lan A. Bethell Bennett, Editor
SARGASSO 2005-06, I
SARGASSO 2005-06, I
RECONSIDERING OLD MYTHS
SARGASSO 2005-06,1- Caribbean Representations: Reconsidering Old Myths
Sargasso, a peer-reviewed journal of literature, language, and culture edited at the
University of Puerto Rico, publishes critical essays, interviews, book reviews, and
some poems and short stories. Sargasso particularly welcomes material written
by/about the people of the Caribbean region and its diaspora. Unless otherwise
specified, essays and critical studies should conform to the style of the MLA
Handbook. Book reviews should be kept to no more than 1,500 words in length.
All correspondence should include a S.A.S.E. See http://humanidades.uprrp.edu/
ingles/pubs/sargasso.htm for more information. For electronic submission, write
P.O. Box 22831, UPR Station
San Juan, Puerto Rico 00931-2831
Lowell Fiet, Founding Editor
Ian A. Bethell Bennett, Managing Editor
Maria Cristina Rodriguez, Book Review Editor
Ian A. Bethell Bennett, Issue Editor
Sally Everson and Don E. Walicek, Editorial Staff
Lydia Plat6n, Editorial Assistant
Jessica Adams, University of California at Berkeley
Mary Ann Gosser-Esquilin, Florida Atlantic University
Peter Roberts, University of the West Indies, Cave Hill
Ivette Romero, Marist College
Felipe Smith, Tulane University
Antonio Garcia Padilla, President of the University of Puerto Rico
Gladys Escalona de Motta, Chancellor, Rio Piedras Campus
Jos4 L. Ramos Escobar, Dean of Humanities
Cover: Photo by Ian Anthony Bethell
Layout: Marcos Pastrana
Opinions and views expressed in Sargasso are those of the individual authors and are
not necessarily shared by Sargasso's Editorial Board. This journal is indexed by MLA.
Copies of Sargasso 2005-06, I1 as well as previous issues, are on deposit in the Library
of Congress. Filed September 2006. ISSN 1060-5533.
INTRO DUCTIO N ................................................................................ 1
"Barbados, the land of pretense..."
A Conversation with Diva Alexander de Beauvoir................... 7
Krista A. Thompson
Postcards to History: Tourist Representations
and the Construction of Postcolonial Histories
in the Anglophone Caribbean..................................................... 29
Calenda: The Rise and Decline of a Cultural Image ................. 51
"To Be Free is Very Sweet:" Racialised
Representations of Slavery in Maria Nugent's
Journal and Mary Prince's History ........................ .................. 69
Bad Black Men and Comical Chinese:
Racial Stereotyping in Early Cuban Detective Fiction............. 89
Diane Accaria Zavala
Taking Up the White Man's Burden: The Cinematic
Representation of Manifest Destiny
on Caribbean Shores in The Americano ........................ 107
vi TABLE CONTENTS
Wallace Stevens' Caribbean Dream ........................................... 121
The Aboriginal Encounters the Conquistador:
Jamaica Kincaid's "Ovando" ...................................................... 141
Kim Robinson Walcott
Taking, or Spurning, the Imperial Road:
White West Indian Writers and their Black Protagonists........ 149
SPECIAL SECTION: A Tribute to Antonio Benitez Rojo
Introduction: Antonio Benitez Rojo: An Indispensable Friend
by Maria Cristina Rodriguez ....................................................... 161
Arcadio Diaz Quifiones ................................................................ 163
Beatriz M orales ............................................................................ 163
Diane Accaria and Rodolfo Popelnik ......................................... 164
Joan M cM urray ............................................................................. 164
Joan Fayer ..................................................................................... 165
Jo A nne H arris .............................................................................. 165
M aritza Stanchich ........................................................................ 165
Ian Anthony Bethell ..................................................................... 166
Low ell Fiet ..................................................................................... 166
Rita M olinero ................................................................................ 168
LIST OF CONTRIBUTORS................................................................. 169
mages, sounds, realities, echo and repeat across time and space, much
like the image that Cuban author and critic Benitez Rojo conjures up of
the repeating island, meta-archipelago that bifurcates across the region,
