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Coalpot and Canawi: Traditional Creole Pottery in the Contemporary Commonwealth Caribbean

Patricia J. Fay, Associate Professor of Art, Florida Gulf Coast University



The functional clay vessels created in the labor communities of the Caribbean are a powerful reminder of the core purpose of the ceramic enterprise: to facilitate the health and sustenance of human society. Despite the long years of slavery and indentured servitude, traditional potters in the Commonwealth Caribbean have retained ceramic technologies from Africa, India, and Europe, and an examination of their work yields fascinating insights into the evolution of Creole culture. Pottery communities in St. Lucia, Antigua, Nevis, Jamaica, Barbados, and Trinidad demonstrate the resilience of traditional culture, yet struggle today for survival within an environment of mass market tourism and rapid modernization.

Key words: Caribbean pottery, women potters, Creole, Afro-Caribbean pottery

Introduction: beyond tourism

The marketing language of tourism artfully sells the lands bordering the Caribbean Sea as a private paradise, travel destinations with little purpose other than serving fantasies of sunlit indolence. Behind the façade of these picture postcards, however, is a region with a fascinating history and a unique demographic mix. The inhabitants of the Caribbean have included indigenous and migratory Amerindian peoples; European conquerors, merchants, and settlers; African slaves from diverse tribes across the continent; indentured plantation workers from India; and more recent arrivals from China, Lebanon, Syria, and other countries around the globe. The merging and blending of influences from these diverse sources has created the dynamic Creole culture of the contemporary Caribbean. The work produced today by traditional Caribbean potters opens a window into a rich historical narrative of resistance, adaptation, and survival.

Rapid demographic shifts before and after the advent of European colonization have created a unique confrontation and amalgamation of cultural forces in the region. Amerindian groups inhabiting the Windward and Leeward Islands were progressively decimated in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries by European conquest and imported diseases, severely limiting their ongoing contributions to Caribbean material culture. The introduction of slave and indentured labor from Africa and Asia that followed generated an intensive acculturation process against the backdrop of the European-owned sugar plantations. From the nineteenth century onwards the material culture of the region has continued to evolve within the sphere of Amerindian, European, African, and Asian influences. The many countries and territories of the region are divided into the language groups attached to the colonial process, and follow historical patterns established by Spanish, French, Dutch, and British colonizers. ‘Creole’ is a cultural and linguistic term used to refer to this syncretic regional society, and within its definition of local birth the word carries with it the same commitment to the landscape implied by ‘indigenous’ while defining a time frame covering the last 500 years. The ‘Commonwealth Caribbean’ refers to the English-speaking former British colonies, and is a more accurate classification than the now defunct political designation of the West Indies. ‘Traditional’ is my chosen label to describe the straightforward yet highly skilled practices of Caribbean potters, and avoids the cultural baggage embedded in the word ‘primitive’ as applied to pottery made in low-technology environments.

The functional clay vessels created in the labor communities of the Caribbean are a powerful reminder of the core purpose of the ceramic enterprise: to facilitate the health and sustenance of human society. Before the recent introduction of metal and plastic kitchenware, clay pottery in the Caribbean served as the principal mechanism for the domestic tasks of storage, cooking, and serving needs. Fine European china and status dinnerware were imported for plantation kitchens and tables, but many of the ceramic pots for cooking and storage were formed and fired using the abundant earthenware clays of the region. Dinnerware made locally for personal use mimicked the forms and even the names of the imported kitchen and table wares, and the use of unglazed earthenware pottery in the home continued in many locations to within living memory.

For the past fourteen years I have been fortunate to meet traditional Creole potters throughout the Caribbean region. As both a potter and an academic, my intention has been to examine the ceramic technologies used as evidence of cultural continuity with pottery traditions practiced in countries of origin. My particular focus has been given to women potters in the Commonwealth states of St. Lucia, Antigua, Nevis, and Jamaica who today use forming and firing techniques long practiced in West Africa. The majority of the following article addresses the ‘Afro-Caribbean’ pottery tradition once endemic to the region. As counterpoint, I have included discussions of the male potters of Jamaica, Barbados and Trinidad, where the introduction of wheel and kiln technologies from England and India have generated complementary colonial traditions. Gender roles in ceramics follow remarkably consistent patterns – women potters are dominant in handbuilding and bonfire traditions, and generally pursue ceramic production for supplementary household income in agricultural communities. Invariably, however, the introduction of wheel and kiln methods, often accompanied by the removal of pottery production from the domestic environment, initiates a shift from female to male potters, and promotes the growth of a male-dominated class of specialized artisans.

