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Archaeology of Informal Maritime Commerce in the Colonial Caribbean

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - ArCarib (Archaeology of Informal Maritime Commerce in the Colonial Caribbean)

Reporting period: 2019-04-01 to 2021-03-31

Dark, bitter, and aromatic, Venezuelan cacao beans fueled a vital and dynamic informal commerce in the 17th- and 18th-century Southeastern Caribbean region. Trading this coveted cacao anywhere else than Spain and Mexico was illegal by Spanish law and actively suppressed as contraband; yet, the Dutch authorities on Curaçao, Bonaire and Aruba (ABC islands) encouraged commercial interactions with the adjacent Venezuelan mainland, openly violating inter-imperial economic boundaries. This informal commerce thrived for more than two centuries between the Dutch islands and Spanish colonial Venezuela, seducing a diversity of regional trans-imperial seafarers and mobilizing vital commodities. Curaçaoan merchants traded indispensable European ceramics, along with textiles and foodstuffs, to Tierra Firme chronically neglected by Spanish provisioning fleets, while local Venezuelan ceramics for everyday domestic needs itinerated onboard the ships that returned to the ABC islands loaded with cacao, hides, mules, and tobacco.

While much is known about the socioeconomic and political history and impacts of this longstanding commerce, nothing is known of its material dimensions and how the indispensable smuggled ceramics changed or maintained the identities and gender relations of peoples in the colonial societies on the islands and the continent. The central research question of the ArCarib project is: how did the informal maritime commerce of ceramics in the 17th- and 18th-century Southeastern Caribbean impact the everyday life of communities on the ABC islands and on the Venezuelan coast, particularly their identity formation processes and gender relations? ​This interdisciplinary historical archaeological project employs the innovative theoretical and methodological framework of assemblages of practice, developed by the PI, to critically contrast new and existing archaeological, archaeometric, and documentary evidence and answer this central research question. This first cross-border archaeological study between the ABC islands and Venezuela breaks new ground, revealing how through informal commerce the colonized agentially contributed to the dynamics of continuation and/or change in their communities’ identities and gender relations beyond the restrictive, acculturating, and engendering policies imposed by the colonizer. This project is poised to generate completely new knowledge that will advance interdisciplinary understandings of contraband and informal commerce in early-modern colonial contexts.
The project involved two field seasons of survey and excavations on Bonaire and Curaçao. On Bonaire, excavations at an 18th-century campsite on the island of Klein Bonaire, beside what was probably a transshipment warehouse for goods being transported to and from Venezuela, revealed a rich array of artefacts from everyday life at the site. Rudimentary earthenware cooking pots, Dutch tablewares, and food remains give important clues about the people managing the warehouse. Moreover, firearm fragments and munitions, as well as coins, provide evidence that valuable goods were being stored here and traded onwards. Ongoing archaeometric analyses of the cooking pots are intended to reveal if these were being brought from the Venezuelan mainland, along with smuggled cacao, and if along with the pots, Venezuelan foodways were also being adopted among the inhabitants of the islands.
Excavations at a Sephardi land house on Curaçao — the first excavations in a Jewish household in the Caribbean — have also revealed intriguing connections to the informal trade plied by their inhabitants. The discovery of a coin minted in royalist Venezuela in the early 19th century attests to the strong commercial ties the Sephardim maintained with the Venezuelan mainland, and remains of shellfish among their household refuse suggest a less conservative attitude toward Jewish dietary mores than expected.
These preliminary findings have already been shared in radio and TV interviews on the islands, as well as through press releases and social media channels. The final results are to be published in a number of scientific publications and articles for the general public.
The preliminary results from the excavations already reveal that the relations between Venezuela and Bonaire and Curaçao involved much more than merely commercial interactions, but also included more intimate exchanges of everyday items and customs that have shaped island and coastal societies to this day. Importantly, archaeometric analyses of coarse earthenwares from Bonaire and Curaçao are poised to, for the first time, determine if ceramics on the islands were made locally or traded from Venezuela. By bringing to light new aspects of local histories in their current postcolonial contexts, knowledge generated by this project can be used meaningfully to contribute to strengthening local identities and preserving local heritage on the islands. Furthermore, by emphasizing the longstanding historical commercial links between Curaçao and Bonaire and Venezuela, and their close-knit dependence, ArCarib seeks to highlight how the Southeastern Caribbean region was always united and not divided by the sea, as it is today.
Aerial view of Klein Bonaire where excavations where undertaken (credit: Jeroen Roevros).
Quarter real coin minted in royalist Caracas in 1817, found in a plantation on Curaçao.
Excavations at Klein Bonaire (credit: Valeria Corona).