Website Review

Caribbean Views

The British Library

This online exhibition is a collection of more than 100 texts and visual images (housed in the British Library in London) that represent contrasting views on life in the British colonies in the Caribbean during the 18th and 19th centuries. One set of texts and images depicts an idyllic life, represented by beautiful landscapes and happy and serene people; another depicts the horrors of slavery and work on the plantations.

The texts include almanacs, journals, travel narratives, personal narratives of former slaves, abolitionist tracts, newspapers, and an occasional letter and will. The visual images include maps and images published in books, including lithographs and aquatint paintings. While the database includes more than 100 texts and visual images, since each page of a book has its own digital image, the database includes 1202 digital images. The online collection is of extraordinary quality, both in terms of the scanned images and the contextual detail provided. A thumbnail image, a full-size printable image, and a zoomable image are all provided. Appropriate attention is given to the context of the item, including the author of the text, the medium, publisher, and date. Each item is described in a paragraph of 100 or more words, and the description indicates the item’s significance in relationship to the collection’s theme (Caribbean: idyllic or horrific). .

The collection includes several important texts. Defenses of slavery are offered by William Snelgrave, a ship captain and slave trader, in his A New Account of Some Parts of Guinea and the Slave Trade (1734), and by Lady Maria Nugent, wife to the Governor of Jamaica, in her journal of 1801-1805 (see especially pp. 208-210). A larger number of items depict the inhumanity of slavery. The Peckham Ladies’ African and Anti-Slavery Association tract on Reasons for Using East India Sugar (1828) argues that eating Caribbean sugar, produced with slave labor, was in itself immoral. Elizabeth Heyrick née Coltman, founder of the Birmingham Ladies’ Society for the Relief of Negro Slaves, argued for immediate rather than gradual abolition in her Appeal to the Hearts and Consciences of British Women (1828). Personal narratives of former slaves, both men and women are included: The History of Mary Prince, a West Indian Slave: Related by Herself (1831) and The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African. Written by Himself (1789).

Visual images also portray contrasting views of the Caribbean. One lithograph from John Augustine Waller’s A Voyage to the West Indies (1820) depicts a slave village in Barbados, a panoramic scene of a group of slaves well-dressed, dancing and playing music. A similarly happy scene is in “A Negro Festival Drawn from Nature in the Island of St. Vincent” (1794). J. Johnson’s engraving of “View of St. John’s Harbour, Antigua” (1827) shows slave houses in the foreground with palm trees, clouds, and the water behind, with soft lines and colors conveying peace and serenity. In contrast, another set of images depicts the hardships and cruelties of slavery. The aquatints of William Clark (of Lewis and Clark fame), printed in Ten Views in the Island of Antigua (1823) (search for: Clark, William), demonstrate several stages in the manufacturing of sugar and show bodies bent in hard labor. Amelia Opie’s The Black Man’s Lament: Or, How to Make Sugar (1826) is an illustrated poem for children, with images of whippings, other punishments, and harsh manual labor, all with facial expressions contorted by pain. The “Description of a Slave Ship” shows the floor plan of a slave ship and how, if carefully arranged, 609 people could be crammed on board, shackled together, often in spaces 10 inches high.

A few aspects of the database may frustrate the user. Each page from a text is given its own record in the database. Consequently, to find all pages from a single text, one must search on the title or author; the pages do not sort in order and one cannot click easily to the next page in the series, but one has to first return to the search page. In addition, the titles of some records are not especially helpful. For example, the record entitled “The Antigua Free Press – 17 July 1829” does not reveal the primary historical significance of the item, which is the fact that, among the various items listed for sale, “Negroes for Sale” are found alongside ads for cornmeal, hardware, and ladies’ bonnets. A final potential frustration is one cannot limit a search to the Caribbean Views collection, but a search of the website will pull up items throughout all of the library’s online exhibitions.

One teaching exercise would be to have students compare texts, one in defense of slavery and one in opposition it. (For example, comparing William Snelgrave’s A New Account of Some Parts of Guinea and the Slave Trade with Elizabeth Heyrick’s Appeal to the Hearts and Consciences of British Women.) Students might be asked to compare the rhetorical strategies of the texts. For example, what arguments and “facts” do the authors give in support of their views? To which values do they appeal? What language do they use to persuade their audiences?

Another teaching exercise would involve analyzing a set of pictorial images, some depicting an idyllic Caribbean, the others, a horrific Caribbean. Ask the students to identify what seems to be the “message” of the image, and ask them to specify what about the images conveys that message. Is it the subject of the images, the placement of objects, the postures of bodies, the colors used, etc.? They might compare, for example, “A Negro Festival Drawn from Nature in the Island of St. Vincent” and “View of St. John’s Harbour, Antigua” with the images in The Black Man’s Lament.

Reviewed by Christine A. Kray, Rochester Institute of Technology

How to Cite This Source

"Caribbean Views," in in World History Commons, https://worldhistorycommons.org/caribbean-views [accessed December 7, 2021]
Thumbnail of landscape painting with a road bordered by palm trees, mountains in the distance
“The online collection is of extraordinary quality, both in terms of the scanned images and the contextual detail provided. ”