‘Afro-Caribbean’ ceramics

With the advent of European conquest, the rich and complex history of Amerindian ceramics in the Caribbean came to an abrupt end. By the time of the escalation of the African slave trade in the seventeenth century, Arawak, Taino, and Carib Indian populations in the region had been effectively eliminated through warfare, disease, and relocation, leaving limited opportunities for transfer or preservation of cultural traditions. On some islands – Jamaica, Barbados – there was little or no contact between Africans and Amerindians; in other cases, such as on St. Vincent, the interaction of militant Caribs and escaped slaves created highly effective resistance communities until the Caribs were forcibly relocated. The final result was the same – enslaved Africans became the new majority population of the Caribbean islands, and their lives were generally considered to be outside the realm of serious academic or historical attention. Domestic earthenwares, likely produced or traded on virtually every island in the Caribbean during the colonial period, have furnished tangible documentation for understanding the culture of displaced Africans in the Americas. Recent archeological projects have established a clear platform from which to propose a widespread regional ceramic tradition that evolved as a result of the dynamic demographics of the Caribbean.

Scholars have employed the more general term ‘Afro-Caribbean’ to refer to the universe of Caribbean earthenwares which shares three fundamental properties. Potters built these vessels by hand-modeling, coiling, or a combination of both techniques, they fired them without a kiln, and they did not use glazes. From a technological perspective, then, these wares appear to represent a continuity of West and Central African techniques in a New World setting.1

By looking specifically at contemporary pottery production, closely related African-based traditions can be recognized in the technologies employed by women potters on the islands of St. Lucia, Antigua, Jamaica, and Nevis. These women work entirely with local materials, build utilitarian vessel forms by hand using a soft coil technique, and fire the unglazed wares in open bonfires. In the summer of 2000 I was able to visit the West African country of Cote d’Ivoire for a month-long exploration of traditional craft practices, including demonstrations at several pottery villages. Direct observations of the clay processing, handbuilding, and firing practices used by the women potters clearly indicated strong similarities to specific techniques used by potters in the Caribbean. And while the argument can be made that comparable methods are employed in many ceramic settings worldwide, at times the hand and body movements of the African potters (not to mention the familiar sound of ‘sucking the teeth’ for emphasis) were simply identical. In particular, watching the pounding of the wet clay prior to use with a wide-based wooden pestle convinced me that heritage practices can be retained within the physical memory of the human body, and have been transmitted from mother to daughter across time and space.

St. Lucia: at the heart of traditional Caribbean craft

The landscape of southern St. Lucia is breathtaking. The twin volcanic peaks of the Pitons, recently designated a World Heritage site, rise abruptly and majestically from the sea to the sky. The province of Choiseul sweeps southward behind the Pitons and around the Caribbean coastline, its steep rural hillsides carefully cultivated with fields of dasheen, plantain, potato and yam by descendants of African slaves and Carib Indians. The geologic history of Choiseul provides easily accessible surface clays, with the unusual combination of excellent plasticity and a coarse particle structure. The result is a clay body ideally suited to rapid handbuilding methods and intense bonfires, and to the production of pottery made for successful exposure to direct flame. With such excellent resources close at hand, Choiseul is where the potters are, as well as the furniture makers, boat builders, and basket weavers. This area is an extraordinary example of the independent farming and fishing communities that emerged with the end of slavery, and today St. Lucians consider Choiseul to be the true heart of traditional island culture.

St. Lucia has a contentious colonial past marked first by battles with highly resistant Carib Indians, and later by one hundred and fifty years of conflict between the French and the English over possession of this strategically located island. St. Lucia was definitively claimed claimed by the British in 1804 but as a result of this turbulent history the sugar colony established earlier by the French achieved only marginal levels of economic success. The completion of emancipation in 1838 left the small population of thirteen thousand former African slaves and one thousand two hundred white landowners little opportunity beyond subsistence agriculture. As a result of their dual colonial histories, most St. Lucians today speak both English as taught in school, and a French/West African Creole patois spoken socially. With the establishment of the British capital of Castries in northern St. Lucia in 1814, the French-influenced south was largely abandoned, and the post-emancipation communities that grew out of the southern plantation system developed a high degree of self-sufficiency. Demographic evidence and landholding records indicate some level of continuous Carib Indian presence in St. Lucia, particularly in the area of Choiseul called ‘La Pointe Caraïbe’. While it is clear that by the time of the intensive importation of the African slaves in the late 1700s there were relatively few Carib Indians remaining in St. Lucia, the resilience of the small Carib community may well have provided a social role model that promoted the distinctive independence and self-reliance of the people of Choiseul.

