By David Malakoff
In the early 1800s, Alexander Lindsay, a retired British general who was a former governor of Jamaica and the sixth Earl of Balcarres, sensed an opportunity to cash in on Europe’s thirst for the bitter brew known as coffee. In the Caribbean, a revolutionary uprising in Haiti had paralyzed the former French colony’s vast coffee plantations, choking off one of the world’s major sources of beans and creating turmoil in the global coffee trade. In Europe, meanwhile, Napoleon Bonaparte’s blockade of British shipping was faltering, giving Great Britain’s coffee brokers confidence that they would soon regain access to lucrative markets. Hoping to make a killing on the geopolitical chaos, Lord Balcarres in 1812 ordered the managers of land he owned in Jamaica to create a coffee plantation at a site called Marshall’s Pen in the island’s highlands.
Over the next few decades, the Marshall’s Pen plantation became the centerpiece of a bustling community that ultimately included dozens of structures and more than 350 residents—mostly enslaved Africans—before it was largely abandoned in the late 1840s. But the plantation “was built on a foundation of violence and cruelty,” said archaeologist James Delle of Millersville University in Pennsylvania, who has been studying Jamaica’s colonial-era coffee plantations for more than three decades.
Tending the coffee plants and processing the beans required extensive labor, and Lord Balcarres depended on enslaved men, women, and children to turn a profit. It was a strategy the nobleman knew well: long before Jamaica became a significant coffee producer in the late eighteenth century, its huge sugar plantations had already earned an infamous reputation for the brutal treatment of their enslaved laborers. “Sugar plantations provided the template for the expansion of Jamaica’s coffee estates, and a central element of that plantation model was coerced labor,” said Delle. “But we know very little about the enslaved people who built, worked, and lived on coffee plantations.”
Fragments of European-made clay pipes were found throughout Marshall’s Pen and at many other colonial sites in the Americas. | Credit: James A. Delle
These fragments are pieces of the plates, bowls, and cups used by the enslaved laborers. Produced in Europe, these ceramics would have been purchased either by, or for, the laborers. | Credit: James A. Delle
Kutztown University students record the remains of a tomb located in the cemetery associated with the enslaved laborers’ village. Most of the cut limestone blocks had been removed after the village was no longer occupied, but the remnants of the tomb demonstrate the skill of the masons and the importance of the remembrance of the dead. | Credit: Kristen R. Fellows
This is an article excerpt from the Summer 2022 edition of American Archaeology Magazine. Become a member of The Archaeological Conservancy for your complimentary subscription!