spilling over into Miami, New York, New Orleans. So too is the persistent
image of Caribbean felicity and exoticism that is often presented in popular
works about the region. "The image never asks us to think of her as a living
human in a social being in a social environment. It is constructed for a certain
kind of western viewer who already knows from many other representations
what a '[Caribbean] woman' ought to look like" (90). These words from Robert
Young's A Very BriefIntroduction to Postcolonialism, (2003) locate the problems
and the pitfalls in representations. It is illustrative of the fact, as Gayatri
Spivak declares at the end of her article, that the 'subaltern cannot speak,'
particularly in the case that s/he is being spoken for through the guise of a
representative figure. According to Young this is precisely the problem, the
representation is already established. As Homi Bhabha points out in The
Location of Culture (1994), it is important for us to think about how otherness
is represented. Bhabha's work in this context is similar to Edward Said's
study in Orientalism and also to Spivak's thesis that the subaltern cannot
speak because official discourse effectively silences her. Similarly for Bhabha,
the problem is that the representation is already established. Escaping from
its demarcated space is almost impossible. One of the burdens of colonial
history is that it continues to repeat itself in the present day. The image on
the cover works with this vision of 'otherness' and, similar to the woman in
Young's formulation, shows us what a Caribbean woman ought to look like,
except there is a difference here. The woman on the cover then challenges
the typical image of poverty and alterity, of non-descript object of the gaze
through the whiteness of her sneakers. It is a type of Caribbean modernity
clashing with the unforgiving history of alterity and representation. Perhaps,
the challenge in this photo is the almost but not quite that Homi Bhabha
refers to in mimicry. It is this kind of representation that this issue of Sargasso
2 IAN A. BETHELL BENNETT
endeavours to work around. We look at this issue as a way of speaking back
to, of debunking, some of those old representations of Caribbeanness that
isolate the stereotypical image from any socio-cultural context and focus
solely on its alterity. In many ways, modernity, or Caribbean modernity,
shown in the cover image, decentres the image of the Caribbean as alterior
other as re-presented by the 'West.'
One may ask, though, why put together an issue on representations? It
has all been done before. Stuart Hall's 1997 publication, Representation:
Caribbean Representations and Signifying Practices, and Belinda Edmondson's
Caribbean Romances: The Politics of Regional Representation are groundbreaking
works tiat make following in their shadows difficult. But, there are always
new works and new ways of looking at old themes. Well, this could all be true,
but so much of what is presented here is important to an ongoing debate
over the ability of the Caribbean and Caribbean Studies and Caribbean Studies
scholars within the region to extract the region from a history of representation
and silence or inferiority. While history has been one of the biggest burdens
to overcome in Caribbean Studies due in part to history's imperial gaze,
Caribbean writers and scholars are constantly working to rectify this imbalance
of power. Cecily Jones compares and contrasts two women's representations
of slavery, at the same time she works to show how the White woman's version
was, similar to Trollope's The West Indies and the Spanish Main, taken as
historical fact while the Black woman's story was viewed more as testimony
and therefore subject to interpretation and the pitfalls of memory, hence
untrustworthy. This fact signals a power imbalance codified in the different
reading of the two texts. Similarly, representations are alive and well and
functioning in one of the regions most important industries, tourism. While
Hall and Edmondson have examined many aspects of what goes on in
Caribbean representations, the job that tourism marketing does to sell the
region is constantly on the move. The cover image along with Krista
Thompson's essay read with Kim Robinson Walcott's work on White West
Indians explodes the image of a region easily limited to one dimensional
presentations of silent, black subalterns, of a black population willing and
eager to please. These essays complicate the whole idea of the Caribbean as
a space of simplicitous frivolity and homogeneity.