During a family vacation to St. Lucia in March 1993 I purchased an unglazed pottery kettle from a market vendor in the northern capital city of Castries; the lady said it came from Choiseul, and little else. My attempts to unravel the mystery of this small clay pot have taken my life in several very unexpected directions, and completely changed the course of my career in ceramics. Under the auspices of a Fulbright Scholar Grant I moved to St. Lucia, and in the fall of 1994 I spent my Wednesdays sitting beside Choiseul potter Catty Osman watching the near magical speed of her handbuilding technique while I picked rocks and roots out of the sticky gray clay. On Tuesdays and Thursdays I worked at the Choiseul Craft Development Center with Catty’s cousin Irena Alphonse, collaborating on issues of product design and pottery training programs. These two women introduced me to a world I never knew existed, and to a pottery tradition that has been largely ignored by cultural historians of the region. After living in St. Lucia from 1994 – 1996, I have returned many times to see my friends, pursue various kiln building projects and craft development opportunities, and to continue ceramic research throughout the Caribbean.

The community of forty to fifty women potters living and working in Choiseul, St. Lucia, constitutes the largest remaining regional group producing traditional Creole pottery using Afro-Caribbean handbuilding and bonfiring methods. St. Lucian pottery is made entirely by women in separate workshops within the household complex, while men help with cutting and transporting wood for the large bonfires necessitated by the numbers of vessels produced. Children assist in the more mundane chores of the pottery profession – picking rocks from the pounded clay, and burnishing the dry pots. The arduous task of stacking the pots for the bonfire is often a cooperative effort involving both family members and other potters living nearby. It is, however, the potter’s sole responsibility herself to tend the firing, and wrapped in protective clothing against the heat, she deftly manipulates burning wood and red-hot pots throughout the two – four hour firing. At midday in the tropics this is a particularly taxing job, and is generally considered the most unpleasant task in the production cycle. Daughters learn pottery making from their mothers in an organic manner throughout their childhoods, and after finishing secondary school at fifteen they enter into a more focused apprenticeship. Choiseul communities are family-based, and most potters live in close proximity to sisters, aunts and cousins who are also potters. In the current generation of rapidly modernizing St. Lucians, the physically dirty and demanding profession of pottery making is not highly regarded. The market for traditional pots is also declining in the tourist-focused economy, and it is questionable whether, or in what form, the tradition will continue.

One of the reasons Afro-Caribbean pottery has persisted so long in St. Lucia is the continuing relevance of its principal product, the coalpot, both for the domestic market and for export throughout the region. A portable clay cookstove intended both for grilling and roasting and for the longer cooking of ground provisions and stews, coalpots are widely used throughout St. Lucia in combination with indoor gas or electric stoves. The history of the Caribbean coalpot is obscure but the form itself indicates that the clay versions produced today evolved as copies of colonial-era iron coalpots, and they did not enter the archeological record until the nineteenth century. There are many examples of clay braziers and cookstoves in northern and western Africa, with those from Nigeria and Cameroon bearing remarkably similar shapes to the coalpots of the Caribbean2. The historical relationship between clay and metal versions of the cookstove is very hard to follow, and continues into the present as inexpensive aluminum coalpots are now cast in Guyana and the Dominican Republic.

The canawí is the traditional round-bottomed cooking pot formerly used in combination with the coalpot and now superseded by imported aluminum pans. But many older St. Lucians say that callaloo, pumpkin soup, bouillon, and other one-pot dishes always tasted better in these seasoned clay vessels. Long thought to be an Amerindian word, canawi (or ‘canari’ in its more conventional spelling) holds the same meanings and implications in the West African country of Cameroon.

In these regions [of western Cameroon], even pottery used in the home is giving way to more modern utensils bought in the markets. And yet, as an old Bamileke told me, 'Food always tasted better when we cooked it in canaris'.3

In St. Lucia, canawí is also the Creole word used to describe pottery as a whole, and the catalog of traditional forms is extensive. In addition to the coalpot and canawí, there is a range of sizes and shapes of cooking vessels for frying fish, roasting coffee, or boiling plantains and yams; water storage and serving vessels such as goblets (a handled pitcher), kawafs (carafes) and kettles; plates, bowls, cups, and other dinnerware; and forms to serve many additional everyday needs including wash basins, candle lanterns, chamber pots, and even large containers to fit into wooden commodes. Both the forms themselves and the creole names attached to them attest to their origins as local copies of imported ceramics. Very few of the traditional forms are regularly made by St. Lucian potters today, who focus on coalpots, small vessels for the tourist market, and a wide range of flower pots and garden ware, many of which are embellished with incised decoration, fluted rims, or sculptural faces. It is important to understand that the forms chosen for production by the potter are market-driven, and are the province of the client. Ceramic production methods, however, remain at the heart of cultural tradition, refined and passed along through the generations, mother to daughter, hand to hand.

