Old Doll. The Matriarch of Newton Plantation - BajanThings

Old Doll. The Matriarch of Newton Plantation

The book “A Kind of Right to be Idle: Old Doll, Matriarch of Newton Plantation” by Dr. Karl Watson is published by The Barbados Museum & Historical Society. It is on sale at the Museum shop and other good bookstores.

This small book makes interesting reading. It gives the history of a family of slaves and their relationship with their masters, both in Barbados and England.

Some buildings, that may have had their origin in the 1800’s are still standing and have been modernised and are used for various manufacturing industries.

The Old Doll, Matriarch of Newton Plantation contains a map of Newton Plantation showing the location of the Great House, the Slave Village (labelled Negro Yard) and the Slave Burial Ground. This map is reproduced below. This map is easy to follow and the various areas named can be located without too much effort.

Matriarch of Newton Plantation
Map of Newton Plantation, Christ Church, Barbados, showing the location of the Great House, the Slave Village (labelled Negro Yard) and the Slave Burial Ground – taken from: “Plantation Slavery in Barbados An Archaeological and Historical Investigation” by Jerome S. Handler & Frederick W. Lange Harvard University Press 1978, p.48.

Below are a series of photographs of Newton Plantation as it is today [2016]. Click on any of the photographs to see an enlarged version with a caption. 

Unfortunately the Slave Burial Ground only has a sign indicating what this area was used for. This is a pity. It should be a national park.

In the 1960’s the Gill family lived in what was the Great House and they tell stories that it was haunted by at least 2 ghosts. There are several well documented sightings by many people over a period of many years.

The Great House has since been demolished and I guess those spirits have moved on.

Update October 2022: Since this post was written in 2016 Newton Slave Burial Ground has been beautified with benches for visitors and information boards.


Some background on the Newton Burial Ground archaeological research undertaken in the early 1970s provided by Jerome S. Handler PhD of Virginia Humanities

Beneath approximately 7 acres of sloping grassland rest the remains of approximately 1,000 enslaved individuals. Between the 1660s and 1820s, they were buried by their families and friends, often in ritualistic contexts influenced by African customs. Because it has a rocky, shallow soil cover, the area was never cultivated. It was unmarked by gravestones or other surface features except for earthen mounds which were ultimately found to cover many of the interred individuals. With my colleague, Dr. Frederick Lange, the cemetery was discovered in the early 1970s during the course of archaeological and documentary research that was seeking the remains of Newton Plantation’s former slave village.

Plantation burial grounds specifically for the enslaved were widespread in Barbados. Owners or managers allocated the burial ground site, but the enslaved themselves chose the grave spots within the site. Because of the deep ploughing of plantation fields, and the many construction projects in Barbados over the years, these cemeteries are usually invisible today and many of them have been unwittingly destroyed. Newton cemetery is unique. It is the only slave cemetery known for Barbados, and at the time excavations began in the early 1970s, it had not been disturbed for hundreds of years. It was the first undisturbed slave cemetery archaeologically excavated in the Caribbean. Although a few other slave cemeteries have been located in the Caribbean, they had been disturbed by natural disasters or construction and have not been intensively investigated. Newton is still the final resting place for the earliest and largest group of an African and African-descended enslaved population recovered from any archaeological context in the former British, French, and Dutch West Indies.

Archaeological research has provided an interpretation of the skeletal remains and artifacts, which allow these anonymous individuals to relate something of their lives. Only about 25 percent of the estimated cemetery was excavated, yielding the remains of approximately 114 individuals. Analysis of the artifacts and skeletal remains are the only sources of information we have on these individuals. This information combined with data from documentary sources on Barbados and West African cultural practices yielded insight into the lives of the enslaved.

Particular among these are mortuary or funerary behaviour. Many burials were in European-style coffins, while others were apparently buried without coffins. Some unusual burials suggest persons who may have had special positions within the enslaved community, such as obeah practitioners who acted as healers and diviners.

Material objects were found in many graves, perhaps placed there to meet the needs of the deceased in the afterlife.

Many artifacts were of European-type and originated from outside Barbados; for example coffin hardware and nails, hundreds of glass beads of different types, and white clay pipes. Non-European artifacts included bronze or brass bracelets or armlets and earrings, bone buttons, carnelian beads from Western India, and a distinctive pipe from the Gold Coast, the only such item known from a New World archaeological site. All of these items are today housed in the Barbados Museum in the Garrison.

Many skeletons were in very poor condition. However, the teeth, the most durable elements of the human skeleton, yielded valuable information on social practices, such as weaning, and the health of the burial population. Medical pathologies included lead poisoning, dietary inadequacies, malnutrition and starvation, vitamin deficiencies, and nutritionally based diseases such as kwashiorkor and marasmus; also a variety of dental ailments, including infectious gum disease and tooth decay. Some individuals displayed signs of the intentional deformation of teeth, a widespread African practice not continued in the New World.

Newton’s former owner, the late Lionel Warde, a Barbadian keenly interested in the island’s past, donated the cemetery area to the Barbados Museum and Historical Society.

The images below of Newton Plantation slave burial ground / cemetery are courtesy of Jerome S. Handler and were taken in the 1970s. Click on any of the photographs to see an enlarged version with a caption.

Jerome S. Handler is a historical anthropologist who specialises in the early African Diaspora, particularly in the Caribbean, and the Atlantic slave trade.
Jerome S. Handler PhD, Senior Scholar, Virginia Humanities, 946 Grady Ave, Charlottesville, VA 22903, USA.
website: https://jeromehandler.org
email: jh3v@virginia.edu

Additional background reading





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