Category Archives: Primary Sources

‘Driver, cold morning:’ A Jamaican sketch by William Berryman

I’ve mentioned before the Legacies of British Slave Ownership project at University College London, which has been useful for my research. I came across this beautiful sketch on the project’s website under the ‘documents of interest’ section. According to the LBSO research, William Berryman was an English artist who lived in Jamaica between 1808 and 1815. He sketched and painted over 300 drawings of landscapes and enslaved people.

The Library of Congress, which owns Berryman’s collection, has digitised eighty-six of his drawings.  Click here to view the drawings on the Library of Congress website.

Click here to go to the LBSO website and for more information on William Berryman.

‘The Colour of Shadows: Images of Caribbean Slavery’ by Judy Raymond

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The Colour of Shadows centres on the life and career of Richard Bridgens, the artist and planter who published West India Scenery in 1836. Many of the drawings from  West India Scenery are well-known, but as Raymond explains, Bridgens himself is a little-known character. Before moving from England to Trinidad in 1826, Bridgens had a successful career as an artist and furniture-maker and is known to historians of that milieu.  When his wife inherited a stake in the St. Clair plantation in Trinidad, the young family crossed the Atlantic to take on the life of the sugar planter. In documenting the world around him, however, Bridgens didn’t draw his peers in the colonial hierarchy, or the life he led, but instead he depicted the enslaved people who worked on his estate, documenting the conditions under which they lived and worked, and the new creole culture they were beginning to create.

Judy Raymond combines biography, history and art criticism to shed light on the closing years of slavery in Trinidad, and the lives of enslaved Africans before emancipation in 1834. Through her analysis of Bridgens’ drawings and their context, Raymond traces the social and cultural history of enslaved Africans and free coloured people in the early 1830s, covering subjects such as living and working conditions, clothing, and religious and spiritual observance. Raymond also engages with the historiographical debate around Bridgens’ motivation for publishing his images, and his position vis a vis abolition and emancipation.  Many art historians have dismissed Bridgens’ book as pro-slavery polemic. But by placing the drawings in the context of Bridgens’ life, and contemporary society, Raymond can at once acknowledge the sometimes discordant notes in the book, but recognise his drawings for what they are—a unique account of the final years of slavery in Trinidad.

Although The Colour of Shadows is essentially a book about Trinidad, Raymond’s analysis can be extended to other islands in the British Caribbean around the time of emancipation. West India Scenery contained 27 drawings—The Colour of Shadows reproduces 15 of them.  There is a select bibliography, which contains a mix of primary sources (nineteenth-century books) and recent works by historians and art critics. Raymond has been a journalist in Trinidad and Tobago for over 25 years, and the book showcases her elegant style of writing. The book would appeal to scholars and everyday readers interested in the 1830s Caribbean, art and history.

Bridgens’ drawings constitute a rare catalogue of slavery and creole life in the British Caribbean at a turning point in the region’s history—by contextualising the drawings, Raymond has made a substantial contribution to historical scholarship. I’m no art historian, but I’m sure her work also challenges scholarship in that field too.

To see the book on amazon: click here

Amazon Affiliate disclosure: clicking on the book cover image will take you to an amazon site. If you purchase the book, Caribbean Histories will receive a percentage of the purchase price. 

Picturing Slavery

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Thomas Jefferys, The West Indian Atlas (London, 1780, copy in the John Carter Brown Library, Brown University), as shown on http://www.slaveryimages.org, compiled by Jerome Handler and Michael Tuite and sponsored by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.

The Atlantic Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Americas: A Visual Record contains 1,280 images, many of them dating from the time of slavery.  The website was created as part of a joint project of the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and the Digital Media Lab at the University of Virginia Library. The authors of the site (Jerome Handler and Michael Tuite) note that there is little interpretation of the images on the site, and they do not make claims as to the historical authenticity or the accuracy of what the images display—that is, these are images that have been in circulation, some of them will be an accurate representation of what the artist/author saw, but some will not. A lot of work has gone into ensuring the source of the pictures is accurate….as historians, it is up to us to interpret the images and make up our own minds about what those images tell us. As with all representations of the past, often the image can tell us just as much about the time or place where the image was produced (or the person who produced it), as it can tell us about the subject matter depicted in the image.