Pottery production in St. Lucia

In the steep open hills of Choiseul, workable clays can be found close to the surface in most locations, and are typical of coarse, overly plastic volcanic clays. Due to the large particle sizes and the presence of quartz inclusions in the clay, potters in St. Lucia do not need to add additional tempering materials. Clays are generally dug on family property; some potters find their clay from a single site, others will combine sticky grey clay from one spot with sandy red clay from another. The raw clay is slowly slaked down over the course of a week in covered pits next to the workshop. To prepare the clay, a long handled pestle (or ‘pilon’ in patois) is used to pound the wet clay, breaking up any dry particles and homogenizing the mix prior to use. The mass of clay is piled up on a hard stone or wood surface and pounded from the outside to the center with a vigorous full-body motion; this process is repeated two – three times. The clay is then mounded up indoors next to the potter’s chair, and covered in plastic and/or damp fabric to prevent drying. As the clay is used, it is first manipulated in the hands to remove any rocks, roots, or other large particles that would disrupt the handbuilding process and threaten the integrity of the vessel walls.

‘Coiling and modeling’ are terms that have been used to label this type of handbuilding, but from a ceramic production standpoint, they do not provide an effective description of the continuous rapid motions employed. ‘Coiling’ refers to using individual building units made from a fairly stiff clay body that have a scale relationship to the width of the vessel walls. ‘Modeling’ is more accurately applied to the solid forming of discrete elements. A more precise way to refer to the building method employed in St. Lucia might be to call it the ‘soft coil’ technique. Thick rough coils of soft clay are loosely rolled out between the hands and swiftly blended together – the vessel wall is constructed, thinned and shaped simultaneously, with further refinement and stretching of the wall performed with calabash or plastic ribs. The form of the vessel is constructed very rapidly in a single session on a board turned by hand in the lap of the seated potter. The speed of this process cannot be adequately described – Catty Osman can complete a full size coalpot in an unbelievable 16 minutes. Generally, the coil is held in the right hand and pushed into the vessel wall while it is supported by the left hand. After the coils are added, the potter pulls her flattened right knuckle up the outside of the form to thoroughly join the coils and thin the wall. A piece of wet cloth is placed on the finished rim of the pot, and carefully drawn around the edge several times to define and compress this critical structural area. When the vessel is complete the forms are transferred off the board and onto to the workshop floor. After a suitable period of drying (usually 24 hours) each pot is again stretched and smoothed with calabash ribs, completing and refining the form. Handles are added at this stage, holes are cut out on coal pots and candle lanterns, and incised decorative marks are added to kettles and flower pots. When fully dry, the outside surfaces of the pots are roughly burnished with smooth river stones to compress the surface and ‘make them nice’, as the potters say.

After a long period (two to four weeks) of slow drying indoors, St. Lucian pots are set out in the sun for several hours before firing. Firing days are determined by favorable weather conditions – the absence of rain, and the presence of a good breeze to keep the fire burning hot. Pots are stacked in multi-level configurations with a stabilizing layer of thin sticks below, and large cut sections of fully dry coconut wood are leaned vertically against the pile of pots to completely cover the stack. Smaller firings may use a range of combustibles, including wood, coconut husks, and cow dung. The bonfire is lit using palm fronds and kerosene on the windward side, and is carefully tended and manipulated throughout the course of the firing to ensure even and complete combustion. The firing burns from windward to leeward, fueled by the breeze and encouraged by the actions of the potter who flips the burning logs towards the ‘back’ of the stack as the firing progresses. A long wooden stick is used to manipulate pots and wood, and the potter must bundle up in several layers of clothing to protect herself from the blazing bonfire. The scale of production determines the size of the firing; bonfires in St. Lucia can be quite large, with as many as two hundred pots stacked in four or five layers. Due to the rugged composition of the naturally tempered St. Lucian clay no preheat is necessary, and the pots are able to withstand the sudden and intense heat of the two to four hour bonfire. When all the wood has been consumed and the pots exhibit the desired color and surface, the firing is left to cool several hours or overnight. St. Lucian pottery is usually made to order, and finished pots are soon delivered to craft shops and market vendors. On rare occasions commissioned pieces are made for a specific customer, but in general the work is sold at wholesale prices to individual dealers.

