and combine that with the historical records and history books that people have already written and see something different. At the same time, all that extra information makes it a much more complicated story, it makes it a richer story, and that’s why I want to explore that story. That’s why I want to tell it.”

He continued, “Almost all the slaves of the Caribbean never wrote anything down about themselves, so history doesn’t have a lot of information about them.” Instead, the historical documentation often only includes “what owners and white people in general wanted to write down about them, which is how much they cost and how much work they could do,” but that’s not what concerns Mr. Chenoweth. He wants to discover and share “what they thought about the world and how they saw the world, and their relationship to their family.”  He called archaeology—which he reminded me is mostly the study of trash, not treasure—“a window into some of that.”

While he is keen to “study the enslaved people in their own right,” his research also ties back to Quakerism. “I also am interested in how the fact that the owners were Quaker affected that relationship between the two, so with the shell and the bone,” he said, pointing to a shelf overloaded with Ziploc bags full of broken bits of shell and bone fragments, “you can talk about if they’re eating the same things. Are the owners getting more food or better food or are they taking the whole animal and eating the best cuts of meat and then passing the things they don’t want on to the slaves or are the slaves getting their own food, or are they sharing food equally?”

Other possible clues offering insight into how the Quaker settlers on Little Jost Van Dyke treated their slaves are the pottery fragments that Mr. Chenoweth found on the site. He showed me several different shards—everything from roughly made ceramics to fine porcelain. “Archaeologists look for patterns,” he said, “so one of the things I was doing was comparing the things I’ve been seeing on this site to all of the other things found on Caribbean plantations from the 18th century that have been studied by archaeologists.” He explained that the “material culture,” the trash and other remnants that people leave behind, follows a consistent, non-surprising pattern in the Caribbean—the plantation owners’ trash typically consists of newer, higher quality fragments while the items discarded by the slaves tend to be older, lower quality stuff. “On this site, that doesn’t actually hold,” Mr. Chenoweth said. “The owners have by far most of the older ceramics and older things, and the enslaved people have newer ones.” Mr. Chenoweth believes that this relates back to the family’s Quakerism and “how this particular family chose to interpret what it meant to be Quaker.” He added, “Quakers are supposed to live a simple life, and in the 1700s the BVI was a pretty distant place; it was hard to get new and expensive things—and I think here that’s what took o n a role as a status symbol—being able to get the newest stuff, and this family, trying to be simple, trying to be plain, may have intentionally chosen to not have newer things, and that’s one way they sort of expressed their Quakerness, I think.”

The team at work excavating for the smallest fragments. Photo courtesy of John Chenoweth.

Each new discovery seems to produce more questions than answers, but Mr. Chenoweth is okay with that. Though he uses Quakerism as his main focus, he informed me that not many archaeologists study religion. “I leave the theological questions to the ministers and priests, but I ask questions about how being a member of a certain religion affects your relationship with other people and with things and the world around you, and I think that’s sort of a timeless question…We’re trying to understand how religion affects your relations to other people, which is hugely broad and difficult, but if I can say something useful about that, then maybe it can be useful in more modern contexts.”

Mr. Chenoweth plans on returning to the territory as Dr. Chenoweth, after he’s finished his dissertation. “I do hope to keep coming back here and working on projects throughout my career,” he said. Mr. Chenoweth mentioned the support and generosity of the owners of the property, the government, H. Lavity Stoutt Community College and other organizations. He’s currently talking to the Department of Culture and the Jost Van Dykes Preservation Society about projects they want to see done “for their historical and cultural importance, as well as in order to open and interpret sites for BVIslanders and visitors alike,” he said. “I think it’s a great combination when you can do things the people who visit are really interested in, and it actually means something to people that live here.”

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