What was the plantation?


IN 1823 John Stewart advised prospective planters that The four great desiderata in settling a sugar plantation are: goodness of soil, easiness of access, convenience of distance from the shipping place, and a stream of water running through the premises.


IN laying out a sugar estate, the principal objectives were a central location for the works and an overall symmetry in the ordering of buildings and crops.


But it was generally recognised that such economy of space was possible only where the land was relatively level and well-supplied with water.


Thomas Roughley in his  Jamaica Planter’s Guide of 1823 advised:


Whether on a level or a hilly estate, the great utitlity of a central situation to place the manufacturing houses upon, must be apparent; still that situation would be imperfect, if water, that necessary element could not be brought into aid the works by its active powers. If a stream of water does not naturally pass by such a spot, a course should be levelled for one, from a source to send down a supply (Viz. all the aqueducts in Jamaica) A situation, uniting within itself the blessings of a plenteous supply of wholesome water, on a piede of ground sufficiently large to admit building and extensive set of works, overseer’s house, hospital or hot house, & c., with a large mill yard and being central among the surrounding cane cultivation is a place most desirable.


Having happily found such a place a well contrived plan of the buildings, their relative, convenient, and appropriate situations, one to the other, should be digested, and laid out on a piece of paper, of a size sufficient to have the whole delineated upon it.


This allowed the planter and his surveyor to impose their ideal models of order upon the landscape.


An ideal and simple geometry then disfigured by the local exigencies of topography and quality of the soil.


Locating sugar works at the centre of a plantation, minimised cost of transport for the cane to the mill. 20 tons of cane, giving only one tone of sugar. Because  of the fact that cane was transported by ox-cart or by donkeys, this imposed an outer limit to the suitable distance between the field and the works.


Another limiting factor was the processing capacity of the works. Animal driven mills, water driven mills which replaced the former during the 18th century and wind driven mills which needed exposed sites.


The second major consideration in the plantation was the worker’s housing.


During slavery every estate put aside an area for a “village” After 1838 there was a drift away from these as planters began to cultivate the land and the ex-slaves settled outside the plantations in independent villages or on freeholds.


The site of the labourers housing was determined by the placing of the works.


Workers were required to spend long hours in the factories, especially during slavery when the mills generally worked around the clock over a crop season extending through six months of the year.

Filed slaves were required to work in the mill at night, following a day of cutting and carting the cane.


The desire to minimise the time wasted in movement of labourers meant that the estate village tended to be near the works.


The planter’s ideal was to have both works and village centrally located.


IN part the location of the village close to the works had to do with the planter’s desire to maintain surveillance over the coming and going of his slaves.


Bu this surveillance was seen to be the task of the overseer, especially as absentee proprietorship became the norm and the overseer was in turn generally required to live close to the works


William Beckford in his A Descriptive account of the island of Jamaica, 1790. The negro houses are, in general, at some distance from the works, but not so far removed as to be beyond the sight of the overseer. IN fact during crop Beckford advised that the overseer be required to sleep at the works, in a room in the curing house with a window into the boiling house.


Roughley required that the overseer’s house should be located near the boiling house with a clear view of all the work buildings and specified that the slave hospital and mule stable should be placed behind the house in order to ensure an unimpeded view.


The tendency to put all responsibility on the overseer and the increasing absenteeism had an interesting architectural effect.


Whereas works and village sites were closely tied on Jamaican sugar estates, the great houses began to orbit at variable distances.


By the early 19th century, great houses were only occasionally occupied by the planter proprietors and this pattern operated to further free their sites.


The expansion of settlement into the interior provided numerous hilltop sites, long preferred as locations for great houses.


Higman, an important source, worked out that the average distance between the works and the village on Jamaican plantations between 1760-1860 was 384 yards. This distance increased over time.


The average distance between the works and the Great house was 391 yards. while that between the village and the Great house was 418 yards.


Surrounding this triangle were zones of land use organised according to the general principles of movement minimisation and profit maximisation. See Lucky Valley in Clarendon with its map showing concentric circles.


With regard to the Great House the great growth of absentee proprietorship in the late eighteenth century led to a narrowing of the gap between the architectural elements of the great house and the overseer’s house.


One of the few and one of the most remarkable exceptions is Rose Hall.


The worker’s village is rarely described. When it is it is unusual: Mathew Gregory Lewis after describing his own house on his Cornwall estat writing:


The Houses here are generally built and arranged according to one and the same model. My own is of wood, partly raised upon pillars; it consists of a single floor: a long gallery, called a piazza, terminated at each end by a square room, runs the whole length of the house.


On each side of the piazza is a range of bed-rooms and the porticoes of the two fronts form two more rooms, with balustrades and flights of steps descending to the lawn. The whole house is virandoed with shifting Venetian blinds to admit air.. There is nothing underneath except a few store-rooms and a kind of waiting hall.


Cf. Higman, p. 243.


What I have described shows us on important thing: the slave as a proto-industrial machine and consumer product avant la lettre. He and the plantation where he worked were dual ingredients in the evolution of industry.