Monkey Jar, Gurglet, or Goglet?

Series Cultural Heritage

monkey jar

Retired Nurse Lizzie Hassell and Naomi Hodge, both of the village of The Bottom, recall using the jars for water or bush tea in the days before refrigeration. The porous clay pot kept the liquids cool. Similar clay water vessels are found throughout the West Indies, but have various names. Hassell calls her clay pot a “gurglet,” which is a variation of “goglet” or “gargoulette.” This name probably comes from the gurgling noise the pitcher would make as it gulps in air through the same spout that pours the water. On some islands the piece is called a “goblet” but this is clearly a misheard version of “goglet” since goblet describes a stemmed drinking glass, not a pitcher. In some instances, a goglet is more vase-shaped (elongated) than round container.

Nevis

Hodge calls her two pieces by the very common name “monkey jar.” No one seems to know why the word “monkey” is used, but a monkey jar is always very spherical. Both owners say the monkeys were purchased on St. Kitts, with whom Saba had vigorous trade in the last century. However, the monkeys were undoubtedly manufactured on neighboring Nevis, as St. Kitts has no clay, whereas Nevis has a clay vein that is still mined. Young Miss Lizzie accompanied her father to St. Kitts when he went to purchase supplies for his shoe cobbling business. She remembers that there were miniature children’s toy versions of clay household pots.

Saba can probably be ruled out as a producer since there is no evidence of ceramic manufacture on Saba in post-colonial times, although one tempering ingredient – volcanic tuff – is present on the island and has been used by locals in making cement. Archeometric analysis can determine where clay comes from, but it means destroying the pot to collect a small chip or sherd to do this. This type of examination is routine in archeological digs that turn up lots of ceramic remains. Scientists even use potsherds to determine food ways, diet, and thus life styles of the people who used them. Similar artifacts provide a unique link to the past of enslaved Africans, whose history is lacking documentation by the slaves themselves.
The low-fire earthenware artifact actually looks like a large rustic teapot or kettle, with a very globular body, in appearance slightly taller (12 inches, including handle) than it is round. The large surface area and the porous clay promote enough transpiration that the contents are cooled. It is reddish brown, with black firing splotches. The rough, unglazed exterior has some directional scrape marks indicating the moist surface was smoothed down with a small stone. This burnishing strengthens the surface bond of clay particles.

A stirrup handle crosses the circular top entrance and ends at the short spout, which is mounted high on the shoulder. There is a small lip on the end of the strap opposite the spout. I think this lip not decorative, but functional as it and the opposing spout serving as “stops” to prevent the monkey from slipping out of grasp when both hands encircle it at the widest circumference: At 6 pounds plus, the thick-bodied monkeys are heavy and when full, must have often been hefted with both hands.

There are no decorations, incisions, or potter’s insignia. The monkeys originally had knobbed lids, but all are now missing. Otherwise, the three Saba samples are in perfect condition.

The Saba examples have miniscule variations due to their hand-made nature, but are remarkably alike given the fact that Hassell’s is 70 years old and belonged to her grandmother, while Hodge’s pair are only 30. Verifying age is difficult since the pieces are too young for successful carbon dating and design elements have remained constant over a long time period.

Afro-Caribbean artisans

In fact, monkey jars can be traced back several centuries in the Caribbean. Afro-Caribbean artisans traditionally made this type of pottery, but European craftsmen made low-fire ceramics on Barbados, and probably introduced the craft since sugar pots were needed on sugar plantations. After cane juice was reduced by multiple boilings, it was poured into low-fire, red clay containers or “sugarloaves” to crystallize. Historian Père Labat, on St. Christopher in 1702, comments in his travel report that sugar pots had to be remade after the English broke them to destroy French plantation economy. With plantations able to produce sugarloaves on this scale, enslaved African or indentured European artisans would have been highly skilled and able to make household items from the same clay with the same technology, and possibly sell some of them at Sunday markets. In some cases, plantation owners encouraged the production of surplus to create an additional revenue stream, and it became a cottage industry. In some communities only women were potters, but on Barbados men did the work.

Pottery manufacture is documented on Barbados in the 1670s; on Nevis it can be traced back to 1682; Antigua by the early 1700s; and sales of “earthen pots” were legalized in Jamaica by 1711. The Jamaica National Heritage Trust has a monkey jar dated from the period 1810-1900, which looks exactly like the Saba ones, minus the nub at the end of the handle and with the addition of decorative incisions. In 1827, Isaac Mendes Elisario did a sketch of “the Negro Population of the Island of Jamaica,” which depicts an African water-jar seller with a “monkey jar” in the wooden sales tray he carries on his head. There are antique monkey jars in the St. Kitts Museum and also identical new ones for sale in the museum gift shop.
Pottery Sellers, Kingston, Jamaica, 1837-38
Newcastle Pottery, Nevis, still makes monkey jars in the traditional way. The clay, which they gather themselves, is worked–hand-molded and coiled–on a flat table (no wheel), dried, polished, and then pit fired (no kiln). The Newcastle collective makes monkey jars, yabbas, coal pots, flowerpots, and decorative items. Potter Almena Cornelius told me there is still a large local market, and ceramic items are sold as tourist souvenirs and to hotel restaurants that cook in them to offer authentic cuisine for “West Indian Nights.”

Archeologists discuss whether the form of the Monkey Jar is African. However, the basic Monkey form seems to be very ancient, and I found a Coptic gargoulette in the Louvre in Paris that is very similar. I wonder if the design, rather than having a specific ethnic origin, is not just the archetypical design solution to a common problem: a simple, easily replaced vessel for storing and cooling drinking water.

CUTLINE:
1. The earth artifact seems like a big rustic teapot, with a strict globular body, outside a little longer (12 inch, inclusive the handle) than wide.

2. Retired Nurse Therese Elizabeth Hassell-Donker with her 70-year old Caribbean clay drinking vessel.

References:

Jerome Handler, Senior Fellow Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and Public Policy; David Watters, Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Reginald Murphy, Antigua Field Research Centre; Dr. Corinne Hofman, Leiden University; Dr. R. Grant Gilmore, III, St. Eustatius Center for Archaeological Research; David Spieler, Earthworks Pottery, Barbados; Almena Cornelius, Nevis Potter.

1999, 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, in Ed. Jay B. Haviser. Markus Wiener.
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Text and illustrations: Suzanne Nielsen.