Negro Dance, taken from Richard Bridgens' 'West India Scenery', 1836
When I first viewed this collection its strangest effect, for me, was the fact that almost every image and almost every line of text prompted memories of my childhood, as if the beauty and the terror of those times was a sort of shadow of my real existence. This was strange, partly because it is many years since I last thought of myself as belonging to the region. Although I was broadly familiar with the outlines of its history, my own work had taken me several other directions and Caribbean history was certainly not a major interest of mine. Of course, I had previously seen some of the texts and a few of the illustrations, but trawling through the whole of the collection had a cumulative effect which I found continually surprising. This was not just due to my recognition of names, places and personalities, or the echoing impact of custom and practice reverberating out of that period into our own times.
Every piece of writing in the collection is, in one way or another, the record of a journey of some kind, either a physical journey through the geography of the location or a spiritual and moral journey driven by a response to its practices and behaviour. These are the journeys which go to make up a hinterland of the Caribbean past, in which the details are somehow invisible but, at the same time, present and unavoidable. Take, for example, the word breakfast. During my childhood the midday meal, which we ate in between the morning and afternoon sessions at school, was always called breakfast. Later on I realised that, in England, breakfast was the first meal of the morning, but our use of the word to indicate the middle of the day points to a history in which the slaves simply did not get their breakfast until they had done half a day’s work. In these (apparently insignificant) ways, the habits of slavery continue to speak to the Caribbean present.