Visions of the Caribbean
February 25, 2005 - June 5, 2005
Melton PriorCoaling a Steamer at Kingston, Jamaica. London: The Illustrated London News, 1888. Leaf from The Illustrated London News, October 6, 1888. Melton Prior was a well-known English artist during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, recognized especially for his illustrations of British military campaigns. He contributed to The Illustrated London News. He visited the Caribbean during the late nineteenth century. Clearly, he was impressed by the vibrancy of public life in Caribbean cities like Kingston. Shown here is a scene central to the nineteenth-century Caribbean economy: women carrying coal onto a steamship.
European colonization of the CaribbeanThe European encounter with the Caribbean, beginning in 1492, transformed societies on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean and directly affected the lives of millions of people. European colonization of the Caribbean decimated its indigenous population and built a system of plantation agriculture, based on the enslavement of Africans and the indentureship of primarily Asian laborers. During the nineteenth century, the United States also developed economic and political interests in the Caribbean. European and North American exploration and colonization of the region generated a vast literature of books, pamphlets, articles in periodicals, postcards and other types of publications. Publications often included maps, prints and, by the latter nineteenth century, photographs. These illustrations reveal how European and North American artists, authors, publishers and their readers visualized the geography, natural environment and peoples of the Caribbean over the course of several centuries. This exhibition presents Caribbean maps, prints and photographs from the collection of the Historical Museum of Southern Florida. Most of these images were excised from the original publications by private collectors and dealers in maps and prints. The material ranges from the mid-sixteenth to the early twentieth century and represents European and North American perspectives on many of the islands of the Caribbean. By the nineteenth century, Caribbean peoples were increasingly creating their own images of their islands. Few of these images are represented in this exhibition.
EXPLORATION AND COLONIZATION
Greater Antilles, 1609Exploration and colonization of the Caribbean transformed European knowledge of the world’s geography and inspired extensive mapmaking. Mapping of the Caribbean islands and surrounding mainland was essential for navigation, administration, commerce and warfare. Following 1492, Spain claimed the entire Caribbean. During the seventeenth century, England, France and the Netherlands challenged Spanish hegemony and established their own Caribbean colonies. European countries mapped both their own possessions and those of their rivals. Over the centuries, maps revealed increasingly accurate geographic knowledge, as well as rivalries between European powers. Maps from different time periods show how islands changed hands in relation to the outcomes of European wars, fought both on the European continent and in the Americas.
ColonizationDuring the early period of colonization, Europeans were fascinated with the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean, primarily Arawak-related groups and Caribs. Indian cultures differed greatly from those of the Old World and challenged Europeans’ understandings of themselves. Drawings of Caribbean Indians illustrate their unique cultural practices, along with their encounters with Europeans. Some illustrations portray Indians and Europeans engaged in warfare, while others are idealized representations of peaceful relations.
TOWNS & CITIES
Establishment of towns
European colonization of the Caribbean involved not only the development of plantations but the establishment of towns for administration and commerce. Early town plans drawn by artists and mapmakers illustrate central plazas or squares surrounded by layouts of streets, typically in a grid pattern.Artists also drew perspective views of port towns and cities, often with ship-filled harbors in the foreground. Such views suggest the economic significance of towns and cities as centers for trade in agricultural products and other goods.
Port of Spain (Trinidad)Also common are drawings and photographs that focus on the architecture of colonial power, such as forts, walls, churches, administrative buildings and schools.
AGRICULTURE AND RURAL LIFE
AgricultureFrom the sixteenth to the nineteenth century, the economy of the Caribbean was based primarily on plantation agriculture. European traders brought millions of enslaved Africans to the region to produce sugar, tobacco, coffee, cotton and other commodities that were shipped to Europe and North America. The demise of slavery in the Caribbean began with the Haitian Revolution of 1791-1804 and concluded with emancipation in Cuba in 1886. Another source of plantation labor was indentured workers from Europe, Africa and Asia. Between 1838 (the final year of emancipation in the British colonies) and 1917, colonial governments brought nearly a half million workers from India to the Caribbean. Given its centrality to the creation of wealth in the Caribbean, agriculture figured prominently in prints and photographs. Publications featured detailed drawings of plants, landscapes of plantations, and illustrations of field labor and production processes in mills. Artists also documented a variety of rural customs and illustrated the life of small-scale Caribbean farmers who operated outside the plantation system. Generally, artists portrayed workers not as distinct individuals but as elements of economic production.
NATURAL HISTORY AND DISASTERS
The beauty of the Caribbean landscape and its abundance of flora and fauna mesmerized observers of the region. Some early illustrations are fanciful, rather than naturalistic, and reflect artists’ efforts to comprehend unfamiliar species. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, however, the flourishing of natural history as a systematic science involved extensive and finely detailed documentation of the diverse geological features, plants and animals of the region. There was also increasing publication of drawings and paintings of landscapes during this period.
GOVERNMENT AND REBELLIONS
Haitian RevolutionThe revolt of enslaved Africans in French San Domingue in 1791 led to the emergence of Haiti, in 1804, as the second independent nation-state in the Americas. The Dominican Republic achieved independence from Haiti in 1844, was re-colonized by the Spanish in 1861 and became independent again in 1865.
Virgin Islands riot, 1878
The Commission and Frederick DouglassIn 1871 a U.S. commission (which included an artist) conducted an extensive survey of the Dominican Republic, with an eye toward possible annexation. In 1865 artists documented the Jamaican Morant Bay rebellion, a major assault on British colonial rule in the Caribbean.
Cuba in 1878 and 1895
Cruise bookletOrganized tourism in the Caribbean developed during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. During this period, Europeans and North Americans began to perceive the region as a new leisure destination, in addition to a source of agricultural products. Through books, pamphlets and advertisements, the emerging tourism industry generated enticing images of the Caribbean as a place for adventure and relaxation. Postcards, in particular, became a major medium through which tourists collected visual experiences and shared them with others.
Mass tourism in the Caribbean developed after World War II and, today, many North Americans and Europeans perceive the region primarily in terms of recreation. Tourism publicity materials draw on a long tradition of illustrations that emphasize lush landscapes, tranquil beaches and the picturesque customs of local peoples. Such stereotypical images, constantly recycled in the mass media, have a powerful impact on external visions of the Caribbean. There are, however, alternatives to these images. Several generations of painters, sculptors, photographers and filmmakers, particularly those based in the Caribbean, offer visions that explore the region’s natural and social complexity from a wide range of perspectives.