The architecture of exploitation.

Jacob Voorthuis


When Vitruvius, writing in his De Architectura Libri Decem, speaks of the importance of the study of history for an architect, it is interesting to see the role of slavery in his argument.


The architect, writes Vitruvius in Book 1, chapter 1, should be equipped with knowledge of many branches of study and varied kinds of learning, for it is by his judgement that all work done by other arts is put to test. This knowledge is the child of practice and theory....(...) A wide knowledge of history is prerequisite because, among the ornamental parts of an architect’s design for a work, there are many the underlying idea of whose employment he should be able to explain to enquirers. For instance, suppose him to set up the marble statues of women in long robes, called Caryatides, to take the place of columns, with the mutules and coronas placed directly above their heads, he will give the following explanation to his questioners. Caryae, a state in Peleponnesus, sided with the Persian enemies against Greece; later the Greeks, having gloriously won their freedom by victory in the war, made common cause and declared war against the people of Caryae. They took the town, killed the men, abandoned the state to desolation, and carried off their wives into slavery, without permitting them, however, to lay aside the long robes and other marks of their rank as married women, so that they may be obliged not only to march in the triumph but to appear forever after as a type of slavery, burdened with the weight of their shame and so making atonement for their state. Hence, the architects of the time designed for public buildings statues of these women, placed so as to carry a load, in order that the sin and the punishment of the people of Caryae might be known and handed down even to posterity.


In talking of slavery in relation to architecture one thing must stand very clear. That the nature of the slave defines an environment, a landscape and therefore has a strong effect on architecture.


But if we think of the architecture of slaves as just that, the houses and buildings made by and for slaves we would be quickly finished.


There is, beyond containment and control, little architecture of slaves, there is only the architecture of slavery.


That is a wider story.


This comes from what Orlando Patterson has defined as the nature of the slave: a slave is not mere property, the slave is made into an object, a thing, which then is owned.


As Patterson pointed out, a husband and wife relation conceives aspects of belonging. A slave does not belong in the sense that a husband belongs to his wife with mutual rights and duties. A slave belongs to his owner in the way that a toaster can be owned.


It is in that dehumanising objectification that the absurdities and banalities of being an owned object become cruel. Slaves are not objects. They are people made into objects. But of course that metamorphosis is never complete and even rebels.


It is the complicated dialects of that partial and humiliating success and that partial and seemingly hopeless failure that define the strange environment, which a slave-based economy creates.


There are two aspects to the architecture of slavery: Firstly: the effect on architecture when we consider the slave as a live consumer product and secondly, the effect on architecture when we consider his use and purpose and the benefits that he makes possible for the owner.


The first shows us the geometries of control of the product: the capture, storage, transport and retailing and subsequent housing of “the product” Which takes us through the million times multiplied horror of the Middle Passage and onto the plantation house


The second shows the architecture that came about as a result of the immense concentration of profit which slavery within the plantation economy made possible. This is the architecture of the Great House in the Caribbean, with its absentee landowner, its minimal investment and its creation of an incomplete colonisation where the white owner settlers actually kept their nationality in England and merely used Jamaica as its factory farm


Or the Plantation Houses in The United States, which did achieve a monumentality because of the permanence in the settlement. But I propose that it also created and sustained the architecture of the enormous country estates back in England, which were funded by the fortunes created in Jamaica and elsewhere. (William Beckford’s Fonthill)


The middle passage

The ships coming from England, France, Spain, Portugal, and The Netherlands would stop in various places in West Africa, where the slaves were stored in quasi-military forts such as at the Island Of Goree just outside Senegal.


The name Goree is derived from a peninsula in Zeeland (The Netherlands) of that name and has been successively in Portuguese, Dutch and French hands. It saw the shipment of some 2 million slaves.


It is a sombre place, not unlike Alcatraz and indeed now functions as both a place of pilgrimage and as a prison.


The objective of the fort was security and later containment. The form of the building was altered to accommodate the interface of the slave trade between Africa and the Ships.


The slaves, being regarded as objects needed only undifferentiated containment. Undifferentiated? not quite. Undifferentiated in terms of family structure and kinship, tribal attachments etc. But there was in fact a very stringent differentiation. Instead the slaves were sorted as products and stored accordingly. Women, children, men.


