NPS Dig Reveals Lifestyles of Urban Slaves

A recent excavation in the National Park Service’s Christiansted National Historic Site unearthed artifacts that reveal details about the lives of slaves living and working around the Christiansted wharf in the 1800s.

Doctoral candidate Alicia Odewale, from Tulsa University in Oklahoma, conducted the dig and presented her findings during a lecture Thursday evening from the NPS Danish West India Guinea Company Warehouse/Slave Market. The warehouse compound adjacent to Fort Christianvaern was a slave village beginning in 1749. The structure of the warehouse and slave market was revised several times between 1749 and 1803, Odwale said.

According to the NPS, Christiansted played an important part in the sale of people from Africa, their enslavement and labor in the Americas, as well as the sale of sugar and timber to Europe and the American colonies.

With the help of two interns and several community volunteers, three meters of dirt were sifted through during the month of July. More than 3,650 artifacts were located in the small area.

“Only three square meters, you can imagine what (artifacts) this park holds,” she said.

The goal, Odewale said, was to try to determine if the activities of urban or royal slaves were the same as rural or plantation slaves.

“There is not one slave experience — not one kind of slavery,” said Odewale, who has excavated slave sites in Arkansas and Mississippi.

Between 1733 and 1848, slaves were 80 percent of the population at the warehouse compound comprising new slaves from Africa, urban and imprisoned slaves, free black men and women and Danish military. Sugar cane was an important crop but labor intensive and dangerous to field workers.

Laws heavily favored slave owners and in 1733 the Gandelin Code allowed dismemberment, castration, branding and hanging without a trial and other horrific punishments. In 1741, the law was eased somewhat, according to Odewale, and it wasn’t until the 1755 law, Regalement, that slave owners were required to provide food, clothing and shelter for their wards.

Based on the artifacts uncovered, Odewale believes the villagers were entrepreneurial as well as domestic servants inside the walls of the military compound.

There were three separate excavations near Hospital Street but only one was authentic and showed no signs of disturbance by modern man. The other two contained plastic pipes and electrical wire but the third dig had a mortar floor and contained a charcoal cache and ballast stones. According to Odewale, the Danish Officers Warehouse contained a stone tile floor.

The artifacts included items made of brick, mortar, coral and metal. A horseshoe, the blade of a hoe, pottery (both unglazed Afro-Crucian and Danish china), a pipe stem, a fish hook and several glass bottles. Odewale believes the glass bottles didn’t all contain alcohol, but were used to hold water.

Animal bones were found with the marrow intentionally removed to eat for protein and the ends of larger bones showed signs of being used in cooking, to stir pots of stew. Odewale plans to test some pieces when she returns to Oklahoma to try to pin down the age.

The black community at the Danish Warehouse compound established a working market system. Odewale said slaves were carriage drivers, interpreters, porters, chefs, seamstresses, stevedores and took care of livestock, horses and gardens for the military. Slaves also were proficient at carpentry and metal work.

Although she will return to Tulsa soon to complete her doctorate in May 2016, Odewale hopes to continue and expand her study and excavations to learn more about the slaves’ homes and quality of life.

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