Over the past several years, I have collaborated with Catty Osman and Irena Alphonse to experiment with wood-fire kilns based on designs used by potters in Jamaica and Trinidad (see below). The initial kiln-building workshop in 1995 was organized by the author with the assistance of government agencies, private enterprise, and dedicated volunteers. Dennis Bell, well-known potter and ceramic engineer from Fairfield Pottery in Barbados, provided technical expertise, while material support was offered by Clay Products, Inc, the sole local producer of earthenware building materials in St. Lucia. The kiln design originally introduced has been modified and refined many times, and is now used by several potters in the Martin and Morne Sion areas of Choiseul. This small, straightforward wood kiln is ideally suited to individual potters. Kiln firing provides harder, more durable wares with a brighter surface color, but equally important, the process is less taxing for the potter and ensures a higher success rate for the finished product.

Pottery production in Antigua and Nevis

When I visited Antigua in the summer of 1999, there were six potters still working in the well-known community of Seaview Farm. As in St. Lucia, the Antiguan potters are all women trained through mother/daughter apprenticeships, working at home in separate outbuildings within the family compound. Clay is dug from selected local sites, and is slaked down and used relatively stiff without any additional processing other than picking out rocks and organic materials. Older potters remember pounding their clay prior to coil-building, but this practice is rarely used today. The round bottomed cooking pots, charcoal cookstoves, wash pans, flower pots and candle lanterns they produce have comparable forms and are constructed using coiling techniques similar to those in St. Lucia, but excess clay is scraped from partially dried pots to complete the forms. When fully dry, the pots are fired in a single layer in an open field, stacked first on sticks, then covered with dried grasses and burned until all the fuel is consumed. There is little wood available on the open rolling hills of central Antigua, and the grasses burn adequately hot to harden the pottery. With enough wind, the pottery will fire to useful temperatures in one – two hours.

Unlike the individual home-based workshops of traditional potters in most areas of the Caribbean, the small group of women who make up the Newcastle Pottery in Nevis chose to form an economic cooperative. Private and government assistance made it possible for them to construct a centralized workshop near the airport with both studio and retail space, and earned income is dramatically higher through direct sales to tourists. Interaction with the customer base has also encouraged experimentation, and the range of functional and sculptural forms produced are beautifully crafted and impressive in scope. Sharing resources has led to improvements in clay processing, with truckloads of raw clay delivered to the pottery for slaking in large cement bins. The clay is either used directly or mixed more thoroughly in a temperamental electric pug mill purchased by the cooperative. The construction method is a soft coil technique similar to that used in St. Lucia, but the pots are rotated by turning them on a wet table surface, rather than on a board in the lap. When adequately stiff, excess clay is shaved off the bottoms of the pots to complete the form, as in Antigua. A finishing coat of a bright iron red slip is brushed on the surface before burnishing, and the location of the source of the material used has been carefully preserved across generations of potters. After a thirty-minute preheating stage, the pots are fired in a single layer in an outdoor bonfire, using readily available coconut wood and husks from a former copra plantation nearby. After cooling and cleaning they are displayed on shelves in the retail area at the front of the workshop, where they command prices many times higher than other Afro-Caribbean wares. The added value of watching the potters at work has made Newcastle Pottery a prime tourist destination on this small island.

Jamaica: two separate African traditions?

Archeological evidence from late seventeenth century Jamaica clearly indicates the presence of at least two types of locally-made earthenwares: African-influenced cooking and storage vessels, and kiln-fired, specialized plantation forms such as sugar molds and tobacco pipes. In Jamaica today, two distinctively different styles of traditional pottery are also produced: the familiar Afro-Caribbean functional bonfired work, and unique handbuilt and kiln-fired gardenware with a syncretic provenance.

The Spanishtown area of Kingston was at the center of the Afro-Caribbean pottery tradition in Jamaica, but sadly only a few potters continue to make the characteristic coal stoves, cooking pots, ‘monkey’ jugs, and the wide bowls called yabbas . Like canawi in St. Lucia, yabba is also a generic term for handbuilt pottery in Jamaica. From the 1950s until her death in 1992, yabba ware in Jamaica was synonymous with Spanishtown potter Lucy Jones, know to all as Ma Lou. Her dedication to the practice made her a national cultural icon, and today her daughter Marlene (‘Munchie’) Rhoden continues her mother’s work. The finer grained Jamaican clays are mixed with river sand to improve thermal shock resistance, and an iron wash is used on the surface of the finished pieces for a smooth, bright finish. The coil building process is essentially the same, but includes the use of a round-bottom fired support base called a ‘keke’ which allows the potter to easily turn the vessel while under construction. The bonfire is prepared by carefully stacking the dry pots in one or more layers, and then completely surrounding the pile with wood and dried cow manure. A calm, windless day is preferred, for the firing is lit simultaneously from all sides and left to burn freely for one – two hours. When the fire has burned down, the pots are carefully removed to cool, and checked for cracks or imperfections.

