Images from the Archive: An Introduction

 

John Gabriel Stedman, View of the Camp at the Java Creek, Narrative, of a five years’ expedition, against the revolted Negroes of Surinam, 1796.  

This exhibit of images of Caribbean flora, fauna, and landscapes, draws from five well-known European texts about Caribbean natural history: Richard Ligon’s A True and Exact History of the Island of Barbadoes (1657), James Grangier’s The Sugar-Cane. A Poem (1764), Peter Kalm’s Travels into North America (1773), Bryan Edwards’ The History, Civil and Commercial, of the British colonies in the West Indies (1793), and John Gabriel Stedman’s Narrative of a Five Years Expedition Against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam (1796). Each of these authors came to the Caribbean with aims of enrichment and advancement. The European view of the Caribbean is, as these images showed, often couched in very scientific terms, but embedded in commercial and imperial aims.

Despite the way in which many of these images present themselves as scientific and authoritative, it is worth noting the capitalist and military aims shape the vision of these authors.In Commercial Visions: Science, Trade, and Visual Culture in the Dutch Golden Age historian Dániel Margócsy explores how viewers engaged with images of scientific material, and how these images aimed to transform the Caribbean into a world made up of commodities available for European consumption. In this sense, a commercial ambition shaped the representation of the natural world in the Caribbean (Margócsy 2014). For instance, the Royal Swedish Academy funded the trip of Peter Kalm, author of Travels into North America, in an attempt to evaluate what the new world had to offer Sweden commercially. (“American Journeys Background on Travels into North America”). We also have Richard Ligon’s True and Exact History of the island of Barbadoes from 1657, which acts more as a manual for how to produce, and profit from, sugarcane plantations on the island, rather than function as a record of the island’s natural history.

Many of the texts and images featured in this exhibit originate in the late 18th century, following the “Scientific Revolution” in Europe and leading into the period of Romanticism. We see in these images both the aim to produce scientific knowledge, as well as the romantic lens of the “Caribbean picturesque,” as described by historian Krista A. Thompson (Thompson 2006). Given rapidly increasing curiosity about the new world in Europe, as well as public interest in scientific and romantic ideas, many of these texts went into wide circulation and influenced how people viewed the Caribbean. At the same time, engraving tools became more widely available, and printers included increasingly detailed images of natural history. These new new detailed images suggested further accuracy of scientific knowledge; however, even if the engravings featured a more literal likeness to the objects at hand, their accuracy is debatable– they were never intended to serve as a truth, but rather designed to appeal to a European audience.

As visual sociologist Luc Pauwels, editor and co-author of Visual Cultures of Science: Rethinking Representational Practices in Knowledge Building and Science Communication, claims, “There is no state where things are perceived in an uncolored and unbiased form” and further argues that “visualization of science” is constructed to aid the progression of science and culture, rather than produce true and objective information (Pauwels 2005 viii). Although many of the images were literally presented as being “true” and “exact” contemporary research suggests otherwise. Colonialists put forth a claim for the islands (and their resources) while also framing their natural histories as newly discovered, and presents the information as wholly original knowledge– making an intellectual claim for the flora and fauna of the lands, which have likely been known to the indigenous people for generations. Although this may lack the same material weight as claims to land and people, they have similar substantive effects. An attempt to create new scientific knowledge this is not only unavoidably incorrect, but impossible– scientific knowledge in itself is biased and shaped by culture and it is important to recognize that in these images. Knowledge is inherently political, can’t be extracted from who produces it.

One of the missions of the Early Caribbean Digital Archive is to call attention to how these texts constructed this information. The ECDA’s work is a part of the larger discussion on how students, academics, and other thinkers can reevaluate how they use and understand archival materials and how they can better use them their own work. In this exhibit, we highlight several items from our archive and think of ways ‘remix’ the information that it provides. We invite you to take a different angle of vision on these images than those that their earliest authors may have intended.

Works Cited

“American Journeys Background on Travels into North America .” American Journeys, Wisconsin Historical Society, www.americanjourneys.org/aj-117a/summary/index.asp.

Margócsy, Dániel.Commercial Visions: Science, Trade, and Visual Culture in the Dutch Golden Age. The University of Chicago Press, 2014.

Pauwels, Luc, editor. Visual Cultures of Science: Rethinking Representational Practices in Knowledge Building and Science Communication. University of Chicago Press, 2005.

Thompson, Krista A. An Eye for the Tropics: Tourism, Photography, and Framing the Caribbean Picturesque. Duke University Press, 2006.

Secondary Bibliography

—.“Printing Techniques and the History of Engraving.” Museum of the History of Science, University of Oxford, www.mhs.ox.ac.uk/collections/library/prints-collection-guide/techniques/engraving/.

Mayger Hind, Arthur. A Short History of Engraving & Etching, for the Use of Collectors and Students: With Full Bibliography, Classified List and Index of Engravers. Archibald Constable LTD & CO., 1908.

Nyhart, Lynn K. “Interpreting Visual Cultures of Science (BOOK REVIEW).” Annals of Science, vol. 73, no. 4, 29 July 2016, pp. 442–446., doi:10.1080/00033790.2015.1067115.

Smith, Pamela H. “Art, Science, and Visual Culture in Early Modern Europe.” Isis, vol. 97, no. 1, Mar. 2006, pp. 83–100., doi:10.1086/501102.