October 21, 2014
“The 1677 Battle of Tobago: Archaeology of Ships as Vehicles of Power Projection and Colonization”
The seventeenth century marked a crucial turning point in the technological development of navies, seafaring, global trade and, by extension, in Caribbean colonization. The rapid progress of the technology of ship construction provided European nation states with previously unavailable strategic ability to project power overseas in a manner recognizable to the present day. This historical process cannot be properly understood without developing an understanding of the technological changes in shipbuilding, seafaring and naval warfare that enabled it as ships were the most complex expressions of technology that societies achieved in the pre-industrial period. The formation of the planter class and the sugar-based economy in the Caribbean were enabled by these technological developments and, in turn, influenced the expansion of the slave trade, forcing dramatic population upheaval in the region.
The competition for domination of the trade and resources of the New World made the strategically located island of Tobago a desirable prize for the great maritime powers. This rivalry came to a head on March 3, 1677, when a powerful French squadron attacked, but was defeated by a smaller Dutch one. Twelve ships were sunk in the battle and their remains now offer a unique opportunity for the study of 17th-century material culture of colonial expansion, shipbuilding technology, naval warfare and society on board warships. The production of watercraft involved complex patterns of behaviour and communication within and between communities. Thus the material culture of water transport offers one of the best means of interrogating changes within past societies.