In putting together this group of essays the editors and staff at Sargasso
hope to engage in a discussion over the historical burden of the power of
representation and how, in the face of this, the Caribbean un-writes these
images and begins to re-write different presentations of Caribbean realities
and cultures. This issue is also significant because it is dedicated to the life
and work of Antonio Benitez Rojo, who passed away a year ago leaving his
legacy of a repeating island to live on after him. Thus, if this issue is about
anything, it is about highlighting this repeating meta-archipelago and how,
due to a similar history of encounters between Europe and the Americas,
geography, a shared history of colonisation and imperialism and-what would
become a unique process of creolisation the West Indian islands and mainland
offer a immensely rich cultural tapestry. Edouard Glissant's theory of
relatedness and Caribbean Discourse or Discourse Antillaise meets and
combines with Edward Kamau Brathwaite's theory of Caribbean Creolisation
and their submerged or submarine link that can be traced back to Africa and
up through the Sargasso Sea into the postcolonial cities like Miami and New
York that have become as much a part of the Caribbean as the colonial cities
London and Paris and, while destabalising the discourse of colonialism and
representation as constructed by the colonial centres simultaneously re-
inscribe the representations of Caribbean alterity, the historical burden from
under which the region strives to free itself.
The essays and dedications here provide a new way of reading Caribbean
cultures. Similarly, Adams's paper deals with an often overlooked part of
Caribbean history, or a too often glossed-over section of the past, the
Amerindian presence, which she refers to as aboriginal in order to stress
their primal presence in the region. As Adams states, few people, except
Wilson Harris ever pay any real attention to the importance of the Indigenous
peoples in the Caribbean psyche. Of course, Peter Hulme's Colonial
Encounters blazes a trail through this, embarking on discourse analysis and
image deconstruction that work to uncover the representative project at
the base of so much of early Caribbean/colonial writing.
This volume starts with Krista Thompson's work on postcard depictions
as a way of selling the region and moves through Peter Roberts' discussion
of nineteenth century representations of the Caribbean, Cecily Jones' work
on women writing in the region, comparing Mary Prince and Lady Maria
Nugent's diaries, up to Kim Robinson Walcott's work on White West Indian
writers and their place in the West Indies, and closes with a tribute to Cuban
writer and critic, Antonio Benitez Rojo who endowed us with many of the
words we use to read and write the Caribbean. Both Jones and Robinson
Walcott grapple with the theme of colour, which is certainly charged in the
Caribbean context, as the region's creoleness, that Benitez Rojo argues for,
is so often collapsed into a monolithic blackness. These two critics work to
illustrate how complex these racial realities are, and in Jones' essay
particularly how the intersection of race and gender, as well as class, are
paramount to any discussion on representations of Caribbean women, whom
the west has always hyper-exoticised. Jones, then, illustrates not only the
contrast of discourse and the gaze between a white woman and a black
woman, she furthers this by illustrating how Maria Nugent's position of power
compared to Mary Prince's assumed lack of power work to illuminate real
representative differences that Jones argues are based on race and class,
but this racial disjuncture is never a facile boundary. There is always discord
within the assumed homogeneity of shared gender, race and class. There
are few literary comparisons of two Caribbean texts that so clearly show the
disparities between these two female subject positions.
4 IAN A. BETHELL BENNETr
In Adams' essay, she reads Jamaica Kincaid's short story 'Ovando' to
illustrate how Kincaid tackles the misconstrued representation the
Conquistadores penned of the region and the people they met there. Kincaid
debunks the myth of simple acceptance of their plight, by creating a fictional
response to the dread of 'discovery' and subsequent colonisation. In Krista
Thompson's essay, 'Postcards to History,' the images picked to represent
the Bahamas during its colonial period are presented and, in a manner of
speaking, disarmed. Thompson also illustrates how these pictures become
the Bahamas and are used to sell the destination. Later, these same
photographic renderings are redeployed back to the Bahamas as images
(valid or not) of its past. These postcards then become a part of the country's
historical discourse despite their constructed nature. They illustrate the
continued nature of Western re-presentations of the Caribbean.
