‘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. 

Long weekend in Dublin

 

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I returned from a long weekend in Dublin a week ago – I was delighted to be able to attend a symposium at Trinity College organised by David Dickson: ‘Ireland and the Caribbean in the Age of Empire.’ The 5-day round trip from Sydney was somewhat crazy but the symposium was so well put-together, with so many ‘big’ names in this emerging field, that it was well worth the jetlag. Many of those of us who presented have been inspired by Nini Rodgers’ Ireland, Slavery and Antislavery, so it was wonderful that she could be at the gathering—in closing proceedings she told us how delighted she is by the direction research is taking in this area, and is amazed at the array of sources scholars are drawing together. I was also rather chuffed that she recalled our chance meeting 18 months ago in the Linen Hall Library in Belfast.

It was wonderful to see papers presented by (among others) Jenny Shaw, Matt Reilly, Jonathan Wright and Orla Power – all of whom I have already cited in my in-progress PhD thesis. There were so many other interesting papers covering Irish connections with the Caribbean in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. A handful of fascinating papers also touched on interactions with the Spanish empire in the Caribbean. I have dreams of reviving my Spanish skills and exploring those connections in the future.

Many papers took a biographical/microhistorical approach, as I’m doing. A stand-out for me was a paper by Tom Truxes on the value of the British National Archives’ High Court of Admiralty Prize Papers—anyone who’s read the Bordeaux-Dublin Letters 1757 will have an inkling of the type of documents available in the collection. Truxes explained that there are over 4,000 boxes of mostly uncatalogued court records, personal correspondence, commercial documents, shipping papers etc at Kew… so potential dissertation-writers without a topic and with access to Kew—go check out the prize papers! I would if I lived in London.

I presented my work-in-progress on my merchants and planters chapter. I discussed John Black of Ulster/Grenada/Trinidad, and James Watt of Ramelton/Barbados/Jamaica. I was followed on my panel by Jonathan Wright who also presented on Mr Black, and then David Fleming who spoke on Eyre Coote, a Governor of Jamaica. Both papers were excellent, and really helped me think about my approach as I write up my second chapter.

Next week I’m off to my first Irish Studies Australia/NZ Conference, to present much the same paper as I did in Dublin. I’m looking forward to getting the lay of the land in Irish Studies in Australia & promise to report back soon.

References:

Nini Rodgers, Ireland, Slavery and Anti-Slavery:1612—1865 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007).

The Bordeaux-Dublin Letters 1757: Correspondence of an Irish Community Abroad, edited by L.M. Cullen, John Shovlin and Thomas M. Truxes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013)