Architecture against Insurrection

NelsonThe eighteenth century was never really my area, but Louis P. Nelson’s Architecture and Empire in Jamaica (Yale University Press, 2016) is one of the more striking books I’ve read recently. Focusing on domestic and commercial architecture, Nelson outlines how buildings in eighteenth-century Jamaica articulated both slave-holding society’s violent authority and its fears of an slave uprising.

Some of the features that Nelson discusses are blatant. In the mid-century, planters imported fortified designs such as tower houses and the “Z-plan” from Scotland and Ireland. They positioned overseers’ homes on hills that offered easily surveillance of plantation works (though often not of slave housing, interestingly). They even made it illegal for the homes of free blacks to have back doors, in a bid to make it harder to harbor runaway slaves. Other features were more subtle. Nelson argues that the open plan and lodging rooms of the prototypical Jamaican “creole house” helped make the planter’s home a place for broad white solidarity against the enslaved population, making fortification and hospitality two parallel (or overlapping) architectural strategies for security against rebellion.

The scope of fortified construction and other less obvious security measures were what struck me most about Architecture and Empire, but the book covers a lot more too: design and construction techniques to resist hurricanes and earthquakes, to moderate the inconvenience of heat and sun, and to landscape town and countryside in ways that demonstrated prosperity and a connection with the motherland. A hefty and well-illustrated book, Architecture in Empire in Jamaica is more or less intended for the specialist, or at least for the architectural historian. But if you are willing to take the time and look up some terminology then it’s an interesting read.


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