Recap: “Constructing Colonial Identities and Power in the British Atlantic World,” with KICD Postdoc Erin Marie Holmes

At first blush, the initial question posed in Kinder Institute Postdoc Erin Marie Holmes’ February 14 colloquium—“how do we recover the lost 18th-century landscape and built environment?”—seems like an insurmountable obstacle. Especially given limited scholarship on the subject, scanty documentary record, and a sometimes counter-productive disciplinary divide within the academy, it would seem that a built environment lost might just be unrecoverable. As Prof. Holmes discovered during extensive fieldwork in Barbados, however, such an assumption would be wrong.

When it comes to the island’s architecture, she explained, it’s not that the built environment was lost but rather that little about it changed significantly during the period in question (from the late 17th into the early 19th century). Or, perhaps more specifically, the built environment in Barbados did change toward the front end of this timeline: houses became more open to account for the tropical clime, with higher ceilings and larger windows, while deforestation, slave rebellion, and hurricane damage necessitated a shift in building materials from timber to such soft stone as coral rubble. Once embraced, though, such adaptations became relative constants, as did two other key aspects of Barbadian material culture. For one, the colony stayed fixated on interweaving the ornamental trappings of British society into their homes. Secondly, the layout of the houses’ first floor—one large room, with a smaller room attached—likewise remained consistent. The interplay between these latter two factors, Prof. Holmes noted, is instrumental to considering some of the larger questions—about the lives of enslaved people and the evolution of colonial identity—that can be accessed via study of the built environment. In both the décor and the close quarters through which enslaved people and their enslavers moved, we can see a colonial, Barbadian population far more interested in proving that their Englishness had not eroded than in re-shaping the landscape to account for the presence of slavery.

The same might be said of the first wave of Barbadians who moved to South Carolina. The original Ashley Hall, for example, was modest in stature and its design normalized frequent interactions between enslaved people, indentured servants, and enslavers. However, the “tale of two houses” with which Prof. Holmes closed her talk tells a story not of con- but divergence. When St. Nicholas Abbey (originally built in the second half of the 17th century) was renovated in 1748, the updates—triple-arcaded portico, sashed windows, Chippendale staircase—were largely cosmetic and marked a Frankensteined, not altogether accurate vision of what constituted British fashionability. Meanwhile, far from superficial, the updates made to Hampton House in the 1750s embodied decided shifts in colonial South Carolinians’ relationship with the enslaved population. The houses grew in size, projecting the wealth produced as a result of the labor of enslaved people and symbolically reinforcing oppressive hierarchies. They also grew in complexity. Hallways were incorporated to divide rooms from one another, establishing a physical barrier between enslaved persons and the owners of Hampton House, while also restricting the free movement of the former. Gardens on the grounds of the plantation created greater distance between home and field which in turn created greater opportunity for surveillance. And the sheer number of different rooms that were added to Hampton House when it was renovated speaks to a broader shift toward specialization and formalization of enslaved labor and a growing distance between the domestic and the agricultural spaces. If the mid-18th-century built environment in Barbados reflected a people desperate to visually associate themselves with the British empire, in South Carolina, it reflected a people who, in the wake of the 1739 Stono Rebellion and 1740 Negro Act, were recognizing the instability of the institution of slavery and, in turn, were striving simultaneously to achieve greater distance from and assert greater control over the men, women, and children they enslaved.