Sherds of History: Domestic Life in Colonial Guadeloupe, written by Myriam Arcangeli

in New West Indian Guide / Nieuwe West-Indische Gids

Myriam Arcangeli, Sherds of History: Domestic Life in Colonial Guadeloupe. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2015. xi + 212 pp. (Cloth US$ 74.95)

Studying slave society on the French West Indian island of Guadeloupe, Myriam Arcangeli exploits the concept of “ceramic culture” to assess the relationship between users and ceramic objects (household pottery, not industrial and construction materials made of clay). Considering that pottery was a sine qua non of everyday living circa 1650 to 1848, she views its ubiquitous nature as ideal for investigating the ties between household pottery and its users, with the idea of identifying “actual” social power (as opposed to structural power) in interactions between people and artifacts. She focuses on water management, cooking, formal dining, and health and hygiene, using two data bases that involve pottery finds from four salvage excavations undertaken in the town of Basse-Terre, and 145 probate inventories concerning persons living in Basse-Terre as well as in the surrounding countryside. To this she adds information gleaned from historical sources such as travel logs and historical paintings, and compares her data with other research done in ethnography, history, archaeology, and cultural studies.

Arcangeli examines vessels used for water transport and storage, and for cooking, both of which were largely composed of local pottery, and analyzes the almost exclusively imported tableware as well as the local and foreign pots used for health and hygiene. She sees a particular reliance on pots for water storage and cooking and explains the prevalent use of French faience across the socioeconomic divide at the dining table as a way of facilitating the acquisition of similar-looking vessels over time. She also determines that this sort of tableware was well adapted to the foods eaten, which were often soups and stews. As for pottery used in health and hygiene, she concludes that Guadeloupeans were more “modern” than people in France because they apparently used water and bathed more readily.

The methodology of analyzing archaeological pot shards with written probate inventories has its merits. But compared to the inventories that prove what objects existed and when, the four pottery collections seem less reliable. They were each excavated by a different team using different salvage operations, where provenance and attention to detail were lacking. Arcangeli acknowledges this problem, but considers that the shards allow her to broaden the time span of analysis beyond 1774–1830s when the inventories were written. It would have been useful to include more pot drawings to portray pot forms and sizes. Arcangeli’s inventories are skewed to less fortunate individuals who must have had female (as opposed to male) slave cooks who multitasked as servants doing other chores, and thus supposedly made mainly non-labor-intensive, slow-cooked foods like stews, soups, and rice and bean dishes. This conclusion seems curious; while stews and soups were present in the form of large shard quantities of cooking pots and tureens, small eating bowls were few in number, certainly far less common than dishes and plates.

Admittedly, dishes and plates would have been useful for stews and rice-and-bean meals, but also for fried, baked, and grilled foods. Arcangeli is aware of these foodstuffs, but privileges those prepared in cooking pots, perhaps implying that they were proof of female cooks being better able to manage their time by cooking these dishes. By extrapolation, this could constitute proof that they exercised “actual” social power. Then too, since her concern is household pots, it may be that she plays down other dietary sources because neither manioc preparation nor bread-baking nor grilling appliances are visible in the archaeological remains.

We need to develop a more rigorous approach to the study of non-European pots, which Arcangeli proves were vital for water storage and cooking during slavery. She is not always certain whether pots are local. This creoleware was made and exported regionally, and petrographic analyses can identify which pots came from where. (Even in the early nineteenth century, Martinique was exporting its creoleware between Puerto Rico and Trinidad.) Sugar pots (drip jars) and forms (sugar molds) were called pots à sucre and formes à sucre. The debate persists about whether etched marks on some pots were made by their users. In Martinique it was potters who marked their pottery, not the users; creoleware water jars were wheel-thrown in Martinique until 1992, and there is no proof that they were ever hand-made.1

Suzannah England, En hommage à l’ œuvre d’ Hector et Eudonise Gercin, France Antilles Magazine, April 19–25 (1997):52–54; Noëlle de Roo Lemos, Les dernières potières de Sainte-Anne, Martinique (1979), p. 35.

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Sherds of History: Domestic Life in Colonial Guadeloupe, written by Myriam Arcangeli

in New West Indian Guide / Nieuwe West-Indische Gids

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