I've been researching the history of archaeology for over a decade now, concentrating on excavations done in the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East. That's due entirely to the fact that my PhD research began with the archive of two British archaeologists who worked in Jordan; this and my subsequent research has focused in various ways on the network of British archaeologists they were a part of. The countries this network was active in – Egypt and Sudan, Mandate Palestine, Transjordan and Iraq – were tied to the British Empire in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in one way or another. But there is another part of the British Empire that I've neglected in research terms, and it's a lot closer to 'home'. That part is the Caribbean, and its where half of my own heritage lies.
Antiquities from the Caribbean were being actively collected and displayed in Britain by the 19th century, including at the Blackmore Museum in Salisbury, and in large-scale exhibitions such as the 1886 Colonial and Indian Exhibition in South Kensington. In the Caribbean (as far I understand at the moment) the island with the most formally organised archaeological infrastructure at that time was Jamaica, the largest island in the British Caribbean, and the island with the largest population.
English forces captured Jamaica in 1655; it became a colony in 1670. By the mid-19th century it had two 'scientific' societies – the General Agricultural Society of Jamaica and the Society of Arts. These two organisations merged in 1864, and from this foundation the Institute of Jamaica came into being in 1879. The maintenance of a library, reading-room and museum and the provision of programmes of lectures were part of the Institute's charter. Members were elected, and had to pay membership fees.
Following the exhibition of antiquities in Jamaica's 1891 International Exhibition, the Institute's work in the mid-1890s began to focus more particularly on archaeology and history. Two consecutive lecture series (costing 5 shillings a ticket, half price for members) given during this time were "Greek Life and Literature" and "The History of Jamaica". William Cowper, later principal of Wolmer Free School, delivered both series. In addition, the Institute's journal began publishing reports on archaeological discoveries made on the island. These chronicle the work of Jamaican residents (some of whom were descendants of slave-holding plantation owning families) in uncovering the remains of the island's ancient inhabitants. Where possible, links have been integrated in what follows to the Legacies of British Slave-ownership Database.
In 1894, James Edwin Duerden, a British zoologist, was appointed Curator of the Museum. While the original focus of the collections had been natural history specimens, under his aegis in the summer of 1895 a circular was sent out for collections of Jamaican antiquities to be loaned for exhibition. This circular was inspired in part by discoveries made by Irish artist and naturalist Lady Edith Blake (resident in Jamaica at the time with her husband Henry Arthur Blake, the colonial Governor of Jamaica). She had written up her work formally in an article in the Victoria Quarterly, a journal of the Victoria Institute, a Jamaica-based learned society. She also wrote a general history of Jamaica's ancient inhabitants for Appleton's Popular Science Magazine. At the moment, I can't find a copy of her Victoria Quarterly article online, but the American traveller and author Frederick A. Ober quoted her description of the excavations she directed at Northbrook (Norbrook) in St Andrews parish near Kingston in his 1895 article "Aborigines of the West Indies".
Exhibitors in the 1895-6 Institute of Jamaica museum display included Lady Blake and "Miss Moulton Barrett", daughter of Charles John Moulton-Barrett who was poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning's brother (stay tuned for more on "Miss Moulton Barrett" in due course). Duerden followed up on various leads identified in the reports gathered from residents, and his 1897 publication "Aboriginal Indian Remains in Jamaica" (Vol II No 4 of the Institute's Journal) gives a fascinating insight into the community of 'amateur archaeologists' on the island.
In fact, it's clear from this that the Institute of Jamaica seems to have been rather a hub for the archaeology of the Caribbean. The exhibition featured artefacts found not only in Jamaica but also in Grenada and Barbados (sent by a Rev. T. W. Bindley of Barbados) and British Guiana (now Guyana), and communications on antiquities were received from Dr C. W. Branch in St Kitts.
With the end of the exhibition the artefacts displayed were scattered far beyond Jamaica. In his 1915 book Historic Jamaica, Institute of Jamaica Secretary Frank Cundall noted (in a prescient observation given current repatriation debates):
"it is to be regretted that many of the objects shown at the exhibition of native remains held at the Institute of Jamaica in 1895...should have been allowed to leave the island. Such things once lost can rarely be regained."
The two islands that have the greatest familial significance for me are Grenada and Barbados. As far as I know from family history research, the majority of my Caribbean ancestors lived for at least a century in Barbados (a colony from 1627) until they emigrated to Grenada (a colony from 1763) at the turn of the 20th century. My grandparents subsequently moved from Grenada to Trinidad (a colony from 1797, where members of the government started plans to create a museum in the 1880s).
Guidebooks from the early 20th century noted that those interested in antiquities in Grenada could take themselves to Mount Rich, on the grounds of a former sugar plantation in St Patrick's parish on the north of the island, where ancient petroglyphs could be seen carved on the surface of the rock. An English minister and resident in nearby St Vincent, Thomas Huckerby, wrote a paper on these petroglyphs in 1921. Antiquities from Grenada were also displayed in the 1905 Colonial and Indian Exhibition, held at the Crystal Palace.
