‘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

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‘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.

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‘The Caribbean: A Brief History,’ by Gad Heuman

This book is the best place to start for an overview of Caribbean history. It’s a quick, easy read, designed to take the reader from early modern times in the Caribbean, almost up to the present. This is no mean feat, as the Caribbean is a broad canvas – the histories of every island, let alone the wider region are varied and often tortured. Heuman’s years of studying and writing about the Caribbean have enabled him to draw together these many histories into a comprehensible narrative. This book includes the islands of the region, as well as the mainland territories of the Guianas (Guyana, Suriname, French Guiana) and Belize in central America.

In this second edition, Heuman has included new material on indigenous Caribbean societies before the arrival of Columbus, which takes the starting point for this book back earlier than many histories of the region. Given Heuman’s specialisation, there are excellent chapters covering the slave societies of the Caribbean, resistance and race relations. The book brings us up to the twentieth century with chapters on ‘the American century,’ labour protests and the revolutionary Caribbean. The final chapters draw together contemporary themes in the wider Caribbean, reflecting Heuman’s interest in social and cultural history. Throughout the book, he focuses on the social and cultural history of the Caribbean—he is more interested in exploring how the people of the Caribbean have reacted to the colonial presence than with the structures of imperial authority.

The books is written in a clear, straight-forward and engaging style. It contains an extensive list of further reading, broken down by chapter–proving its worth as an introduction to deeper reading on Caribbean history.

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‘Empire’s Crossroads: A History of the Caribbean from Columbus to the Present Day,’ by Carrie Gibson

Empire’s Crossroads provides a broad survey of modern Caribbean history, with a pleasing level of detail. Gibson zooms in to tell stories about the people and places of the Caribbean, but also guides the reader in making thematic connections across the region. She also places the Caribbean’s traumatic past in context. As she notes at the outset, the  modern Caribbean (from 1492 onwards) is the product of an encounter between Europeans and other peoples.

Over the course of this 350-page book, Gibson pieces together the history of the West Indies (which includes here not just the islands but the Latin American countries bordering the Caribbean Sea) – a history which has long since fragmented. As she explains, the history has been fragmented partly because historians are usually grouped by language or by their own imperial past – so the history of the formerly British, French and Spanish elements do not always take account of each other, and also because of the question of nationhood. As islands like Jamaica or Cuba make sense of their own histories, they push aside the wider Caribbean story in favour of a more focused one. Gibson ties together the histories of the region following a broadly chronological approach, and assigns a general theme to each time span. So there are chapters on Pirates and Protestants; Sugar; the Rise of Slavery; the Road to Independence (these are just a few examples). The book may bear the word ‘Empire’ in the title, but its span allows Gibson to cover the long period of European domination in the region, as well as the more recent histories of independence.

The book is beautifully produced, with maps, images, a detailed index and bibliography for further reading—and a very handy timeline of key events in the Caribbean. I have the original hardcopy, but for anyone taking the book on their travels in the region, the more recent paperback is a godsend! Gibson has a PhD in Caribbean/Spanish history from Cambridge University, and works as a journalist. This book showcases her skills as a researcher and an accessible writer. Empire’s Crossroads is recommended for the everyday reader with an interest in history, but would also be an excellent resource for students from high school through post-graduate. The footnotes and bibliography provide excellent pointers for further reading and resources.

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.