Images from the Archive: Flora

Images from Richard Ligon's 1657 text A True and Exact History of the Island of Barbados are courtesy of The John Carter Brown Library.

When Richard Ligon returned to England in 1650 after three years in Barbados, he was imprisoned for debt almost immediately. While imprisoned, he spent his time composing A True and Exact History of the Island of Barbados: illustrated with a mapp of the island, as also the principall trees and plants there, set forth in their due proportions and shapes, drawne out by their severall and respective scales: together with the ingenio that makes the sugar, with the plots of the severall houses, roomes, and other places, that are used in the whole processe of sugar-making, which chronicled his time in Barbados with particular attention to the sugar cane and other flora across the island. The text was first published in London by Humphrey Moseley in 1657 and reprinted in 1673, a decade after Ligon's death. The text was immensely popular in its time as one of the first accounts of the island of Barbados, which was the site of British curiosity for its growing sugar export. Ligon's True History continues to be a key critical text for scholars studying Caribbean-British colonialism. Ligon's text can be found here in our archive.

The images featured here include young and old palm trees, the highly sought after Queen Anne Pine (now known as the pineapple), and the plantain tree. Interestingly, while Ligon's text provides extensive details on the cultivation of sugar cane, including a diagram of its processing, there are no images of the plant itself in his text.

Images from John Gabriel Stedman's 1796 text Narrative of a Five Years Expedition Against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam  are courtesy of The John Carter Brown Library

John Gabriel Stedman's Narrative of a Five Years Expedition Against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam first published in 1796 in London, is better known for its chronicle of Stedman's impassioned proslavery stance and his still contested relationship with Johanna, a young, previously enslaved girl, who became his "companion" during his time in the Caribbean. Stedman was originally sent to the island in 1773 by the Dutch military to capture escaped enslaved people (maroons), but his account often veers from his military aims into his personal life as well as the natural history of the island. His interest in natural history prompted him to seek an illustrator for his published book, and he found one in William Blake. Blake's images, shown here, provide detailed engravings of sprigs of common trees, the life stages of the sugar cane and other plants, the different components of the plantain and other trees, and images meant for comparison with similar looking trees.

Stedman's Narrative is a complicated text. While many of his views on cruelties of slavery, plantation life, and portraits of the African, Creole, and Indigenous people suggest that Stedman's views were humanitarian (his work was cited by many abolitionist groups) there are a number of inconsistencies between this text and his diaries, which seem to suggest a different, private view. Namely, he recognized the brutality with which the enslaved people were treated and offered his sympathies; however, he also believed that slavery was ultimately a positive thing, as it allowed for the inexpensive increase in production. This sentiment is not unique to Stedman, while many colonist writers expressed regret over slavery, they justified it taking place because of the values of what was produced.

Narrative is also notable for its portraits of the natural history, which includes the indigenous people, where he acknowledges the contrasts between the beauty and pleasure of land and its flora, while remarking the people as violent and cruel. While he sets out to highlight the differences in order suggest a superiority of the white Europeans, he inadvertently shows his own navieté; the indigenous peoples were likely no more cruel than the colonists, and further, the 'exotic' is never inherent, but rather subject to the individual.

Stedman's narrative can be found in volumes one and two in our archive.

The image from John Grainger's 1764 The Sugar-cane. A Poem is courtesy of The John Carter Brown Library.

Organized into four books of blank verse, James Grainger's 1764 The Sugar-Cane. A Poem was first published in London in 1764 and became quite popular, appearing in a second edition only two years later. In the poem, Grainger displays his admiration of the sugar cane plant and its product, sugar, and offers a detailed look into the life of the plant as well as the enthusiasm it generated among the people on the islands and in Europe. Trained as a physician, Grainger first came to the island of Jamaica in 1759 and spent time there offering medical care to its inhabitants. This is Grainger's only known work of natural history.

Each book of the poem covers different aspects of the sugar cane's life, from the climate in which it thrives and the diseases, insects, and climates to which it is most susceptible. Books I, II, and II cover the sugarcane's production process, while book IV covers the examines the politics and culture of the sugarcane plantation. Book IV is significant to note for its discussion of the enslaved people living on the plantation. Grainger expressed views that, while by no means anti-slavery, showed a particular sympathy for the enslaved people working in the sugarcane fields. In fact, much of Book IV is dedicated to humanizing enslaved people and suggesting that they receive fairer treatment. Grainger even suggests what can be described as nearly voluntary enslavement as a way to ensure that well-being of the enslaved people, and grant them at least partial freedom. Grainger's solution suggests some sense of compassion for the enslaved people; however, he offers no feasible solution and uses his medical knowledge to affirm which African ethnic and tribal groups make for the best slaves. The cognitive dissonance displayed in the text is not unique, similar texts from this location and period (as found in our digital archive) express the desire humanize enslaved people all while exploiting them for their labor.

Although this the text features only a single image of the sugar cane, the image remains significant as the text went through several reprints, was often anthologized in its time, and continues to be a notable example of (in Grainger's own words) a "West-India Georgic"—a term that, as Elizabeth Polcha points out, "recalls Virgil’s Georgics, and also places the poem in the eighteenth-century British tradition of poetry which combined rural subject matter, Baconian science, and the representation of national identity." Its causal description as a georgic subtlety allows it to be absorbed into western literature. Again, we see the claiming of the indigenous' land and black bodies being claimed by the west in a way that is not only literal but also intellectually and philosophically. Additionally, to return to Dániel Margócsy's arguement about the commodification of the Carribean through image, given the wide circulation of Grainger's work, there is no doubt that it was heavily influential to European's understanding of the sugarcane, which of course was embedded with a lot of complicated, and contradictory, views on slavery.

The original printed text can be found in our archive here. A transcribed version of the entire poem (with notes omitted) can be found here.