Carmen Gillespie's interview with Diva Alexander in Barbados illustrates
how representations and realities often digress rather dramatically. The image
of the Caribbean as lascivious, immoral, sexually depraved and available is
taken to task here where Gillespie's interviewee tells us that gender is an
extremely important factor in Caribbean/Barbadian culture and that, in
actuality, Barbados is not an easy place to be a drag queen performer. The
apparent free-living destination is not so liberal when it comes to dealing with
themes of gender transgressions and sexuality, particularly when it is a local
who is pushing the boundaries. Diva and Gillespie destabalise the image of
loose morality and permissiveness, by illustrating that Barbados is really a very
conservative space, which departs sharply from the image created by tourism
and in the tourist mind.
Stephen Wilkinson's work on stereotypical representations of Blacks and
Chinese in Cuban detective novels is a significant study into an area where
very little work has been done. Meanwhile, it shows how representations
can also be constructed from within the region and the culture to marginalize
'minorities' in a country's local discourse. It unpicks the images presented
of blacks and Chinese in Cuban society, and by so doing illustrates that a
great deal of misinformation and representation underpins the images
constructed of these two marginal groups within the mainstream imagination.
Charlotte Ward's contribution is an important look at how, even without
firsthand experience artists like Wallace Stevenson constructed an image of
the Caribbean that would remain in the North American imaginary for
decades, fossilising the region into an artist's rendition of what the region is.
The region is usurped of its authority to present itself by individuals similar
to Stevens who, inhabit the location of power and are thereby empower to
speak for, or represent the Caribbean without ever stepping foot there. This
is similar to Diane Accaria-Zavala's essay on the film The Americano, which
she claims is the Monroe doctrine on film. The film, as does much of
Hollywood representations of the time, imbricates the region within the
delimited space of exotic other, silent and therefore unable to speak for itself.
It is the aim of this issue to dispel some of the representations, stereotypical
or atypical, of the region constructed with an eye to objectify the Caribbean
into exotic dreamscape. It is hoped that this issue will spark discussion, which
will evoke changes and also lead to more challenges to stereotypical cultural
representations. With these facts in mind, it is easy to re-read the region as a
repeating island, not to collapse any country's specificity into an unreal or
imagined sameness of the stereotype. But rather to illustrate yet another level
to Benitez Rojo's interpretation of Fernando Ortiz's contrapunteo, an
interpretation that shows how similar representations of the West Indies repeat
themselves across the region like the violence of sugarcane farming did in the
nineteenth century. Benitez Rojo has provided the field of Caribbean cultural
studies with an invaluable tool, the ability to articulate in a concise term the
shared nature, the creole culture of Caribbean societies.
What the essays here belie is that there is more to Caribbean realities
than just the representation/image of happy exotic people content with their
position in life and happy to serve the visitors to their blue water-, white sand-
, bright sun-destination. It is a geographic space that goes beyond any one-
dimensional rendering of western representation. There are omissions on the
basis of the theoretical considerations that brought the issue together. But
themes that did not fit in here are left for later issues that will deal with them.
The very image used on the cover demonstrates the varied representations
of the Caribbean, but it also speaks volumes of minute ways in which it can
be re-read to unpick the same representations it is an agent in perpetuating.
The woman on the cover, for example, may represent the symbol of the West
Indian/Caribbean beast of burden Zora Neale Hurston decries in Tell My Horse,
but she also offers a minimal, yet powerful discordant note to simply being
a poor, black, hard-working woman. This issue hopes to spark discussion,
upset established discourses and to, in some ways, question what we accept
as the view of ourselves as they see us, which is imbricated in the colonial
Ian A. Bethell Bennett
"Barbados, the land of pretense..."
