Omohundro Institute


Simon P. Newman

artwork by Anthony King, maps by David Ely, and video and photography by Marenka Thompson-Odlum

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THE experience of daily life in Jamaica’s slave society remains elusive. Historians depend upon sparse written and pictorial accounts created by a small number of white and a far smaller number of black people, and scholars face the challenge of interpreting these incomplete documentary records in order to make comprehensible to modern readers not just the sights, sounds, and experiences of Jamaica as it was but, more significantly, how both black and white Jamaicans interpreted and made sense of the world they saw, heard, and sensed.1 A variety of motivations and agendas informed the construction of travel narratives, histories, diaries, correspondence, and artistic images by those who recorded life and society in the British Caribbean. Employing sound and video recordings as well as enhanced eighteenth- and nineteenth-century artwork and maps, all in digital format, this article will challenge readers to think about Jamaican society in new ways. It will explore how white men saw and experienced the island and its population in order to enhance our understanding of how enslaved men, women, and children who attempted long-term escapes were able to achieve varying degrees of liberty and self-determination at the heart of Britain’s largest slave society. Selecting and presenting new media does not in and of itself offer a transformative vision of the past. However, by seeking to give 

          Simon P. Newman is Sir Denis Brogan Professor of American History at the University of Glasgow. The author would like to thank David Ely, Anthony King, and Marenka Thompson-Odlum for their contributions to the article, and Kelly Crawford and Kim Foley for invaluable technical support at the Omohundro Institute. For their comments and suggestions on earlier drafts, the author is grateful to audiences at the Early Modern Works-in-Progress group at the University of Glasgow, the University of Sydney, the University of Melbourne, the University of Cambridge, the Early Modern Studies Institute (University of Southern California and Huntington Library), the OI Colloquium in Williamsburg, the conference of the European Early American Studies Association, and the anonymous readers for the William and Mary Quarterly.

          1 For a discussion of the difficulties inherent in this “translation” by historians, see Rhys Isaac, The Transformation of Virginia, 1740–1790 (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1982), 324–25 (quotation, 324).

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the reader new ways of experiencing and interrogating the human landscape of Jamaica, this article will enhance our critical understanding of both the lived experience of the ideological system upon which slavery rested and the ways in which some of the enslaved negotiated and resisted their bondage.2

Both eighteenth-century and modern media present their own interpretive challenges, and this article will highlight the problems inherent in historical sources while also considering the merits and weaknesses of modern pictorial, aural, and video materials. In terms of historical artwork, for example, the rise of British abolitionism and its use of visual representations of the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade encouraged those who benefited from slavery to present images of the British Caribbean as a peaceful and harmonious society. In doing so, they followed in the wake of earlier visual efforts to depict the Caribbean’s peoples and landscapes in such a way that Britons would be persuaded to move there. Both sorts of art intentionally obscured Jamaica as it was seen and experienced by its free and enslaved inhabitants alike, especially in regard to the centrality of enslaved and plantation labor.3 Literary conventions and intellectual trends reinforced artistic representations of the British Caribbean as a less African and less brutally exploitative labor regime than it was. At the same time, the Enlightenment encouraged an aestheticization of work that elided slave labor and instead lauded the acumen of white planters and managers whose knowledge and expertise harnessed the natural bounty of the tropics. In representations of Britain and the Caribbean, agricultural peasants and the realities of the slave system were expunged by pastoral artists and writers.4 James Hakewill’s painting of the Whitney Estate in Clarendon Parish is a good example.

          2 Joan W. Scott, “The Evidence of Experience,” Critical Inquiry 17, no. 4 (Summer 1991): 773–97.

          3 [Sir William Young], Considerations Which May Tend to Promote the Settlement of Our New West-India Colonies, By Encouraging Individuals to embark in the Undertaking (London, 1764). Agostino Brunias, who produced some of the best-known images of the British Caribbean, was hired by Sir William Young, the British governor of Domi- nica and president of the Commission for the Sale of Lands in the Ceded Islands, and charged with presenting the people and landscapes of the Caribbean in ways calculated to appeal to British settlers. See Amanda Michaela Bagneris, “Coloring the Caribbean: Agostino Brunias and the Painting of Race in the British West Indies, c.1765–1800” (Ph.D. diss., Harvard University, 2009). For excellent discussions of misrepresentations of the Caribbean, see Beth Fowkes Tobin, Colonizing Nature: The Tropics in British Art and Letters, 1760–1820 (Philadelphia, 2005); Kay Dian Kriz, Slavery, Sugar, and the Culture of Refinement: Picturing the British West Indies, 1700–1840 (New Haven, Conn., 2008); John E. Crowley, “Sugar Machines: Picturing Industrialized Slavery,” American Historical Review 121, no. 2 (April 2016): 403–36.

