Edward Thomas and Zach Beier document the excavation of a hut at the slave village site at The Cabrits. Photo courtesy Dr. Lennox Honeychurch

A graduate student in archaeology from Syracuse University in the USA is in the process of uncovering some of the huts that were constructed and occupied by the slaves who worked at the Cabrits Garrison between 1765 and 1854.

The huts make up a small village located in the valley between the East and West Cabrit hills that were once the site of a British military garrison.

The graduate student, Zachary Beier, is doing research towards his PhD degree and is halfway through his ten month period of field work. He is being assisted by Dominican archaeology technician Edward Thomas of Petite Savanne and his field supervisor is Lennox Honychurch. His research is being conducted with the cooperation of the Dominica National Parks Department and is being funded by the Fulbright Scholarship Programme administered through the US State Department.

The location of the slave village had been known and written about for some time through the research of the colonial documents in the British National Archives done by Lennox Honychurch, but this is the first archaeological survey of the site. The excavations are revealing a great deal more about the life of the enslaved West Africans who built the fortifications that are scattered over the 200 acre garrison.

It appears that the slaves carved platforms for their huts out of the hard volcanic ‘tiff’ that underlies the site. They chiseled drains and ovens and post holes from the rock and placed a frame of strong poles into these holes to support the roofs and sides of their dwellings. The sides were probably made of woven saplings or ‘gaulettes’ and these ‘kai gaultay’ were covered with sugar cane leaves (called ‘pai can’ in Creole). The sides were then plastered with a mixture of earth and lime (‘la chau’) a building process called ‘wattle and daub’. The design and materials closely follow West African house construction.

The West African connections are also evident in some of the pottery that has been found. Pieces of locally fired clay cooking pots are the same as pots made in West Africa at the time.

Among other artifacts dug up on the site are iron chisels and a ‘cane bill’. These tools were used by the enslaved to chisel rough rocks and shape them into the square stones that can still be seen in the buildings at the Cabrits. The chisels were also used to carve out the house platforms from the ‘tiff’ for their own homes. The cane bill was used to cut sugar cane on the neighbouring plantations around Portsmouth, but at the Cabrits it was used to cut grass for the many horses that were stabled there as well as to clear the bush from the hillsides. A small crucifix cut out of a sheet of lead hints at the influence of Christianity.

Among other interesting finds are two small silver coins bearing the image of King William IV and the date 1834. This is the year that the first stage of slave emancipation was achieved and the coins may represent the change over from slave labour to paid wage labour at the Cabrits. The garrison was maintained for twenty more years until it was finally closed down in July 1854. The troops locked up the buildings and marched out to waiting ships and the Cabrits was abandoned to the forest once more.

Zach Beier is also excavating one of the large Troops Barracks at the top of the West Cabrit. He is hoping to find evidence of the members of the West India Regiments, also known as the Black Regiments. These black soldiers manned the Cabrits garrison for most of its active period and were involved in a famous revolt there in 1802. The material culture found in these sites may be able to contrast the living standards of the black soldiers to that of the garrison slaves.

After completing his fieldwork, Zach has more documentary research to do before writing his thesis, which he expects to defend in two years. Meanwhile, this valuable work is filling in some of the blank in Dominican history. The restoration of Fort Shirley for public use and recreation continues.