Slavery and it geometries

The historical development of Jamaica has, right from the start of British colonial rule, created the architectural and urban climate of the city of Kingston. The resulting architecture and the urban pattern now reciprocate the horrors of that period by reinforcing the habit of that history, creating an impossible circular labyrinth, a sick mirror.


Within the mechanisms of colonialism and slavery lies one cause of violence. The participants in colonialism allowed a social stratification to become possible along such simplistic visual categories as skin-colour. This caused a taxonomic violence of aggressive segregation which manifested itself in the systematic coercion and control of which the architecture servicing the slave trade and the plantation economy is a potent image. It is precisely the visual simplicity of this system: white master and black slave which made polarisation so potent.

            It is important to note, as Orlando Patterson pointed out, that the slave cannot be defined as mere property. (4) The slave was first made into an object, a machine, which was then owned. It is in that dehumanising objectification that the banality of being an owned object became cruel. The cruelty manifested itself in the re-configuration of priorities for such everyday concerns as housing.


Housing, during slavery was not about dwelling, it was about product storage. (5) Enslaved people were categorised and stored according to their use and usefulness and not according to their own systems of personal relationships. They were consumer goods. But of course that metamorphosis into object was never complete. It was the complicated dialectic of the partial and humiliating success and the partial and hopeless failure of human objectification that defined the strange and disproportionate environment which a slave-based economy created. That is the past which Jamaica carries. The mechanisms with which the colonisers enforced their colony and the largely passive, internal resilience with which the enslaved bore their enslavement, produced a setting and a set of social rituals from which a divided and antithetical culture emerged.


Architecturally the slavetrade had a number of consequences. At the interface of the slave trade, the harbour, the form of the buildings had to accommodate the exchange, storage and movement of slaves. Being regarded as objects they needed only undifferentiated containment. Undifferentiated, that is, in terms of human concerns: family structure and kinship, tribal attachments etc. But there was in fact a very stringent differentiation: the slaves were sorted as products and stored accordingly.

In the ship, as the harrowing images recall, another brutal functionalism determined the shape of the space: the maximum cargo possible with the minimum amount of maintenance to ensure the delivery of an adequately fresh product.

In laying out a sugar estate, in which the slaves would be confined for most of their lives,  the principal objectives were a central location for the works and an overall symmetry in the ordering of buildings and crops. The monoculture of the sugar plantation describes a proto-industrial process. Maps and surveys of the plantation allowed the planter to impose his ideal models of order upon the landscape. Locating sugar works at the centre of a plantation, minimised cost of transport for the cane to the mill. The desire to minimise the time wasted in movement of labourers meant that the estate village tended to be near the works. The location of the greathouse or overseer’s house close to the works and the village had to do with the planter’s desire to maintain surveillance over the coming and going of his slaves.

The concentration of profit slavery made possible had two strange effects on architecture. Firstly it provided the absentee- landowners back in England with the money to fulfill their own architectural aspirations. Fonthill Abbey for William Beckford is a well known example. Connected with that is the institutionalised reluctance to reinvest anything above the minimum in the colony itself. In other words much of the money generated in Jamaica was never plowed back into the economy, never allowed to improve the land. A situation which continues today, whereby most savings are invested outside of Jamaica.

Another consequence was the treatment of the slave him or herself. Architecturally speaking the last aspect is largely negative. An owner did not have to be careful with a slave. Slaves were easily available. Bad slave management was, in a certain narrow sense almost a prerequisite to economic success. A high turnover of slaves was a measure of control over them. For this reason longevity for a slave was a very mixed blessing at best. He had nothing; he was stored in long barracks or in small huts where it suited the master to limit the dignity of the abode. Having to limit that dignity he had to keep it away from his own view, his “lordship of the eye”. So that the slave had always to inhabit the periphery. In some cases this allowed the slave to regain some of his humanity. But whenever the slave broke out of the plantation, in what ever way, he was automatically relegated to the periphery by having to settle in unwanted land. The political power of the plantocracy meant that it controlled land tenure and settlement patterns as well as the internal organisation of their private domains. [Ref. Higman]