The Legacy of Wattle and Daub Homes in Colonial Caribbean Architecture

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A report by Lori Wysong for Historically Speaking.

In his 1492 descriptions of the Caribbean, Christopher Columbus declared the houses of the indigenous people he encountered “could not be more graceful, or better made, more reliable, cleaner, or healthier and it is a pleasure to see them and live in them.”[1] Variations of the huts, or bohíos he described persisted well into the nineteenth and even twentieth centuries, not only among the indigenous groups and their descendants but also in communities of African and Mestizo (of European and indigenous descent) residents of the Caribbean. Many of the architectural materials and designs used by these groups were later adopted by European settlers. However, often, when groups like the British borrowed from other Europeans in the Caribbean, they indirectly appropriated materials and structural patterns used by African and indigenous populations and underestimated their contributions to Caribbean architecture. While the architectural legacies of these groups in the Caribbean have been obscured, Europeans learned architectural strategies from them and did not enter their colonial holdings with an automatic understanding of the best way to adapt to new climate and terrain. This post will analyze how the architectural contributions of indigenous and African populations in the Caribbean were ignored and seek to understand the agency they had in creating architectural culture in Caribbean colonies.

Prior to European arrival in the Caribbean, most indigenous homes had low walls frequently made of wattle and daub (wooden strips “daubed” with a stucco-like mixture) with roofs usually constructed of thatched palms.[2] These materials were more suitable to the Caribbean climate than those initially tried by the European settlers. Stone, for example, might withstand hurricane-force winds, but it proved problematic in the heat and humidity, as well as during earthquakes, when it could rupture or crumble to the ground. Meanwhile, Wattle and daub houses could withstand hurricanes, and though the roofs might occasionally require replacement following a storm, they could be quickly and easily repaired with local materials.[3]

The Spanish, and later the British, adopted the practice of using these materials in the buildings of their Caribbean colonies. In the documentation of the British shift toward using these construction materials, there is a conscious effort to move away from impractical home designs and toward modes of construction that were more functional for the challenges and constraints of the environment. However, the British did not see themselves drawing from the people they enslaved or the indigenous people who preceded them in their colonies. Instead, many of the materials and construction styles they appropriated were attributed to the Spanish. In colonies like Jamaica, which the Spanish and British controlled at various points, colonizers highlighted the Spanish architectural legacy, while they ignored and demeaned the African and indigenous cultural contributions to the built environment.

Barbados, colonized by the British in 1627, depended heavily on enslaved African labor, and by the 1650s had developed an economy based on sugar cultivation and African slaves. Sugar planter Sir James Drax arrived along with this first wave of settlers and built his plantation home, Drax Hall, one of the earliest surviving plantation houses in Barbados and the Caribbean. The house was originally constructed in the 1650s in the Jacobean style of English manor houses.[4] This structure was very European and thus very impractical. Wayne Curtis, in his history of the sugar and rum trades in the Americas, observes that buildings like Drax’s three-story mansion, with massive staircases, fireplaces, and hallways, could easily have toppled over in a hurricane or gotten too little airflow in the warm weather.[5] Another visitor to Drax’s plantation in 1654, French priest Antoine Biet, thought the house was unusual for different reasons. He wrote, “The plantation master’s house is ordinarily handsome and has many rooms. Usually, however, there is only one bedroom off the hall; the whole house being built of timber and boards. I have only seen two or three houses built of stone in the island.”[6] Biet seems to attribute this choice to different levels of wealth, but the materials chosen by those with less money were often better for withstanding the Caribbean climate. However, from the seventeenth century to the nineteenth century, even the most opulent plantation homes in Barbados gradually transitioned from tall, narrow, and built of stone, to wooden, low, and long with a large portico.[7]

In Jamaica, a similar architectural transition took place and was even encouraged. In 1774, over a century after the British conquest of Jamaica, visitor Edward Long remarked, “Of the houses erected by the Spaniards before the English conquest, upwards of fifty are still remaining, very little the worse for time or weather. We are not informed of the particular time when they were built…It is pretty certain they ought to be regarded as antient.”[8]

Long went on to gush about how the architecture of the Spaniards has survived every kind of natural disaster that English settlements, so far, had not been successful in withstanding. He compliments them for their innovative building materials and suggests a few adjustments and horizontal enlargements to suit English tastes, concluding with the following observation:

It is plain, therefore, that the English, in neglecting these useful models, and establishing no manufacture of tiles, but erecting lofty houses after the models in the mothercountry, and importing an immense quantity of North-American shingles every year for covering new roofs, and repairing old ones, consult neither their personal security, their convenience, their health, nor the saving of a most unnecessary expence [sic].[9]

Here, Long expressed a desire to learn from past architectural mistakes like those of the Drax family and prepare for challenges of the Caribbean climate. There was less of a desire, however, to acknowledge the possible roots of Spanish architectural adaptation. In 1722, the Weekly Jamaica Courant observed how the low houses of beams and mortar that the Spanish built 67 years earlier survived a hurricane, and stated “we may conclude that they had met their accidents of like Nature, that put them on that manner of building.”[10] No thought was paid to possible influence from African or indigenous sources.

