7.1 Plantation architecture and surveillance

American historical archaeology has studied the landscapes of plantations in an attempt to both understand their function and model cognitive choices made within a landscape.

While there are considerable differences due to geologic, temporal, and regional circumstances or practices, the landscapes of plantations have certain recognisable patterns (see Higman 1987; Vlach 1993, for discussions of variation). Typically there were four main spatial entities; the manor house, fields, production centres and slaves' quarter. The manner in which these were arranged indicates that the owners consciously organised the landscape to best deal with the dichotomy between the economic function and the maintenance of control over the slaves required to make the plantation profitable (Orser 1988; Singleton 2001, 105-6). This was especially true on large plantations where slaves greatly outnumbered the administrators (Vlach 1993, 230).

Plantations were purposefully designed with an unspoken dialogue of hierarchy. Termed the 'spatiality of control' by Delle (1998, 167), this concept argues that the control of space and landscape is used to emphasise the hegemony of the plantation owners, control the slaves, and delineate class hierarchies between slaves, overseers, and plantation owners. Manor houses are a statement of this power and authority, setting the owners apart from both the local free population and the slaves; their opulence was in direct contrast to the more modest slave dwellings or overseers' houses (Vlach 1993, 16). Surveillance was a crucial part of this 'spatiality of control' (Delle 1998, 159; Singleton 2001, 105).

Panoptic surveillance, such as that described by Foucault (1991), requires observation structures. Delle, for example, noted both the Clydesdale and Sherwood Forest plantations overseer's houses had verandas and balconies that looked out onto the landscape (1998, 157-62). Structures like these were often arranged so that key points in the landscape were monitored; movement to the fields and the main dwellings, distribution points, and gathering points (Whitley 2003, 9). They could also be placed to have views of the slave quarters, monitoring the domestic lives of the slaves (Orser and Nekola 1985, 68). The slaves could see these large structures and know there was a possibility that they are being watched, the uncertainty encouraged discipline.

While Foucault argued that surveillance alone could control populations, Epperson points out plantations were not perfect panoptic systems (2000, 59). Thus the panoptic surveillance was used in conjunction with supervised labour, task-assigned labour and, most important of all, physical violence. Observed misbehaviour had severe and life-threatening consequences (see Farnsworth 2000; Singleton 2001, 105).

Supervised labour was conducted by overseers and slave drivers who acted in the economic interest of the owner by managing slaves. Rather than general surveillance, observation of the assigned group would occur (Whitley 2003, 7-9). Often this occurred in areas that surveillance did not cover or in economically important areas such as processing centres or fields. By being physically present the overseers could apply violence and thus maintain discipline. Finally there was surveillance of the product and, by extension, the slave. Many large plantations operated on a task system (Whitley 2003, 7). Rather than constant observation of each slave individually in the fields, their production was assessed to confirm that they were working hard enough (Silliman 2006, 158). By establishing a quota, the slaves were still monitored as a group. However, larger systems of surveillance operated alongside the task system; houses and gathering places were still monitored and the threat of violent punishment was always present.


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Last updated: Tue Nov 3 2009