A Conversation with Diva
Alexander de Beauvoir
Interview by Carmen R. Gillespie
University of Toledo
Recorded in St. James, Barbados on July 27, 2002
Contemporary Barbadian culture is a postmodern and variegated
terrain comprised of multiple perspectives emanating from the
histories of colonization, slavery, tourism, independence, post-
colonization, and neo-colonization. The people who live on the small island
nation of Barbados continually absorb a confluence of complex cultural and
historical currents; however, textual representations of Barbados and the
Caribbean in general gravitate towards two extremes. On one hand, there is
an important and growing range of interdisciplinary scholarship about the
Caribbean as well as an acclaimed body of literature. On the other hand,
there is also a pervasive counter-narrative that, unfortunately, is more familiar
to the general public. Tourist guide books, films, and advertisements create
a powerful portrait of the Caribbean that reduces its complex histories,
cultures, and intellectual traditions to invisibility and erects a portrait of the
Caribbean as the ultimate earthly paradise-a terrain at once primal and
contained, where the fantasy of happy and accommodating "natives" reduces
the residents of the various islands to the status of willing and benign
The complex economic negotiations generated by the Caribbean's
arguably necessary dependence on tourism perpetuate homogenous
constructions of the region and even motivate reductive and complicit self-
depictions. For example, the official website of Barbados' Tourism Authority
describes Barbados, and more importantly, Bajans themselves in the
Barbados is a very beautiful island, with lots of art, activities, night life,
music, history, and some of the best restaurants to be found anywhere.
GILLESPIE / DE BEAUVOIR
But what makes Barbados even more special, and the reason why so
many visitors keep returning to the island year after year, is the people.
Barbadians, called Bajans, are warm and friendly souls, always ready to
greet you with a sincere smile. Barbadians make you feel welcome and
special, in this lovely Caribbean Island. You'll feel its your home and you
will want to come back again and again [...]
In this representation, the people of Barbados become its most valuable
commodity because of their "natural" ability to serve and placate the tourist
/ consumer. This depiction is the most familiar portrait of Barbadians and of
the resi dents of the Caribbean generally. As Polly Pattullo has written,
Not only the place but the people, too, are required to conform to this
stereotype. The Caribbean person, from the Amerindians whom
Columbus met in that initial encounter to the twentieth-century taxi-
driver whom tourists meet at the airport, are expected to satisfy those
images associated with paradise and Eden. The images are crude: of
happy carefree, fun-loving men and women, colourful in behaviour,
whose life is one of daytime indolence beneath the palms and a night-
time of pleasure though music, dance and sex (142).
The historical weight of these images is overwhelming and highlights the
necessity of textual interventions in the interruption of these discourses.
In addition to the political work of fictional texts by Caribbean writers,
oral narratives from Caribbean peoples open the door for the rewriting of
these limited and limiting constructions. In Bajan vernacular, the word
doormouth means a threshold. The oral narrative format becomes a
doormouth-an opportunity to resist the hegemonic representations of the
people of the Caribbean through the centering of autobiographical self-
representation. The potentially resistive qualities of oral narrative mirrors
the work of Caribbean fiction writers such as Maryse Conde and Michelle
Cliff, who use their texts to "rediscover their pasts and rewrite their history
in their own words, transforming that which has been suppressed by those
who have held cultural power" (Herndon 731). For example, Michelle Cliff's
creation of the transgendered Harry/Harriet character in her novel No
Telephone to Heaven is perhaps one of the most compelling representations
of the multiplicity and liminality of the Caribbean. Cliff's Harry/Harriet
inhabits and epitomizes the complexities of post-colonial Caribbean
identities-following a brutalizing and violating youth, Harry/Harriet is both
a vital and insightful center for "her" community, yet s/he is not only
unappreciated, s/he experiences a prophet's rejection. S/he also embodies
revolutionary resistance grounded in a rejection of the political, economic,
and ideological systems that are the source of the oppressions s/he
"BARBADOS ." A CONVERSATION WITH DIVA ALEXANDER
As Francoise Lionnet has asserted, the writings of Caribbean authors
such as Cliff enact "an unrelenting search for a different past, to be exhumed
from the rubble of patriarchal and racist obfuscations" (4). Oral narratives
facilitate the same representationn of the Caribbean subject by refocusing
the gaze from outsider to insider and by allowing for the reclamation of
narrative control. The following interview with Bajan transgendered
performer Diva Alexander de Beauvoir is a model for the reclamation of
narrative constructions through the act of self-representation. As Diva
explains, her public performance of female gender identification is both
revolutionary and resistant and, as such, is often experienced as extremely
threatening and dangerous. Significantly, at the time of this writing Diva is
also the only openly gay, transgendered calypsonian on the island, performing
with one of the most respected and popular tents on the island, Virgin
Atlantic. She writes her own material, and performs during Barbados' annual
carnival, Cropover. She conceives of herself as a trailblazer and freedom
fighter whose resistance to oppression has libratory possibilities not only
for her self, but also potentially for Barbados and the world. This interview
with her provides a window, or a doormouth, into an important and relatively
unexplored aspect of anglophone Caribbean cultures and presents revealing
insights regarding the intersections of performance, gender, identity,
nationalism, and culture. The interview that follows is Diva's frank, revealing,
and often wrenching account of her life.