Prevailing attitudes at the time might explain the reason for this. Edward Long, for example, believed that Africans within Jamaica were by their nature “without any skill in eloquence, poetry, music, architecture, sculpture, or painting, navigation, commerce, or the art military,” and asserted that people of African descent could not possibly be the same species as the rest of mankind, even if they were the same genus.[11] With such a terribly low opinion of the people who made up the enslaved population in the Caribbean, Long’s desire to emulate “Spanish” architecture, without any acknowledgment of its antecedents, makes more sense.

The houses in British Jamaica that Long describes, however, were framed with a series of posts, with bricks in between them, covered with what he calls “wattle,” a layer of “mortar.”[12] At the time, many assumed that this variation of wattle and daub housing originated in the minds of European architects across the Atlantic. However, not only was it already used by the Spanish in the Caribbean, but the indigenous population in the Caribbean used it for many years before Spaniards colonized it. West Africans in the Caribbean used wattle and daub houses supported by wooden posts as early as the seventeenth century.[13] Rather than carrying an architectural tradition with them across the Atlantic, their use of local materials renders these dwellings more similar to those built by the indigenous Taíno people.[14] Through the first half of the sixteenth century, Spaniards constructed the bohíos, or huts, throughout Havana out of plant materials and mud very similar to the wattle and daub structures already mentioned. [15]

Though affluent European merchants and planters eventually expanded upon the wattle and daub style of architecture, this building strategy persisted in the Caribbean countryside and on plantations even in the latter part of the nineteenth century. On a visit to a Cuban plantation in 1871, Samuel Hazard described traditional bohíos as:

of the most ordinary description, thatched with palm leaf or grass, and making no attempt at comfort, but simply serving as shelters from the rain. I thought, in my journeyings through the Southern States, that the miserable habitations called cabins were bad enough; but I must confess that these were worse.[16]

In focusing on the poverty of the inhabitants, whether intentionally or not, this description lessens enslaved peoples’ agency in construction and design. The presence of this traditional building style and materials well into the nineteenth century confirms the continued prominence of this architecture in the built environment of the Caribbean. Wattle and daub homes that survived and were occupied beyond emancipation, or even beyond the nineteenth century, should serve as a reminder of more than just the poverty of their inhabitants. They represent the architectural legacy of indigenous, enslaved African, and Mestizo communities in the Caribbean. The materials and structural designs of these dwellings were borrowed by settlers such as the Spanish, and later the English, and contributed to the survival of their plantation homes and the built environments they created in the colonial period.

[1] Francisco Pérez de la Riva, La habitación rural en Cuba (La Habana: El grupo guamá, 1952), 36.

[2] Louis P. Nelson, Architecture and Empire in Jamaica (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016), 76.

[3]Nelson, Architecture and Empire in Jamaica, 76- 78.

[4] Jerome Handler, Searching for a Slave Cemetery in Barbados, West Indies–a Bioarcheological and Ethnohistorical Investigation (USA: Southern Illinois University, 1989), 2.

[5] Wayne Curtis, And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2007), 18-19.

[6] Jerome Handler, “Father Antoine Biet’s visit to Barbados in 1654,” The Journal of the B.M.H.S., no. 437 (1967), 65.

[7] Henry Fraser and Ronnie Hughes, An Architectural History of Barbados (Barbados: The Barbados National Trust and Art Heritage Publications, 1986), 12-13.

[8] Edward Long, The History of Jamaica or, General Survey of the Antient and Modern State of the Island: with Reflections on its Situation, Settlements, Inhabitants, Climate, Products, Commerce, Laws, and Government (London: Printed for T. Lowndes, in Fleet-Street, 1774), 18-19.

[9] Long, The History of Jamaica, 19.

[10] Nelson, Architecture and Empire in Jamaica, 77.

[11] Long, The History of Jamaica, 356.

[12] Long, The History of Jamaica, 19.

[13] Nelson, Architecture and Empire in Jamaica, 74-75.

[14] Jay A. Levenson, ed.,Circa 1492: Art in the Age of Exploration (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1992), 511.

[15]Abel Fernández y Simón, La arquitectura colonial cubana (Havana, Cuba: Empresa nacional de producción del ministerio de educación superior, 1962), 30, 66.

[16] Samuel Hazard, Cuba with Pen and Pencil (Hartford: Hartford Publishing Company, 1871), in Slaves, Sugar, & Colonial Society-Travel Accounts of Cuba, 1901-1899, Louis A. Pérez, ed. (Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources Inc., 1992), 77.

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