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Caribbean Views

The British Library
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Reviewed by:
Christine A. Kray
Rochester Institute of Technology
December 2004

This site presents a collection of more than 100 visual images and texts housed in the British Library in London. The items were chosen to represent contrasting views of life in the British colonies in the Caribbean during the 18th and 19th centuries. One set of texts and images depicts an idyllic life, characterized by beautiful landscapes and happy and serene people; the other depicts the horrors of slavery and work on the plantations.

The texts include almanacs, journals, travel narratives, personal narratives of former slaves, abolitionist tracts, and occasional letters and wills. The visual images are primarily maps and pictures published in books, and include lithographs and aquatint paintings. Though there are only 100 books in the database, there are several pages from each book, so the database includes 1,202 individual digital images.

The website is of extraordinary quality, both in terms of the scanned images and the contextual detail provided. A thumbnail image, a large image, and a zoomable image are all provided. Appropriate attention is given to the context of each item, including author, 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). Records describing excerpts from books give summaries specific to that section. When book excerpts are included, summaries focus on the excerpts rather than the entire book.

The collection includes several very illuminating texts. In A New Account of Some Parts of Guinea and the Slave Trade (1734), William Snelgrave, a ship captain and slave trader, provided a defense of slavery. In her journal of 1801-1811, Lady Nugent, the wife of the Governor of Jamaica, wrote that slavery was not as harsh as its critics suggested (see especially pp. 208-210). In contrast, a larger number of items depict slavery as inhumane. The Peckham Ladies’ African and Anti-Slavery Association tract on Reasons for Using East India Sugar (1828) argues that eating Caribbean sugar is immoral since it was produced with slave labor. Elizabeth Heyrick née Coltman, who formed the Birmingham Ladies’ Society for the Relief of Negro Slaves and who argued for immediate rather than gradual abolition, wrote an Appeal to the Hearts and Consciences of British Women (1828). Personal narratives of former slaves, both men and women, are also 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 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 showing a group of slaves well dressed, dancing and playing music. A similar happy theme is shown 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. The soft lines and colors convey 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 brutal manual labor. 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. As a result, one cannot click easily to the next page in the series, but must first return to the search page. Similarly, since the records sort by title, pages 20-29 of a book follow page two, before page three is listed. For example, the aquatint paints of William Clark do not sort together, since each record’s title refers to the subject of the individual painting. To locate all of these images, run a search for “Clark, William.”

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 historical significance of the item. This newspaper page includes an ad for “Negroes for Sale,” demonstrating the way in which humans became economic commodities described as “valuable.” A final potential frustration is that one cannot limit a search to the Caribbean Views collection, but must search all of the “Collect Britain: Putting History in Place” collections. As a result, a search for “sugar” returns items related to sugar in other online collections such as “Illuminated Manuscripts” and “English Accents and Dialects.” A search can later be sorted by collection, but this sorting does not work if the number of images is greater than about 200.

One teaching exercise would be to have students compare texts, one in defense of slavery and one in opposition to 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 could 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 could involve the analysis of 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 define specifically the aspects of the images that convey 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 Black Man’s Lament.

One final teaching exercise would explore how racial experiences were complicated by gender. Students might compare the experiences of a female (The History of Mary Prince, a West Indian Slave: Related by Herself) and a male (The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African. Written by Himself) slave. Did Mary Prince and Olaudah Equiano have different experiences that could be attributed to the different positions of men and women in that time period?

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