To begin our interview, I asked Diva questions about her family of origin
and her life experiences. These questions revealed a deep sense of pessimism
and an almost jeremiad-like sense of the decline of the Bajan social and moral
10 GILLESPIE / DE BEAUVOIR
"That's what I like about me, the element of surprise."
CG- You were born in Barbados? You've been here your whole life?
DA- Yes, I've been here my whole life. I've been born here. Went to school
here. Went to college here. A different environment would do me a lot
of good. It has changed over the years. I am thirty-three next month.
I've seen changes gradually, like ten-year periods, decades of changes
which have been taking place here. In terms of social standing-in
terms of social manners there is a change. A very strong change.
CG- Do you mean people are more accepting?
DA- No, I find people are more aggressive these days. They are not as
genuine. They are not as caring as they were years ago. We were poor,
but you could depend upon your neighbor for anything. I mean, I grew
up in a middle class society, but I-my mother didn't raise me-my
aunt raised me. We had it all, but my mother was very poor and I used
to go there on summers to visit my siblings. And there was a difference,
but it was much happier with them. You were very satisfied with what
you had and you made do with what you had. I lived all over. I moved
like twelve times in my life. I didn't stay in any particular area for too
long. It was like a five-seven year span and then I moved on. It wasn't
my doing. It was my parents. My foster parents I should say.
CG- What do you think is causing the change in Bajan culture?
DA- Ok. The first thing I can probably say is drugs. There is a definite clamor
for money and for fast money and that in itself is causing the social
fabric to decline or to shred away. Because everybody wants to have a
big car, big house, nice clothes. Money in the pocket. Everybody is
looking at what everybody else has and they're not saying, "hey my
turn will come." We're not all supposed to be on the same level.
Everybody is just like, "I must have this I must have that 'cause Jones
has that I must have that too," and because of that we find people
putting themselves in debt, way out of their boundary and then having
to-how should I say-having to deal with it, then having to make the
money quickly . drugs, whether it be. . prostitution. When I say
prostitution I don't mean standing on the street corner because there
are men and women selling their bodies without standing on the street
corner. But when you think about it, it is all prostitution. When they
have a man or a boyfriend who comes to their house or whatever It's
the same thing as far as I'm concerned.
CG- So are you saying that prostitution presents a viable avenue for
people to make money here?
"BARBADOS.. ." A CONVERSATION WITH DIVA ALEXANDER 11
DA- It is easy if selling your soul is easy, if you don't want to get up and
work. 'Cause what is really happening here is that a lot of young guys
on the street... Don't know whether it is lack of love or solace in their
home, because I find a lot of young boys lack a certain degree of
nurturing from their mothers and their fathers. I talk to them and I try
to understand why they do the things they do. Some of them hustle for
money. I mean I call up and offer and I say I have someone here who
wants a job whether it be pumping gas, working on a plantation
whatever. I think a job is a job is a job is a job as long as you're getting
money. They don't want to do that. They don't want a job where they
have to labor too hard or sweat, or go through too many wears and
tears. They just want the money put in their hand. They go off and they
shop with that. That is a generation of spoiled children. That's what I
call them. I worked at supermarkets, picked potatoes. I cut cane. This
is when I was young because I had to do it because I wanted the
experience and I was in cadets and look at me today-hey, hey, hey.
It's [cadets] kind of a military thing and nobody would ever look at me
and think I had done these things.
That's what I like about me, the
element of surprise.
