Capturing the 19th Century Caribbean
Photographs by whom and for whom?January 23, 2017
Beginning with its introduction in 1839, photography spread rapidly throughout the world thanks to the enthusiasm of travelers, aristocrats, and merchants who, in seeking their fortune in far-off lands, brought the invention to unforeseen locales. In this way, photography became the globalized medium par excellence, operating simultaneously in the largest metropoles and in the most remote areas under a shared, apparently universal language.
With photography, the world becomes image. Its spread coincided with the tourism boom brought on by the new means of transportation that came about in the second half of the 19th century. In order to put itself on the map, every city had to have a photographer, because it had to be seen. This way of existing and being known by way of the image is not entirely foreign to us today, when spaces are traversed and recalled through images more than ever. The need for recognition through photography presented questions about how to see and be seen, not only in terms of singular identities, but as territories and collectivities. Following this logic, what is it that deserves to be seen? By whom and for whom are photographs taken?
In the Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Collection there are two albums compiled by Mayson Beeton—an English colonist of Newfoundland who worked for some years in the English Caribbean as a correspondent for the Daily Mail—published by Harmsworth Newspapers around 1896-1897. The albums contain a photographic tour of the Caribbean, an extremely heterogeneous territory in which these questions become even more complex. Beeton’s albums allow us to appreciate the types of images that circulated in this era and the way in which the English Caribbean was represented. Beeton purchased the photographs in commercial studios in the English colonies, as evidenced by several autographed photos. One of the signatures is that of Julio Siza, a traveling Portuguese photographer who toured the Caribbean establishing a number of studios: The Lusitana Photographic Gallery in Georgetown, Guyana and 'Photographia Amazonas’ in Para, Brazil. The Siza studio likely sold photos of the different locales where it had operations, or even the work of other photographers, which was common practice.
It is not surprising, then, that some of the photographs in Beeton’s albums are replicated in collections in the New York Public Library and the University of Cambridge Library. Toward the end of the century, selling and circulating photos of the representative places and personalities of the entire world was very common. Thus, once out of the photographer’s control, images could circulate throughout the world in different formats, whether as postcards, in albums, or newspapers, allowing us to reconstruct ventures such as Beeton’s and to replicate his fantastic voyage today. It is possible that Beeton’s voyage did not coincide exactly with the photos in the album, and that there may be years of difference between one photo and the next, however the grouping of photographs in the album creates the illusion of a singular trajectory and of simultaneity, suggesting a narrative from one photo to the next.
Beeton’s albums confront us with iconic scenes and landscapes that speak to us of the mobile nature of the Caribbean and allow us to see how photography actively contributed to the spread of ideas through the image. The veracity of photography has been a hotly debated issue since its invention. While the raw material is reality, its message is always ambiguous. Depending on its use, photography helps to construct reality, replicating ideas and, in many cases, fictions. A second look at the photographs compiled by Beeton forces us to reconsider the apparent neutrality of the ensemble of photographs and to comprehend how discourses are created and spread through the image. The majority are landscapes or portraits of customs, generic photos conceived to sell to tourists and locals which nevertheless allow us to perceive some underlying tensions. The albums contain 72 photos arranged in sections on Bermuda, Antigua, Martinique, Barbados, Venezuela, Guyana, and Trinidad.
While we do not know the exact intentions behind the photo album Beeton compiled, one can sense that the selection of images may have been related to his interest in the Caribbean sugar industry. As evidenced in the series of photos of plantations and mills, Beeton had a particular interest in studying the production of sugar cane in the region. Apparently Beeton and his English patrons at Harmsworth Newspapers opposed the production of beet sugar in Europe and the devastating economic effect it could have on Caribbean sugar factories. The photos Beeton chose offer a very particular panorama of daily life at the turn of the century, in which the relationship between humanity and nature is a constant theme, with a particular emphasis on the harmony of life in the colonies.
As has been mentioned, one can find in these albums images that seem like commonplace representations of the Caribbean today. On one hand there are the types and customs: photographs of local personages or traditions, a "mulatress" in holiday costume, a cart tipped over by a donkey, a sugar cane vendor or the indigenous people of Guyana adorned (as the handwritten caption tells us) in their "war-paint." Typically made for commercial sale, these images contributed to the production of the stereotypical imaginary of the Caribbean, and they corresponded to a lengthy tradition of images of customs. The majority of them remind us of the black presence in the Caribbean and its association with certain types of labor. Other photos provide evidence of more hidden aspects of sugar production in the West Indies, such as the history of the "coolies," the indentured workers who were brought to work in the industry after the abolition of slavery, and they remind us of Islam's subsequent presence in the Caribbean.
Landscape also holds a prominent place in the albums. As the photos show us, the Caribbean landscape is a very complex colonial construction whose primary symbol—and the one most beloved by traveling painters—was the coconut palm. The coconut palm was introduced during the colonization of the Americas and spread throughout the continent, rapidly becoming an emblem of the tropics despite being a non-endemic species. The palm is as common in the photos as sugar cane, another important product imported from southeast Asia during the colonial period. Its proliferation and cultivation in the Caribbean testify to a transformation of nature into landscape, as an exercise of reason upon the land. The sugar cane plantation in particular represents the deployment of human domination over the land, a re-education of the natural on an industrial scale. Indeed, the cultivation and processing of sugar cane have a prominent role in Beeton’s collection and have been common themes in both the photography and the landscape painting of the Caribbean. Today these symbols, which seem conventional, have been naturalized as such through their reiterated use in promotional images.
The panoramas of Port of Spain, Trinidad; Georgetown, Guyana; and Port Pierre, Martinique also resemble present-day photos used to promote tourism. These photographs of cities and industries publicized the colonies, assuring order and economic prosperity in a territory whose stability was in doubt over the course of the 19th century. Likewise, images of sugar factories, plantations and cities served as indicators of progress and industrialization in the Caribbean. The photos of the factories alongside the cities also reinforce the belief in a structure common to Europe and the Americas, reiterating human domination over nature. The botanical garden of Guyana and a plantation of Bermuda (Easter) lilies, photographed by Julio Siza, focus on the transformation of the land at the hands of man, and they put Europe’s influence in contrast with the picturesque character of the local.
In contrast to these symbols of progress, some of the photos of Guyana display a ferocious nature extending beyond the cities along the Essequibo River and into the Amazon jungle, which itself is not landscape due to being unconquerable and impossible to grasp. The “wilderness” extends beyond the frame of the photograph and beyond the human dimension, as we can see in the image of the explorers posing with the roots of a tree, reminding us of the limitations of the photographic apparatus.
An incredible final image makes the tension between man and nature tangible, focusing on a cacao plant that, by “posing” for the camera, becomes photogenic. (We must also recall its foreign nature, having come from Mesoamerica and offering evidence of exchange with its very presence.) This portrait of the fruit of the cacao shows that the very act of photography is an exercise of rationalization that processes reality through a machine and decontextualizes time and space. The camera trims the “wilderness,” directs the gaze and creates a hierarchy of what should be seen, and how. In this way, it educates us by conditioning our comprehension of the visible.
Translated by Phillip Penix-Tadsen