Because of the simultaneous inconvenience and consumer advantage of their being alive and wilful, they were often individually chained. It was all part of the packaging process.


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. The diagram produced by the anti-slavery movement dramatises this “efficiency.”


This functionalism persisted in the arrival and the market.


The “sale by scramble” is in effect no different to the current behaviour of bargain hunters at Harrods, where goods are stacked according to their category and the consumer runs mad to be the first to find a good bargain.


Here, male slaves were exhibited on the main deck and female slaves on the quarter deck. Advertisements for slaves all witness this dehumanisation process to product. Slaves which could not cope with this spectre, threw themselves overboard and could not swim. They were released by death.


In the slave quarters at the new settlement of Cape of Good Hope, a settlement founded by van Riebeeck for the Dutch East India Company, the Slave quarters show a simple U shaped building surrounding a courtyard. It is placed next to the Church near the centre of town. But whereas all other buildings show a careful modulation to purpose and function, this one exhibits mere space, undifferentiated space.


St. Kitts shows us perhaps the most extraordinary system, where slaves would arrive in the cellars of the slave traders house, the only house in the neighbourhood built of fine stone in the most correct classical order,  be transported across the charming square, underground in a specially designed tunnel so as not to disturb the beauty of the place above, and then sold off in a large wooden building.


The social geometry dictates that the slave trader lives in the best part of town. His aesthetic sensibility determines an absurd geometry for his trade.


The Negro yard in Kingston is a similarly socially undifferentiated storage space.


What I will argue is that the slave and the plantation economy which survived because of him, were the earliest manifestations of industrialisation. The slave was the port-industrial machine: he was within the Jamaican plantation economy and together with the monoculture of sugar production a first instalment in the evolution of standardisation which eventually led to the modern building industry and modern industrial practice.


After the slave arrived, he was taken to the estate, branded with a silver brand and named. Slaves were often given names from popular literature or the Greek Classics: On Rose Hall estate there was Hannibal, Ulysses, Scipio, Hercules, Othello, Anthony, Mark etc.


At the plantation they were “seasoned” A further process of objectification in which all normal ties were finally disrupted. Their strange reaction to this process must have surprised only those who were no longer able to distinguish the man from the object he became.


But to understand the architecture of slavery we have to understand the working of the plantation.


Jamaican Plantation History


In the shaping of the modern social and economic structure of tropical America, writes Barry Higman, no forces were more influential than slavery and the plantation.


Within tropical America, the dominance of the large slave plantation was nowhere greater than in Jamaica.


Around 1830, for example, 36 % of Jamaican slaves lived in units of more than 200, compared to 5 % in the sugar producing regions of Louisiana US and a mere 1 % in Bahia.


Roughly 60 % of slaves in Louisiana and Bahia belonged to holdings of less than 50, whereas only 25% of Jamaican slaves were in such units.


Within the British Caribbean only Tobago, St. Vincent and Antigua matched the concentration of slaves in very large plantations found in Jamaica.


The French and Spanish colonies always possessed a relatively substantial smallholder class.


In spite of the much larger slave population of the United States there were only 312 plantations of 200 or more slaves in 1860, compared to 393 in Jamaica in 1832.


Although the large plantation typified the relations of production in the slave societies of Brazil and the United States, the plantation itself remained something of a myth, most slaves living outside its physical context. IN Jamaica myth and reality converged.


After the abolition of slavery in 1838 Jamaica experienced a transformation, which created a dual economy, peasant farming springing up alongside the plantation and occupying lands in the previously neglected interior.


By the end of the 19th century a great deal of plantation land had been abandoned to the Jamaican Small holder, while the surviving plantations consolidated property and power in the lowlands.


Throughout the 18th and nineteenth century the plantation provided the spatial context within which a large proportion of the Jamaica population lived and worked.


During slavery this existence went together with literal physical confinement, slaves being forced to spend the greater part of their lives within the close community defined by a single plantation’s boundaries.


The nature of life for the plantation community both before and after emancipation was determined very largely by the decision of the planter and his supervisory representatives.


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.


Very light settlement by the Spanish, who had caused the indigenous population of Arawaks to disappear within a decade.


For the English Jamaica was quickly regarded as a potential producer of sugar and other tropical staples, an extension of the plantation system which was already establishing itself in the Eastern Caribbean.


During the 17th century Jamaica remained primarily a base for the privateering and buccaneering activities mostly against the Spanish.


