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.  

Many of the texts and images featured in this exhibit originate from the late 18th century, situating them in the time of the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution as it was transitioning into the Age of Reflection. This period is one that certainly acted as particularly suitable host for the production and distribution of these observations of natural history as not only did it speak to the era’s desire to produce science and knowledge, but the “Caribbean picturesque,” as described by historian Krista A. Thompson, spoke to the more romantic and philosophical sensibilities that were emerging as well (Thompson 2006). Paired with a rapidly increasing curiosity of the new world, many of these texts went into wide circulation, and strongly influenced how people began to ideate the Caribbean. This information seeking age was aligned with the advancement and increased the availability of engraving materials. More texts were able to include increasingly accurate images to accompany the records of natural history. This includes many of the texts that make up the Early Carribean Digital Archive, and in our attempt to decolonize the archive we have highlighted a few of these plated images to discuss not just what they visually represent, but how they functioned for colonists.

In Commercial Visions: Science, Trade, and Visual Culture in the Dutch Golden Age historian Dániel Margócsy explores the how viewers engaged with images of scientific material, and in some cases, as he claims, how the images acted as a proof of “commodity” or a “commercial” driving investment into the natural sciences (Margócsy 2014). The relationships explored Margócsy’s text can be put into conversation with our archival texts of the Caribbean. In fact, one of our featured texts, Peter Kalm’s Travels into North America was, funded by the Royal Swedish Academy in an attempt to evaluate what the [new world] had to offer the country (“American Journeys Background on Travels into North America”).

As this transformational discussion of the archive moves forward, another important movement is also taking place; the deconstruction of empirical scientific data as an absolute truth. 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 furthers 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. Despite this, colonialists still 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. Part of the mission of the Early Caribbean Digital Archive is to call attention to how these texts constructed this information.

The ECDA 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. Through explorations of several relations of natural history, including John Gabriel Stedman’s Narrative of a Five Years Expedition Against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam (1796), Richard Ligon’s A True and Exact History of the Island of Barbados (1565) and Bryan Edwards’ The History, Civil and Commercial, of the British colonies in the West Indies (1793), this exhibit seeks to act as an example of what it means to think critically about the archive. This exhibit presents information about the Caribbean as was circulated throughout Europe and follows with analysis of the text from contemporary perspectives.


“American Journeys Background on Travels into North America .” American Journeys, Wisconsin Historical Society,

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.

Seocndary Bibliography

—.“Printing Techniques and the History of Engraving.” Museum of the History of Science, University of Oxford,

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.