A complementary ceramic tradition whose methods indicate both colonial European and alternative African origins continues to sustain itself in urban settings in and around Kingston, Jamaica. Dubbed ‘the walkaround style’, male potters working in extended communities in the Trenchtown area build the walls of their pots by walking around the pot as they are constructing it. The soft coils are rapidly added while backing around the stationary vessel in one direction, then blended vertically as the potter backs in the opposite direction. This ingenious method allows for the rapid production of large numbers of pots made in the varied forms of English garden ware. Some of the smaller, simpler forms are made by coiling into one-piece fired clay molds, a method likely used centuries before on the plantations to make sugar molds. After a brief drying period, the pots are fired with wood in a rudimentary circular kiln made from salvaged bricks and scrap iron and roofed with galvanized sheet metal and shards of broken brick. The firing lasts five to six hours, and includes an initial ‘steaming’ period that drives off the moisture in the recently made pots. Several decades ago lead-glazing was also a part of this tradition, but the kilns are used today to enhance the durability and clear orange color of the unglazed flower pots. The many potters of the Trenchtown community have found a successful market niche selling their work on the weekends along the streets of the wealthier neighborhoods of Kingston.

European influences in the Jamaican ‘walkaround’ tradition can be seen both in the archeological record and in the documented use of kilns, molds, and lead glaze. The forming process, however, has a clear precedent in several West African handbuilding systems, most notably those demonstrated by renowned Nigerian potter Ladi Kwali (c1925-1984) who built her pots in a comparable fashion by walking around a central stand while constructing the vessel. ‘Jamaica’s Master Potter’ Cecil Baugh (1908-2005) was trained in Kingston and Spanishtown by both male and female traditional potters early in his career. He would go on to work with Bernard Leach in England and to establish wheel throwing and stoneware glazing back home in Jamaica. Of his early training he says:

But the method of free form pottery I want to record here is the walkaround technique in which Bernard Leach was so interested. It is this technique which I demonstrated to the Cornish potters in St. Ives, at Dartington Hall Cultural Centre and on the BBC television ... Until her death in 1984 in Northern Nigeria Ladi Kwali used this walkaround technique, although she built up her pots with coils and not handfuls of clay, but it leads me to believe that the traditional potters in Jamaica were influenced by their Nigerian ancestry.4

Parallels to this tradition can also be seen amongst the Hausa of Nigeria and the Mossi of Burkina Faso, where male potters build their wares using molds and fire in a remarkably similar circular kiln.5 With both African and European elements, and in direct comparison to the more broadly distributed women’s African-based handbuilding tradition, the unique Jamaican walkaround style provides a fascinating example of the complex issues of cultural attribution in the Caribbean.

Barbados: the pottery of ‘Little England’

Barbados, dubbed ‘Little England’ early in its history for cultural fidelity to the home country, experienced three hundred and fifty years of uninterrupted colonial governance. With abundant supplies of high quality earthenware clays in Barbados, pottery production was introduced very early in the island’s history, and archeological evidence indicates local ceramic manufacture by the 1650s. Afro-Caribbean bonfire methods appear to have been used in Barbados, but were eclipsed by the wheel and kiln traditions of colonial England. The combination of excellent natural resources and advanced production technologies gave rise to a lively regional ceramics industry in Barbados, and today the island hosts a large and successful contemporary pottery community.

Both unglazed and lead glazed domestic pots were made by African slave potters and their descendants in Barbados through the mid 1950s, with production focused in the potters’ village of Chalky Mount. The wheel used to throw the pots was a characteristic ‘crank-shafted’ style well documented in archival photographs of English country pottery. Potters’ children and apprentices would spend long hours pushing the crank-shaft to drive the spinning wheel head as the potter made a variety of forms including the ‘monkey’ jug for cooling and serving water, and a tall jar for pickling and stewing meats called a ‘cornaree’ (a variation of the word ‘canari’). Both glazed and unglazed pottery was finished in small wood-fired kilns derived from the round bank kilns used for centuries in Great Britain. Kilns were needed to reach lead glaze temperatures, and this partly underground design incorporated the insulating factor of the hillside with an arched firebox and a replaceable roof made of shards. The pots were glazed by first coating the form with molasses, and then dusting the pot with a powder ground from scraps of melted lead. In both England and Barbados, this type of lead glazing was abandoned after the Second World War. Contemporary potters use sophisticated gas and oil-fired kilns, and work in both earthenware and stoneware temperature ranges.

