A Summer in France (in the Amazon) – Elizabeth Clay

September 11, 2015

Every year, the Penn Museum provides support to Penn undergraduates and graduate students as they deepen their understanding of the human experience outside the Museum’s walls. Follow these blog posts from our intrepid young scholars as they report on the sights and sites that they encounter throughout their travels in the field.

In early July, I arrived here in Cayenne, the capital city of French Guiana. Along with Martinique and Guadeloupe, French Guiana—or la Guyane as it is known in French and Lagwiyann in Creole—is a department of the French nation-state located between Suriname and Brazil on the northeastern coast of South America. As such, it exists as a peripheral French holding at the crossroads of the Amazon region and European empires past and present.

Me in Guyane
Me in Guyane. Photo by Jonna Yarrington.

Last summer, I spent a month in Guyane working with a team from the Université de Laval in Quebec at Habitation Loyola, the site of an 18th-century Jesuit mission and sugar plantation. This year, I planned a six-week research trip to the area to establish my dissertation project, which will involve the archaeological excavation of a slave village at one or several colonial plantation sites in Guyane. From the outset, my goals for the summer included earning the support of local community members for the project, gaining permission from the French government for excavation next summer, and learning about the sites I have chosen through research at the local departmental archives and on-the-ground reconnaissance. Throughout this project, I learned more about Guyane and the diverse groups of people who call it home.

Because this will be the first archaeological project directly exploring the African past in the region, this summer I have established partnerships with individuals and associations with whom I intend to work collaboratively. This process is the most critical, and involves meeting with community members, local historians, and activists, in addition to museum, university, and cultural heritage professionals. Discussions with these diverse groups have yielded insights into how the history of slavery is taught and presented in the department. Because children are taught through the nationalized French education system, the unique history of Guyane and particularly the history of slavery, is often not emphasized, which leads to gaps in public knowledge about the subject. Even in the two museums in Cayenne, the history and legacy of slavery receive little attention. Instead, representations of Guyane focus primarily on indigenous groups, the diverse rainforest ecology, or aspects of Creole culture. These gaps in official narrative are filled in some respect by local associations, which regroup individuals interested in valorizing the multifaceted aspects of Guyanese history and culture.

La Feuille de la Guyane (the weekly newspaper) from August 10, 1848, proclaiming slavery abolished in French Guiana
La Feuille de la Guyane (the weekly newspaper) from August 10, 1848, proclaiming slavery abolished in French Guiana. Photo by author.

Besides the difficulties involved with mobilizing diverse groups around a complex and sensitive subject, finding colonial habitation sites remains challenging given that plantations were largely abandoned post-emancipation. In the intervening 150 years, secondary rainforest has reclaimed the landscape. What’s more, while the foundations of the great houses and plantation outbuildings might remain, housing for the enslaved was rarely constructed with durable materials. To find whatever architectural features and material culture remains in place will require survey of the areas most likely to have housed slaves according to historic maps and landscape analyses. Archaeology itself in Guyane is complicated by multiple factors, not the least of which include the heat, humidity, and rainforest working conditions (think mud, tarantulas, and vicious mosquitoes, but also beautiful flora and fauna, shade, and tranquility).

Stone staircase - 19th c. plantation remains concealed by rainforest vegetation
Stone staircase – 19th c. plantation remains concealed by rainforest vegetation. Photo by author.

As of this week, I’ve narrowed down my project to a comparative material and historic exploration of 19th-century slavery in Guyane. My project will also investigate contemporary representations and memory of slavery and abolition. To arrive at this point, I’ve spent hours over the last few weeks in the Departmental Archives, combing through newspapers and land records, both of which have proved to be extremely fruitful sources of information. Historic periodicals are replete with sale announcements for plantations dating from the 1840s-1850s, the period directly before and after slavery was abolished in the French overseas colonies in 1848. These are highly descriptive and provide detailed accounts of the use of space on plantations and even list enslaved workers by name and age. My shift in emphasis from 18th-century to 19th-century slavery results not only from the richer archival and physical remains from this later period, but also from the fact that the ideological transition from slavery to freedom is a subject of interest to the Guyanese population that can be accessed through oral tradition and memory.

This trip has been a whirlwind of observations, discussions, and hiking in the jungle that has given me the chance to clarify my dissertation project. I’m excited to build out my project and “dig” into Guyanese history in upcoming summers!