By 1661 with the establishment of civil government Planters were encouraged to come to Jamaica from Barbados, the Leeward Islands and from Surinam (conquered by the Dutch in 1667) bringing slaves to cut plantations from the forest.


By 1670 when the British began to circumscribe the activities of the Buccaneers, a diversified economy based on Cacao, sugar, indigo, pimento and cattle had emerged. Production was organised around smallholdings as well as plantations.


Assisted by generous crown grants, corrupt lawyers and the scarcity of competent and honest surveyors, the growth of large land holdings started in this period.


The white population of Jamaica actually declined in 1700 falling from 9,000 to 7,000, while the population of African slaves increased from 10,000 to 45,000 between 1673 and 1703.


The development of that plantation system was set back by the Earthquake of 1692 and the threat of French invasion but by 1700 Jamaica was set on course towards a pattern of settlement centred on export orientated, large scale plantation agriculture.


Sugar emerged as the most profitable crop and there appeared a tendency to monoculture.


In 1712 Jamaica’s output of sugar first exceeded that of Barbados.


But it was not until 1730 that the country was firmly established as the Major producer of sugar within the British holdings.


In 1805 Jamaica produced 100,000 tons of sugar and became the leading individual sugar exporter in the world for that year.


The last years of slavery were marked by gradual decline, while emancipation in 1838 was followed by rapid economic contraction.


Coffee did not emerge as an important crop until the 1790’s, when it was granted British Tariff protection and French planters fled to Jamaica from St. Domingue


The other crops were of no more than minor significance during the period of slavery


Alongside the dominance of sugar, Jamaica always maintained a relatively significant internal market and in consequence an economy, which was more, diversified than say the monoculture of the Eastern Caribbean.


Livestock for motive power and meat were produced on lands unsuitable for sugar or coffee in pens, which often rivalled the plantation in area and scale. At the time of emancipation these pens accounted for 10 % of the total value of Jamaican output. And after emancipation many plantations were converted to pens.


Food crops were produced by the slaves and later my peasants and wage labourers, utilising lands too rugged for sugar cultivation.


Land settlement concentrated on the south coast until 1740 when plantations quickly spread along the north coast.


Buoyancy of Sugar price and easy availability of slaves: bad management.


The number of sugar mills operating in the island increased from 57 in 1670 to 419 in 1739 to 1061 in 1786.


Between 1792 and 1799 some 84 new sugar estates were established


Robertson’s map of 1804 showed a total of 830 sugar estates. By 1834 there were 670 in 1854 330, 200 in 1880 and 125 in 1900


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 utility 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 piece 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 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 estate 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 bedrooms 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.


The slave was no more than a machine, being human detracted from his machine-like existence. What the slave owner did not realise that the dehumanisation of the slave reduced his effectiveness even more.


The 18th century had analysed the machine on a popular level. In the Encyclopédie by Diderot and D’Alembert, the machines were all reduced to their simplicity. The human being was in fact reduced to a materialist phenomenon: a compound machine and God was referred to as the watchmaker.


Into this image fitted the slave, Read about his daily activities and then life revolves around hard work done for no personal motive other than the negative one of avoiding punishment.


But architecturally slavery had far-reaching effects, some from the concentration of profit, others from the availability of the product.


Architecturally speaking the last aspect is largely negative. One did not have to be careful with a slave. Slaves were easily available. Bad 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. The slave had always to inhabit the periphery. His escape, if he succeeded, was into the periphery, into the hinterlands where he was reduced to another form of free imprisonment.


The architecture of the slave is an architecture of the periphery.


When the slave was forced to take centre stage within the plantation, the planter could afford to live at its periphery: on the hilltop, or in England where he built enormous country houses.


There the geometry of serving and served achieved sublime proportions. Country houses of the 18th and early nineteenth century were often fitted with two entwining circulation systems: one for the owner, the other for his servants. The film "The remains of the day" gives a beautiful example of it.


When the slave broke out of the plantation, in whatever way, he was automatically relegated to the periphery by having to settle in unwanted land.


He always inhabited the place he does not want to inhabit. No wonder that his idea of the afterlife and its consequent ceremonies often involved a dreamlike homecoming.


Sources: Higman, Binney, Buisseret, Patterson, Ward, Beckles and Shepherd.