Trinidad: ‘East Indian West Indians’

The island of Trinidad sits far to the south in the Caribbean, only seven miles from the coast of Venezuela. European settlement came late to the island, and under British colonial rule Trinidad invested heavily in sugar cultivation. With the end of slavery in 1838 the new plantation owners began a frantic search for a replacement labor force and turned to importing indentured workers from India. East Indian descendants now comprise half the population of Trinidad. Two brothers with the family name of Persad arrived on the island in 1898, and founded an entire dynasty of potters in the central town of Chaguanas. In this case there is no question as to cultural antecedents, and in the wheel and kiln technologies used in Trinidad there is direct continuity with the ceramic traditions of India. The potters are men, but it is the women of the family who are often in charge of the large production studios, coordinate the orders, and deal with the retail trade. Women are also frequently involved in creating the decorative carved and stamped surfaces on the pots, but in most cases it is men who do the throwing. I have visited Radika’s Pottery in Chaguanas several times over the years, and I am always astonished at the extraordinary facility of the throwers, whether making a tiny oil lamp or a hundred pound vase.

The excellent, fine bodied clays of the central plains of Trinidad are mixed with the feet as in India, although in the carnival culture of this lively island the practice is referred to as ‘dancing’ the clay. The bread and butter item in Hindu-dominated Trinidad is the deya, a small coconut oil lamp that takes a good potter approximately six seconds to throw for a total of five thousand on a good day. The deyas are used to celebrate the Hindu festival of Diwali in November to honor Lakshmi, the goddess of prosperity. The potters will stockpile deyas throughout the year in order to meet the enormous demand. Trinidadian potters use an ingenious homemade wheel constructed from a small electric motor and an automobile transmission, shifting the gears to produce a range of torque and speed settings. Kiln technology also came with the Indian laborers, and has been adapted for Trinidadian fuels and production schedules. The low walls of the circular kilns are piled high with pots, and roofed either with sheet metal and shards, or with the more traditional covering of straw and mud. After an initial slow preheat, large burning logs are pushed under the perforated brick arch of the kiln floor to bring the unglazed pottery to temperature in about six hours. In addition to the deyas, potters make flower pots in a dizzying assortment of sizes and shapes, decorative jars, carved lanterns, and sculptural pieces. Many potters are now also using electric kilns for additional applications of low temperature glaze on decorative gift products.

Unknown Craftsmen – and Craftswomen

Little documentation exists regarding the introduction and evolution of pottery making in the Caribbean region during the colonial period, and as a result, connecting historical evidence to contemporary practice remains a subjective process. The absence of decoration or ritual purpose in the functional, unglazed pottery made by slaves, indentured workers, and their descendants has rendered both vessels and potters largely invisible to the eyes of cultural historians. Yet the sheer presence of these everyday tools for living, both in the archeological record and as made today by male and female potters in the region, gives potent testimony to cultural continuity in the living ceramic traditions of the Commonwealth Caribbean.

It is important to recognize traditional pottery communities in the Caribbean as uniquely successful examples of domestic craft entrepreneurship that came into their own in the post-emancipation period. For hundreds of years, Creole potters have made substantial contributions to the economic and social viability of the region through the manufacture of an essential commodity. Traditional bonfire pottery is a quintessentially local product, and yet today many of its forms serve domestic needs which no longer exist. Rapid economic growth fueled by the dramatic expansion of the tourist industry over the past three decades has emphasized progress towards a model of Western development, and professions that do not adequately serve the needs of foreign visitors or fit perceived notions of modernity are being abandoned. Foreign-funded pottery development efforts have been largely unsuccessful, but locally-generated heritage preservation and celebration efforts that provide direct support for existing practitioners offer hope for the continuing evolution of traditional Caribbean ceramics.


