'Field Negro, Sugar Cane in Background', plate from Richards Bridgens' 'West India Scenery', 1836
The collection covers the 18th century and the first half of the 19th century. These were the years when slavery and the cultivation of sugar cane were the forces which began to define the identity of the Caribbean. From this distance it is easy to forget the complexity and the variety of what happened then, but Caribbean Views recreates this world with all its strange, unexpected connections and terror. Interestingly, while the facts in the diaries and various accounts clearly demonstrate the brutality of the society, the lithographs and engravings largely confine themselves to scenes of pastoral beauty or slave festivals, and according to these pictures the slaves’ work seems to take place in relatively pleasant unfettered conditions. Remarkably, the slaves appear in the majority of these illustrations only as decorative features. Those images which reveal routine punishments and tortures are few and far between, which may be saying something important about the need of these rulers to avert their eyes and not to see the sheer depth of cruelty to which they had descended.
Even the tracts designed to horrify their readership seem to be furnished with relatively sanitised illustrations. In comparison, the actual texts spell out in unblinking detail the vicious torments to which the slaves were subject. This leaves the impression that there are two separate states of mind at war in this society. On the one hand, the illustrations are drawn from the background of the European Enlightenment, a model of industrious human beings calmly pursuing progress in the peaceful garden of universal Nature. On the other, the texts emerge from a savage and irrational unconscious, which is out of control, and where obscene vicious fantasies can be gratified.