You can access the website and browse the collection here: Slavery Images

Take note that some of the images on the site remain subject to copyright—where this is the case, the notes accompanying the images will notify you of this. For more information on using the images, visit the ‘Acknowledging the Website, Conditions of Use’ page here.

 

‘A Parcel of Ribbons’ by Anne M. Powers

A Parcel of Ribbons contains an extraordinary collection of letters, spanning over fifty years, together with Anne Powers’ editorial commentary. The Lee letters were preserved by Robert Cooper Lee, a child sailor who left England for Jamaica with a parcel of ribbons to sell in 1749. He returned to England 22 years later a very wealthy man, having made his fortune as an attorney.  The letters touch upon personal, family, business and political matters. Together with Powers’ commentary, they provide wide-ranging insights into the social, cultural and business history of Jamaica and England in the eighteenth century. The letters are held privately, but with their publication in this book, they comprise a valuable primary resource, now available to researchers.

Lee married a mixed-race creole woman. In a move very unusual at that time, he took her back to England with him where they married. Relationships between European men and coloured women were not unusual in Jamaica, and it was also relatively common to send the children of these relationships back to Britain for their schooling (as Lee did), but to marry was an unusual step. This is an interesting twist which makes these letters all the more compelling as a primary source. A note on the letters though, as I’ve discovered in the collections of letters I’ve read about Caribbean-based merchants and planters, there is very little discussion about slavery – this silence is in itself telling. Lee’s letters are almost entirely silent on slavery, although Powers does include editorial notes on the subject.

The book also contains some pictures—most notably the portrait of Frances (Lee’s daughter),  which graces the cover. As someone researching eighteenth century families, I have yet to come across a portrait of anyone I’ve researched, so I’m very envious of Powers in this regard!

This is a long book—the letters are voluminous, and Powers includes a lot of commentary and background-setting, at times a bit too much. Powers’ research is clearly formidable and she knows the era well, but I would have appreciated more referencing for some of the background information. There is a tendency to include too much information…I do understand the impulse to include every detail you come across as a researcher, but I was sometimes confused as to the connection between some of the information and the central characters of this story. This is a minor point, however. The book is very readable—perfect for dipping in and out of. It is an excellent resource for the letters alone, but it would also be very instructive for anyone wishing to learn about eighteenth-century life in London and in Jamaica, and the connections between the two places.

Amazon Affiliate disclosure: clicking on the book cover image will take you to an amazon site. If you purchase the book, Caribbean Histories will receive a percentage of the purchase price. 

Revolutionary France and Haiti: pamphlets from 1780-1810 now online

The Newberry Library in Chicago has just uploaded most of its French Revolutionary pamphlet collection on Internet Archive.  The collection consists of more than 30,000 French-language pamphlets and more than 23,000 issues of 180 periodicals published between 1780 and 1810. The collection represents the diversity of contemporary opinion – the voices of those opposed to and those defending the French monarchy during the Revolution are represented, together with a broad array of ephemeral publications of the early Republic. Most items in the collection were published in Paris, but there are also some publications from regional France.

For the Caribbeanist, the collection represents a free, online resource for studying reporting/opinions/perceptions of Saint Domingue (Haiti) as published in France. For example, a quick search of “Saint Domingue” returns 7 results, including this 1790 8-page news pamphlet.

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This is a link to the French Revolutionary pamphlet collection on Internet Archive: https://archive.org/details/newberryfrenchpamphlets&tab=collection

Internet Archive is a non-profit library of millions of free books, movies, music, websites and more. The site is brilliant for anyone researching the past – millions of old books and other media are freely available.

A collection of more than 70 historical photographs go on display later this month  in a free exhibition at Rivington Place in London. ‘Making Jamaica’ explores how a new image of Jamaica was created through photography in the 1890s. The images are being exhibited in London for the first time, and are drawn from the Caribbean Photo Archive. If you’re in London and get to the exhibition, please report back! It looks well worth visiting.

 

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Jamaica Boys—Brown & Dawson, c.1890. Caribbean Photo Archive.

This is a link to the exhibition details: Making Jamaica  and this is a link to a recent article about the exhibition in the Guardian, which includes a gallery of some of the photographs: Gallery