  1. Barbara J. Heath, ‘Yabbas, Monkeys, Jugs, and Jars: An Historical Context for African-Caribbean Pottery on St. Eustatius’ in African Sites Archaeology in the Caribbean, Haviser, Jay B., ed., Markus Wiener Publishers, Princeton, NJ, 1999, p.197. back to text
  2. I have collected examples of coalpots from a variety of sources throughout the Caribbean, plus one from Cameroon that in form looks very similar to the St. Lucian version. In addition, on p.58 of Nigel Barley’s book Smashing Pots on African ceramics (see references below) there is a black coalpot from Nigeria that bears the same characteristic form. The production of fuel-efficient cookstoves has been actively promoted in many developing countries, and the question of the time sequence between metal and clay versions of this form is a fascinating one. back to text
  3. Jocelyne Etienne-Nugué , Crafts and the Arts of Living in the Cameroon, Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge, 1982, p. 99. back to text
  4. Cecil Baugh and Laura Tanna, Baugh: Jamaica’s Master Potter, Selectco Publications Ltd, Kingston, Jamaica, 1986, p.55. back to text
  5. Roy, Christopher D. ‘Mossi Pottery Forming and Firing’, in Man Does Not Go Naked: Textilien und Handwerk aus Afrikanischen und anderen Landern, Beate Engelbrecht and Bernhard Gardi, editors. Baesler Beitrage zur Ethnologie- Ethnologisches Seminar der Universitat und Museum fur Volkerkunde. Basel, 1989. back to text


Allaire, Louis. ‘A Reconstruction of Early Historical Island Carib Pottery’, Southeastern Archeology, 3:2, 1984.

Barley, Nigel. Smashing Pots, Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, DC, 1994.       

Bratten, John R. ‘Yabba Ware, The African Presence at Port Royal’, unpublished ms. Conference on Historical and Underwater Archaeology, Society for Historical Archeology, Kingston, Jamaica, 1992.

Chase, Judith Wragg. Afro American Art and Craft, Van Nostrand Reinhold Co., New York, 1971.

Curtin, Phillip. The Atlantic Slave Trade; a Census, University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, 1969.

Ebanks, Roderick. ‘The History of Jamaican Earthenwares, 1655-1840’, unpublished M.A. thesis, University of the West Indies, Mona, Heritage Studies Program, 1998.

Ebanks, Roderick. ‘Ma Lou and the Afro-Jamaican Pottery Tradition’, Jamaica Journal, 17:3, 1984.

Fog, Karen Olwig. ‘Cultural Identity and Material Culture: Afro-Caribbean Pottery’, Folk, 32:5-22, 1990.

Grigsby, William. ‘The Potters of Nevis’, Craft Horizons, 22:2, 1962.

Handler, Jerome S. ‘Notes on Pottery-Making in Antigua’, Man, 6:184, 1964.

Handler, Jerome S. ‘Pottery Making in Rural Barbados’, Southwestern Journal of Anthropology, 19:3, 1963.

Hauser, Mark and Armstrong, Douglas V. ‘Embedded Identities: Piecing Together Relationships Through Compositional Analysis of Low-Fired Earthenwares’ in African Sites Archaeology in the Caribbean, Haviser, Jay B., ed., Markus Wiener Publishers, Princeton, NJ, 1999.

Lightbody, Maya. ‘Mongoro Women Potters’, Ceramics Monthly, May 1987.

Matthewson, R.D. ‘Archeological Analysis of Material Culture as a Reflection of Sub-Cultural Differentiation in 18th Century Jamaica’, Jamaica Journal, 7:1-2, 1973.

Matthewson, R.D. ‘Jamaican Ceramics: An Introduction to 18 th Century Folk Pottery in West African Tradition’, Jamaica Journal, 6:2, 1972.

McKusick, Marshall B. Distribution of Ceramic Styles in the Lesser Antilles, West Indies, Ph.D dissertation (anthropology), Yale University, 1960.

Molinaro, Joe. ‘Lucy ‘Ma Lou’ Jones – Jamaican Potter’, 1986, accessed a www.uky.edu/Artsource/molinaro/malou.html

Petersen, James B.; Watters, David R.; Nicholson, Desmond V. ‘Continuity and Syncretism in AfroCaribbean Ceramics from the Northern Antilles’ in African Sites Archaeology in the Caribbean, Haviser, Jay B., ed., Markus Wiener Publishers, Princeton, NJ, 1999.

Platzer, Eryl J. The Potters of Nevis, M.A. Thesis, (anthropology), University of Denver, 1979.

Redman-Simmons, Lois. ‘Clay’, exhibition catalog essay, Queen’s Park Gallery, Barbados, 1986.

Thompson, Robert Farris and Cornet, Joseph. The Four Moments of the Sun, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, 1981.

Verin, Pierre. La Pointe Caraibe (Sainte Lucie), M.A. Thesis (anthropology), Yale University, 1963.

Vincentelli, Moira . Women Potters: Transforming Traditions , London, A&C Black, 2003

Wilkie, Laurie A. ‘Evidence of African Continuities in the Material Culture of Clifton Plantation, Bahamas’, in African Sites Archaeology in the Caribbean, Haviser, Jay B., ed., Markus Wiener Publishers, Princeton, NJ, 1999.

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Coalpot and Canawí • Issue 10