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A Matter of Convenience


The archaeological evidence is thus consistent with the historical sources -- colonial Jamaica used much the same methods of human waste disposal as were current in contemporary England. [A Chamberpot]During the "insanitary" 17th and 18th centuries, elimination was not seen as a major public health problem. Until the work of Louis Pasteur and John Snow in the 19th century, only the vaguest connection was understood between fecal contamination and disease. Open middens of raw sewage were still seen in modern cities until the early 20th century. Most towns relied on privies and chamberpots until the widespread adoption of the water closet. Despite its tropical climate, dense population, and unsuitable soil for proper cesspits, Port Royal was no exception.

The evidence shows that the Jamaican "house of office" was much like contemporary English privies. However, there are strong indications that many -- if not most -- of the facilities in Port Royal relied on the use of chamberpots or buckets to handle the waste, rather than local pits. This follows from the sandy soil and very high water table under the town. The best-preserved outhouse from before the earthquake is built on a brick pavement, with no possibility of a cesspit beneath. The New Street privies also have brick floors. A few years after the catastrophe, nightsoil was being hauled away to open dunghills on the seaward side of the settlement. It seems almost inescapable to assume that this was also true before 1692.

Further excavations at Port Royal may find privies associated with additional buildings, and reveal whether they have the same features as the outhouses already explored. One possibly significant sign would be the presence of multiple privies or multiple-user privies. These may be the mark either an unusually large household or of a business. This was certainly true of the New Street tavern, and (as suggested elsewhere) may also have been true of Building 5. At this point, there is simply not enough data to enable firm conclusions. However, we can expect further excavations to remedy this situation. The historical sources suggest that virtually every dwelling and commercial establishment had its own house of office, so additional archaeological evidence should still be there to be found.

[A Chamberpot underwater]There should also be a great many more chamberpots at Port Royal, since this useful item is among the most common colonial artifact, even at sites that could rely on pit privies. When enough chamberpots have been collected to provide a reasonable statistical sample, they may allow a view of where the Caribbean fitted into the world competition between Staffordshire and Rhineland potteries at the dawn of the Industrial Age. The chamberpots may also allow some economic analysis of their owners. Thus, further research will shed more light on what contemporaries regarded as merely a matter of convenience.

Link to:

  1. A Matter of Convenience--Introduction
  2. A Matter of Convenience--Historical Background
  3. A Matter of Convenience--Dry Land Disposal
  4. A Matter of Convenience--Chamberpots
  5. A Matter of Convenience--Jamaican Sanitation
  6. A Matter of Convenience--The Building 5 Privy
  7. A Matter of Convenience--Port Royal Chamberpots
  8. A Matter of Convenience--Conclusions (You are here)

Revised: 1 December 1996
Christine A. Powell
Nautical Archaeology Program
Texas A&M University
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