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Religion, Archaeology, and Social Relations: A Study of the Practice of Quakerism and Caribbean Slavery in the Eighteenth-Century British Virgin Islands

  • Author(s): Chenoweth, John Martin;
  • Advisor(s): Wilkie, Laurie A.;
  • et al.

This dissertation considers the social construction and negotiation of religion in a particular place and time: a small, relatively poor cotton plantation in the British Virgin Islands in the eighteenth century. Due to a rich record of archival documents and historical writings, we know that religion, race, class, and other forces of identification were at play on this site, but the specifics of many of the players--their relationships and worldviews--do not survive in texts. To reconstruct these, three seasons of archaeological work were initiated on the site, the home of the Lettsom family and the enslaved people they held.

What makes this site unique to the region is the association with known members of the Religious Society of Friends, better known as "Quakers." The owners, Mary and Edward Lettsom were members of a small group of Quakers which formed from the local planter population about 1740, and both professed Quaker values for the rest of their lives. What Quakerism "is" will be a topic of discussion for this work, but it has long been associated with the abolition movement and known for embracing "equality" and "simplicity" in material things. As such, both the presence of Quakers on a slave plantation, and the very ordinariness of their material world is surprising. How can we see ephemeral religious ideas in material things? How can it be at work in mass produced material goods, much like those found at any site of the period? How can slave-owning Quakers seem like anything less than hypocrisy? In short, this dissertation will argue that a wide variety of distinct practices work to construct the seemingly coherent group which falls under the name "Quaker."

At its most general, the purpose of this study is to explore the nature of religion, the groups of people defined on a religious basis, and to chart its effects in their daily lives through their material world. One beginning point to this inquiry is how archaeology has approached and can approach religion. Chapter two begins this by summarizing some of the recent work on religion in archaeology, noting several themes which will reappear later in this work and discussing their theoretical underpinnings, primarily in the work of Geertz, Turner, and Rappaport.

It will be suggested that practice theory, especially the work of Bourdieu, Giddens, Butler, and Bell, can be useful in extending these discussions of archaeology and religion. Chapter three examines these works and proposes a view of religion which may be useful for archaeological analysis: combining considerations of social identity and practice theory to see religion as a group of practice, contextual, constantly changing, and with many variations at one time. This view better fits the evidence we have for what people actually did in their daily lives: creatively interpreting their world and improvising responses that fit their needs, physical and psychological, based on their knowledge of the context of their actions. This view of religion is active and variable.

Archaeological understanding will be pursued here in a comparative frame, studying the relationships between owner and enslaved, Quaker and non-Quaker, rich and poor. The long-term contexts which inform these relationships are the subjects of chapters four, on Quakerism, and five, on the history of the British Virgin Islands themselves. Quakerism has been the subject of a great deal of historical research and a moderate amount of archaeological inquiry as well. Chapter four provides a brief overview of the history of the group, its study archaeologically, and draws out those elements of Quaker religious practice which will be the most important in understanding the actions of those on the study site.

Chapter five introduces the unique history of the British Virgin Islands themselves and the people who lived on the study site, on the island of Little Jost van Dyke: the Lettsoms, Mary (d. ca. 1781) and Edward (d. 1758) and at least two sons, Edward (1744-after 1767) and John (1744-1815). More numerous, however, were the African-descended enslaved people of Little Jost van Dyke, of whom only their names--Rosett, Cudjoe, Myal, Nanny, Bentorah, Cassia, Cutto, Toney, Tom, Damon, Tracy, Isabel and perhaps others--survive in the written record. The Lettsoms, or at least Edward and Mary, converted to Quakerism about 1740 and this chapter also tells the story of how the Quaker Meeting in the BVI formed.

Chapter six describes the study site as it appears today, and provides details of the methodology and terminology employed in the archaeological work, and chapter seven details the results of the archaeological excavations themselves. This latter includes a discussion of phasing and dating for various parts of the site and its structures, and the methods used in their calculation. Chapters eight and nine detail the objects recovered from these excavations: the artifacts such as ceramic, glass, and metal in the former, and the ecofacts, primarily shell and bone, in the latter.

The discussion in chapter ten attempts to bring together all these bodies of information: a high-scale view of Quaker ideals, a local context of the history of the BVI, and the individual performance of Quakerism (and other influences) on the Lettsom site. The relationships of the Lettsom family and their enslaved people, their non-Quaker neighbors and the entire Quaker community are discussed in detail, referring frequently to the historical and archaeological evidence detailed earlier in the work.

A concluding chapter eleven summarizes the specific conclusions of chapter ten in the context of two central sets of questions which arise of any local context when considered through the theoretical structure outlined in chapter three: 1) how do we see the Lettsoms and other BVI Quakers creating a sense of Quaker identity? That is, what are the privileged differences (Bell) drawn on this site and in this community between their actions and things and other peoples' actions and things which may be seen as citing the chain of precedents (Butler) which binds them to the worldwide Quaker community? And 2), in what ways does this process take place differently here because of the peculiarities of local context? That is, how is the practical creation of religion influenced by the context of daily life?

In proposing answers to these questions, the final chapter attempts to describe how the Quaker religion took shape for the Lettsoms, in a context so very different from Quakerism's usual home in London or Philadelphia, and how it changed the lives of people in this place. Under a practice-centered perspective, we can have no illusions of grand unified theories of human social relations; this conclusion does not attempt to explain religion in every context. But neither does it aspire to be an entirely particularistic study: the goal of this discussion is to show how Quakerism was created and contested locally in one place and time, in all its complexities, and allow these complexities to speak to those elsewhere. By combining archaeology with the historical context of the British Virgin Islands and that of the religion that at least some of the inhabitants of this site professed, we can begin to tease out how they practiced their beliefs in ways that are different from others, and gain some insight into how religion might be made and remade elsewhere.

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