In Barbados, meanwhile, by the late 19th century a collection of antiquities, described by a visitor as "a litter of Carib curiosities", could be seen at Farley Hill Mansion in St Peter's parish, the home of Sir (Thomas) Graham Briggs. In St John's parish near Codrington College (the only institution of higher education on the island) could be found more remains of the ancient indigenous population. These were described briefly by British antiquarian Rev. Greville Chester in his 1869 travelogue Transatlantic Sketches. Chester noted the work of one Barbados-based antiquarian and school teacher W. A. Culpeper, whom he met in Barbados during his 1867 trip to the Caribbean. Subsequently Chester donated artefacts from Codrington to the British Museum (though these are not on display). By the early 1890s in his History and Guide to Barbados James H. Stark wrote a plea for an antiquities museum to be established on the island. Eventually, a "cabinet of antiquities" could be seen at Codrington College.
Much of the publication of Caribbean archaeology (in this case meaning indigenous native American) during the early 20th century was done by men funded in the United States. Jesse Walter Fewkes and Theodoor de Booy were financed by American banker and collector George Gustav Heye, whose collection was originally shown in his own museum in New York before he set up National Museum of the American Indian in 1916. Their reports were published in American scientific journals, and reprinted in the National Museum's later series.
It's critical to note, however, that many of the people coming across the remnants of the lives of the ancient inhabitants of these islands were enslaved or the descendants of enslaved people. They were employed in plowing fields and cutting or digging holes for planting sugar cane. They would also have been the people actually labouring on the excavations conducted. In one of Chester's excavations at a cave on the Mount Ararat Estate in St Michael's parish, Barbados, they were convicts, loaned by the Governor for the purpose. Their names are not mentioned in informal or formal published reports. In one heartbreaking case reported in the Institute Journal, on the grounds of the former sugar plantation Wales Estate (Trelawney, Jamaica) the remains of ancient indigenous habitation were mixed in with the material remains of enslaved people whose then-abandoned home had been built on top.
Such moments of discovery were also reported through memories, which were then written into archaeological reports to provide context for collections. Following his trip to Barbados in 1912-13, Jesse Fewkes noted
"A negro woman, who lives in the plain near the caves [at Mount Gilboa (now Mount Gay), St Lucy's parish, near the former estate of John Pickering] told the author that shell chisels had been found within her memory on the talus below the caves...."
I have since obtained several, in all about thirty (mostly from the old black people, formerly slaves) in the country districts. These have all been found at various periods, but chiefly during the slave time, when the greater portion of the island was under cultivation."
1922.Thirty-Fourth Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology. Washington: Government Printing Office.
Allsworth-Jones, Philip. 2008. Pre-Columbian Jamaica. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press.
Atkinson, Lesley-Gail. 2006. The Earliest Inhabitants: The Dynamics of the Jamaican Taino. University of West Indies Press.
Blake, Lady Edith. 1890. The Norbrook Kitchen Midden. Victoria Quarterly (October).
Blake, Lady Edith. 1897/8. Aborigines of the West Indies. Appleton's Popular Science Monthly 52: 373-487.
Chester, Greville J. 1870. The Shell-Implements and Other Antiquities of Barbados. Archaeological Journal27: 43-53.
Chester, Greville J. 1869. Transatlantic Sketches in the West Indies, South America, Canada, and the United States.London: Smith, Elder & Co.
Cuming, H. Syer. 1868. Proceedings of the British Archaeological Association. Journal of the British Archaeological Association 24 (4): 391-404.
Curet, L. Antonio and Maria Galban. 2019. Theodoor de Booy: Caribbean Expeditions and Collections at the National Museum of the American Indian. Journal of Caribbean Archaeology 19.
Duerden, James E. 1897. Aboriginal Indian Remains in Jamaica. Journal of the Institute of Jamaica2 (4).
Ellwood, C. V. and J. M. V. Harvey, 1990. The Lady Blake Collection: Catalogue of Lady Edith Blake's Collection of Drawings of Jamaican Lepidoptera and Plants.Bulletin of the British Museum (Natural History)18 (2): 145-202.
Ford, J. C. and Findlay, A. A. C. 1903. The Handbook of Jamaica. London: Stanford.
Franks, A. W. 1868. British Museum Guide to the Christy Collection of Prehistoric Antiquities and Ethnology.London: British Museum.
Howard, Robert R. 1956. The Archaeology of Jamaica: A Preliminary Survey. American Antiquity 22 (1): 45-59.
Huckerby, Thomas. 1921. Petroglyphs of Grenada and a Recently Discovered Petroglyph in St Vincent. Indian Notes and Monographs.
Keegan, William F., Hoffman, Corinne L. and Reinel Rodriguez Ramos. (Eds.). 2013. The Oxford Handbook of Caribbean Archaeology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Maderson, Paul. 2014. James Edwin Duerden 1865-1937: Zoological polymath. In Jackson, Patrick N. Wyse and Mary E. Spencer Jones (Eds.) Annals of Bryozoology 4: aspects of the history of research on bryozoans: 231-265.
Ober, Frederick. 1895. Aborigines of the West Indies. Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society. Vol 9.
Pepper, George H. The Museum of the American Indian. Heye Foundation. The Geographical Review 2 (6): 401-18.
Stevens, Edward. 1870. Flint Chips: A Guide to Pre-Historic Archaeology Illustrated by the Collection in the Blackmore Museum, Salisbury. London: Bell and Daldy.