          4 For example, Lady Maria Nugent described the Jamaican countryside as a pastoral idyll, while James Grainger published a lengthy Georgic poem in which white planters’ agricultural knowledge and the natural bounty of the West Indies meant that “the Cane with little labour grows” and enslaved laborers are all but invisible. 

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James Hakewill, Whitney Estate, Clarendon: The property of Viscount Dudley & Ward, in A Picturesque Tour of the Island of Jamaica, from Drawings Made in the Years 1820 and 1821 (London, 1825). National Library of Jamaica.

Hakewill’s is a well-balanced artistic work, with the Mocho Mountains of south-central Jamaica defining a picturesque background while a crisp, white, and well-maintained stone wall and archway in the foreground invite the viewer into Viscount Dudley and Ward’s plantation. No more than ten people can be discerned, all black and well-dressed: these are not the members of the first, second, or grass gangs whose labors were so central to the plantation community. Extensive plantation buildings—the structures of sugar production, with the exception of a few slave houses on the right— dominate the center of the picture. The plantation landscape, then, appears well-ordered and lightly populated, simultaneously pastoral and implicitly semi-industrial, and very few of the three hundred or so enslaved people who populated and powered this successful estate can be seen. Those in evidence appear to be moving at a leisurely pace, and the only hard labor apparent in this bucolic scene is undertaken by oxen, while the only visible whip is in the hands of the enslaved man driving them. Late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century images of Jamaica and the British Caribbean rarely show enslaved people laboring to cultivate, harvest, and process sugarcane. Instead they are more commonly represented undertaking less arduous 

Grainger, The Sugar-Cane: A Poem. In Four Books. With Notes (London, 1764), 8 (quotation); Philip Wright, ed., Lady Nugent’s Journal of Her Residence in Jamaica from 1801 to 1805 (Mona, Jamaica, 2002), 10, 25–26.

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work, such as driving animals, marketing, or doing laundry, or at leisure in conversation, singing, and dancing.5

     Artists did produce images of enslaved and free people of color as higglers and marketeers, partly because they were ubiquitous on Jamaican roads and in urban areas, but also partly because such pictures enabled the presentation of enslaved people—especially women—not as field slaves but rather as petty producers in familiar cultural and economic settings. Appearing well-dressed, content, and healthy, higglers, the free, enslaved, and runaway Jamaicans who traveled the island’s roads as vital agents of the internal marketing system, were represented in ways that echoed William Marshall Craig’s renderings of Georgian British hawkers for Richard Phillips’s Itinerant Traders of London. Thus these images presented the enslaved in ways that appeared familiar to British readers but that were a far cry from the actual plantation labor of the vast majority of black Jamaicans.6


William Berryman, Negro Portraits, 16 Small Drawings with Notations (1808-16). Library of Congress

          5 When slavery ended in Jamaica, Whitney Estate still depended upon 304 enslaved people. See Jamaica Clarendon 284 (Whitney), Legacies of British Slave- Ownership, database, University College London Department of History, 2018, accessed Aug. 2, 2016,

          6 Richard Phillips, The Itinerant Traders of London in their Ordinary Costume, from Modern London; being the history and present state of the British Metropolis. Illustrated with numerous copper plates (London, 1804).

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Even the artistic images that did show the enslaved engaged in field work were problematic. Consider William Clark’s representation of first gang enslaved men and women digging cane holes in Antigua.


William Clark, Holeing a Cane-Piece, from Ten Views in the Island of Antigua, in Which Are Represented the Process of Sugar Making, and the Employment of the Negroes . . . From Drawings Made by William Clark, during a Residence of Three Years in the West Indies (London, [1823]). Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University, (for all JCB media).

Although Clark’s series was intended to accurately represent sugar agriculture and production, its target audience consisted of Britons, and the scenes were fanciful and idealized. Hoeing cane is incredibly arduous work, yet the enslaved in Clark’s picture do not appear unduly burdened. Working in the hot and humid climate of the late summer and early fall, these first gang workers exhibit no sweat stains. Indeed, the fact that they are all fully clothed is inaccurate, for most would have been wearing relatively little. The scars of whip marks might well have been evident on the backs of some, especially the four workers near the center of the line, who appear to be falling behind and who were liable to be whipped by a driver responsible for ensuring a steady and even rate of progress. A black driver is depicted in the foreground, but he has turned his back on the work of the first gang to direct the setting of markers, an unused whip at his side. To the left, an older woman provides water to a young boy, suggesting that rest and refreshment are easily available. In this artistic representation, we cannot really see the brutal, backbreaking work of the first gang that destroyed healthy young bodies in little more than

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