Following the American War of Independence, many Southern Americans loyal to the British crown came to The Bahamas in the late 1770s and early 1800s. They set up cotton and sugar cane plantations throughout the archipelago, attempting, with the aid of retinues of slaves of African origin, to continue the opulent life style to which they had been accustomed.
At irregular intervals along the coast of the island are charming settlements of clapboard and limestone houses, some thatched with sabal palm leaves rather than shingled.
Several such plantations were established on San Salvador. The best known of the plantations that were established are the Sandy Point Estate and the Farquharson and Williams Plantations. Like fellow planters who set up elsewhere in The Bahamas, the owners of these three sites discovered that unimproved Bahamian soil is a fickle partner in agricultural ventures.
When cotton yields decreased, sharply lowering profit margins, many of the Loyalists sought new sites in the more fertile islands of the British Caribbean, abandoning buildings and leaving the slaves to their own devices. The Williams Estate at Fortune Hill, San Salvador was one of the many which suffered this fate.
The size of the Fortune Hill site with its main buildings and slave quarters stretched out over more than three square miles and the quality of the artifacts found on the site suggest a wealthy planter.
It is known that Burton Williams, owner of the Fortune Hill plantation, left The Bahamas sometime in the early l800s for Trinidad, taking a number of his two hundred slaves with him. All of the latter had, apparently, been given the opportunity to accompany Williams to his new home. Those who remained on San Salvador are said to have suffered great hardship. It is generally thought that Burton Williams returned to The Bahamas sometime later and lies buried in Cockburn Town’s seaside graveyard.
The Williams estate lies at the edge of Starrs Lake at the midpoint of San Salvador’s eastern coast, roughly in line with the island’s main settlement Cockburn Town, lying on the west coast.
The area was once thickly covered by native hardwoods like mahogany, madeira and lignum vitae which were indiscriminately felled on San Salvador and many other islands of The Bahamas to clear land for the establishment of plantations like that at Fortune Hill. A process of natural afforestation is slowly replacing the trees, but faster growing thorn-
No matter how difficult it is to gain access to the Burton Williams Plantation, the sight of its remarkably well preserved structures and the knowledge of their historical and cultural significance in the Americas offers immediate solace to weary trekkers. An exploration of this area opens a window on a bygone age which helped to form the economic, sociological and demographic patterns of the Bahamas and much of the Caribbean.
Entering the site, one comes first of all to the “great house”, a structure reminiscent of those in the Southern United States, the former home of many of the Loyalists who established residence in the Caribbean after the American War of Independence.
Situated on an elevation with an inviting view of the surrounding property, the Fortune Hill great house is two-
The most interesting aspect of the main house is that it is made of tabby, a kind of concrete made of lime and stones which is far less durable than the native cut stone of which the other buildings on the estate were constructed. The Williams house, which served as an orphanage in more modern times, was one of the best houses on San Salvador as befitted Williams’ status as a very wealthy man.
Lying at a distance from the main house that would ensure privacy without giving the owner a taxing walk, the library is a polygonal building with an excellent view. The native stone walls appear as solid today as they were almost two hundred years ago. Made of lignum vitae (guaiacum officianalis), the lintels of the door and windows still hold firm. Like the main house, the library does not lack a great deal more than a roof to make it complete.
Standing more than a mile from the main house, the latrine is interesting for two reasons: Besides being used as a privy for human comfort, the latrine functioned also as a household waste disposal centre in Loyalist times, making it an archaeological treasure house from which excavators have extracted cooking utensils, glassware, bits of crockery and remnants of other household appointments.
The Burton Williams Plantation was built on two opposing ridges, about a mile and a half apart. The great house and its outlying buildings occupy the ridge nearest the main roadway while the slave village stretches out beyond the second.
The types and disposition of the buildings in this area, provide fascinating clues to Bahamian plantation life during this period. The overseer’s house, sturdy and well built of cut stones and mortar, is the most prominent building in the slave village and possibly the best preserved on the slave village and possibly the best preserved on the whole plantation. This structure contains an excellent chimney piece with a lignum vitae mantel. Worthy of note, too, are the stables which are also in a fair state of preservation. It is thought that the cotton gin, used to separate the seeds from the cotton fibre, stood in this area.
Much is implied about Burton Williams' attitude to the welfare of his slaves from the size and condition of their dwellings. In an age when slaves tended to be crowded into large barracks, the Fortune Hill plantation offered separate stone cottages with hearths and chimneys. Though nothing probably could compensate them for their loss of freedom, they appear to have had comfortable living quarters.
The administration of The Bahamas Archaeological Field station is trying to attract the attention of private and public funding for the Williams Plantation Project. It is to be hoped that these efforts will be successful, considering the importance of the estate to the national heritage of The Bahamas.
This article was reproduced from Caricom Perspective, July -