mobile homes built without nails
March 9, 2008 11:41 PM   Subscribe

Chattel houses were very small houses, built by freed slaves or plantation workers, that could be dismantled quickly and moved in the event they were fired or unable to pay property tax to the plantation owner on whose land the house stood. Examples in Jamaica, Barbados and Trinidad l Sunday 25 March 2007 marked 200 years to the day that the British Parliament passed an Act to outlaw the slave trade in British colonies.

Images of chattel houses from the Caribbean Poetry site.

Stories of people in slavery

Definition of chattel house from the Dictionary of Caribbean English Usage
posted by nickyskye (4 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite

 
Those houses often fare quite poorly in hurricanes -- sometimes coming apart, and sometimes rolling over in one piece -- because they aren't attached to the ground, and they are built with very minimal materials (although, contrary to the title, using nails).

Especially in dense urban areas, fire is a tremendous risk, also -- dry old wood, with people cooking with charcoal, kerosene, or gas, next to the houses, means that fire can spread quickly.

Here is a Google-books preview of Low-Income Housing and the State in the Eastern Caribbean, which I haven't read but now want to. Pages 10-13, the author gives a nice description, with diagrams, of how Caribbean chattel houses are built in a modular fashion, and connects their persistence into the present to the continued problems of getting secure land tenure.

Hernando de Soto's ideas have been discussed here before, but the chattel house is a great example of how abstract issues of land tenure and legalization are manifested in the built environment. Combine those issues with politics and drug violence, and you have the modern garrison community -- walled-off ghetto enclaves that are among the densest and most violent places in the hemisphere.
posted by Forktine at 12:11 AM on March 10, 2008 [1 favorite]


Forktine, I was informed by a local in Barbados that chattel houses were originally built without nails so they could be dismantled at a moment's notice and taken elsewhere. But, no doubt, over the last century nails have been used as political, legal and social changes have been made and locals could own the land on which their house was located.

Sad to learn about Jamaica's garrison communities.

Another Bajan informed me that fortunately Barbados seems less in the usual hurricane path than a number of the other Caribbean islands. Since attaining independence it is one of the most serene and stable of the Caribbean nations with free education, free school meals and free health care is available to every citizen and resident.

Having traveled through the Eastern Caribbean a few years ago, I was curious about the chattel houses on Barbados, St. Lucia and St. Kitts, and fascinated that their size and portability are related to the added burden of property tax on the original plantation workers.

Thanks for the interesting and informative comment.
posted by nickyskye at 12:45 AM on March 10, 2008 [1 favorite]


chattel houses were originally built without nails so they could be dismantled at a moment's notice and taken elsewhere. But, no doubt, over the last century nails have been used as political, legal and social changes have been made and locals could own the land on which their house was located.

They are still built to be moved (either in one piece or disassembled, like in the photos you linked), but nails have been used for a very long time now -- since whenever people stopped using thatched roofs, probably. Just like in the US, nails used to be expensive and labor was effectively free, so houses were built with pegs and other non-nail techniques. But with the industrial revolution nails became really cheap and could be used even in poor people's construction.

In the US the comparison would be to mobile homes, like your title suggests -- cheap, modular, can be bought or rented regardless of whether the land is bought or rented, lots of safety problems, etc. Just as with US mobile homes, there are scattered efforts to add hurricane strapping, ground-anchors, and other improvements to houses in the Caribbean -- here is a very typical table of contents for a housing upgrade program description (section 3 has photos of better and worse construction techniques). But like a lot of these kinds of project documents, it focuses on technical issues (such as why houses should not be located on flood plains or lack foundations) without considering why flood plains are the only available building sites, or concrete foundations may not be permitted by landowners.

On many islands what you will see is, when someone gets tenure to a piece of land, they will start building with concrete block around the wood chattel house, adding a layer of block every time they can afford to buy some. When they eventually complete the encasement of the wood house, they disassemble the wood house, bring it out through the door, and rebuild the wood house as an addition to the back. Repeat a couple of times, and you have a nice multi-room concrete house, and the wood house can then be sold.
posted by Forktine at 6:45 AM on March 10, 2008 [3 favorites]


Thanks nickyskye and Forktine for the great post and discussion. This is further evidence that the number of comments says little about the quality of the post.
posted by the christopher hundreds at 10:39 AM on March 10, 2008 [1 favorite]


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