The slave villages

In the early years of the colony the huts of the slaves were placed randomly and close together. They consisted of posts and branches plastered with a mixture of clay, stones and cow manure, laths and plaster. The walls were whitewashed both inside and outside to withstand rain and discourage vermin, and the roofs were of palm leaves, which reached almost down to the ground.

In 1767 Oldendorp wrote: “The houses or rather huts of the black slaves are so simple and basic that you can imagine what humanity’s earliest dwellings were like.” The enslaved Africans slept on straw mats, hiding places for scorpions, snakes and poisonous centipedes. All in all, a pretty unhealthy type of housing, where disease spread quickly. Oldendorp also saw larger homes, neatly maintained and built in straight rows. Later in history, slave villages were built with a wider spacing of 12 metres between them to avoid infection and fire hazards. Cooking utensils were of pottery or calabash, and cooking was done over a charcoal bench on the ground.

In 1960 Danish architects surveyed and drew a typically slave house and the slave village at Castel Coakly, which was presumably built in the 1800s. This drawing shows a semi-detached house of 4.5 x 17.3 m or a total of about 80 m2, giving an area of 40m2 per dwelling. In terms of the number of slaves this means around 10m2 per person. On average, the property comprised two rooms with a door and a window with shutters in every dwelling.

Von Schopen’s plan of 1761 for the plantation La Grange shows the same structure for the slave village. It was however never built. Even if this density of building was regarded as the ideal, it was only gradually realized as slave villages were enlarged or had to be rebuilt after a fire.

On the plantation Beck’s Grove, Adam Søbøtker described the same settlement pattern around 1780, when a slave village was rebuilt after a hurricane. Later the dwellings were constructed as terraced houses; these can be seen on the plantation Whim. Row houses as well as detached houses can be seen on St. Croix, and some of them still serve as homes. There have been no major changes in living conditions for the very poorest people on the islands i.e. the homeless. The steward – or overseer – lived in a decent, solid house with brick walls and a solid roof, not as small as those of the slaves and not as big as those of the planters – but positioned so he could keep an eye on the slaves.