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Curator's introduction

Unlike most of the other collections in the Online Gallery, 'Caribbean Views' is not drawn from a single British Library collection. However, scattered throughout the Library's incomparable collections of maps, manuscripts, printed books and newspapers, there is a wealth of material relating to the British West Indies. 'Caribbean Views' brings together over 100 of these items to conjure up a vivid picture of life in the English-speaking Caribbean during the 18th and early 19th centuries.

Both images and texts present diverse perspectives on this colonial world. One point of view presents idyllic scenes of mountains and valleys, as described and drawn by British travellers, dotted with beautiful plantation houses enjoyed by their wealthy owners. The other witnesses the living hell of life on the plantation as experienced by the slave population.

Included in this broad selection are extracts from material that once belonged to Sir Hans Sloane. His collections became part of the foundation holdings of the British Museum when it was established in 1753. Sloane had been physician to the Governor of Jamaica, the 2nd Duke of Albemarle, from 1687 to 1688. His manuscripts contain a wealth of detail about West Indian natural history and agriculture as well as information on travel and commerce.

Sloane’s published writings include the splendid 'Voyage to the Islands Madera, Barbados, Nieves, S. Christophers, and Jamaica', dated 1707-25. Although the natural history of Jamaica is the focus of this work, Sloane’s introduction contains an account of slavery. Despite its brevity, he records many of the essential features of American slave societies: the physical conditions of the slaves, the methods used to control them, and some of their customs, beliefs, and social relations. Not surprisingly, Sloane was particularly interested in the medical knowledge possessed by slaves. His survey also documented their musical skills, including pictures of their instruments and transcripts of some African tunes.

Slavery is a recurring theme in many of the extracts and images. The sugar plantation society based on slave labour was introduced to the Caribbean by the Dutch after they had been expelled from Brazil in 1640. Their example was taken up enthusiastically by the British, first in Barbados then in the other islands. By the end of the 16th century, Jamaica had become England’s major 'sugar island' and chief importer of African labour.

The forced transportation of slaves from Africa to the Americas had begun much earlier, only a few years after their discovery by Columbus. Now, the 'sugar revolutions' created an ever-growing demand for regular supplies of slaves: a demand that would continue until legislation was passed for the abolition of slavery in the British West Indian colonies in 1833. An estimated 10 million slaves were landed in the Americas over three and a half centuries - not counting several million more who died during the long and terrible voyage. For a large part of this period, from the 1650s to the1830s, England was one of the chief players in the slave system.

The Library's holdings of material relating to the English slave trade and slavery are particularly strong. They provide a variety of personal observations on the subject, from the views of Hans Sloane, to those of plantation owners, government officials, abolitionists and ex-slaves themselves. Images of slaves at work in the fields, or engaged in the tasks of sugar production, depict their life on the plantations - including the horrifying brutality of their control and punishment. Plans of slave ships reveal the conditions in which they were transported from Africa to the Caribbean. Text extracts give voice to the horrors of the journey that has come to be known as the 'middle passage'.

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