Back to your question about it being
easier. I couldn't do it. I couldn't be
a prostitute because it takes a lot of
.. that level of psychological wear
and tear of it I couldn't deal with. I
am a very spiritual person ... in the
context of not religious but spiritual
about my soul and my being and my
purpose. And prostitution, I am not
beating anybody, but I couldn't do it.
Having sex with ten to twelve people
a night. I couldn't do it There are
some people who can get it done. I
can give you some names and you
can go in the street and talk to them.
Believe it or not when we first started
doing the show at Ragamuffins, a lot
of the locals thought that we were
prostitutes in a glamified arena. It
only came up after this guy who was
gay said that a lot of folks think that
you pick up these white people. Said
[inhalation of breath] and laughed
12 GILLESPIE / DE BEAUVOIR
it off but after got home I said to myself, I guess if was them looking in
at the whole thing... I did a lot of raunchy stuff at first. We have children
coming in and everything and I toned it right down. A lot of people
thought that we were selling our bodies and I thought-"Oh my God."
CG- Is your family accepting of who you are?
DA- My family loves me. They think that lam the best, the bomb everything.
They know me from small. It's something that they tried to fight, but
then they say hey, I'm a person. I have something to do. I'm not robbing,
killing stealing I'm just doing my thing. If we were to come together
and pool our resources, Iam sure that we could do something fabulous.
We have a lot of talent in Barbados, but a lot of people who are here
are not given the chances. People that should have explored and
expanded their talents.
CG- Do you use the name Diva exclusively now?
DA- Everybody knows me as Diva. And frankly, that name was pinned on
me twelve years ago. Idid not like it. Before, everybody was "Diva this
Diva that. These girls from the Bahamas-I used to do a lot of shows
at the campus [University of the West Indies, Cave Hill] here. I used to
do a lot of queen shows here and the kids would see me coming and
call out "Diva!" and I hated it because I thought it was an old washed
up singer. But afterI won this queen show, I had no name and I thought,
"what am I going to call myself?" Then we met this guy called Alex and
we were very good friends and up to the night of the show I had no
name. I need a name so I said my name was Diva Gabriella ... I had
this long name that I could not remember when Igot on stage and I was
in my national costume and thinking what am I going to say?So I said,
"my name is Diva Alexander," and it went from there. Hence Diva was
born. l added the de Beauvoir, to see beauty or of seeing beauty, because
I like French. I studied French and I like the tongue and the language.
This African friend of mine gave me another name, Mundia.
CG- Do you find that women are jealous of you?
DA- Girl! Why did you have to go there? Women here are so insecure. Like
on a fine day where I will be walking and looking foxy, when I wear
wigs and the men were checking you. And the women will say, "what
are you looking at that for?" She has a man. I don't. What's the big
CG- Are you dating anyone now?
DA- Sorta kinda. Sorta kinda. I like strong men. Not physically strong. Strong
here [indicates heart]. A man who will get me to do what they want in
a smart way. Not physical strength. Itmustbe up here [indicates head].
"BARBADOS ..." A CONVERSATION WITH DIVA ALEXANDER 13
CG- How do you define beauty? What is beautiful to you?
CG- So then, why the emphasis on the physical?
DA- The physical is just a symbolic thing. Beauty to me is in the spirit. I
look into the eyes. Beauty to me is a thing that flows like the chi. It
CG- Do you have any drag kings here? Women who are dressed like men?
DA- We have girls here who actually pass for guys on the block. Up to two
days ago, I myself was looking at this guy walking and Bianca [one of
the other performers in Diva's Ragamuffins show] said, "that is a
girl," and Isaid, "What?! A girl as in a girl?" She said, "That is a woman
not a man there."
Oh my god. It was like a paradigm shift. There she was eyeing me and
I was eyeing her and I just laughed. It was funny. We have girls here
who look like real guys. Some have like a beard thing going on. Some
have breasts taped. This girl's name is Shelley but she goes by Shawn
and you would never know. She looks like a beach boy. She had me
going for a while and I had her going at one point too. Another girl too
that I used to hang with. She was a lesbian. She died. God rest her. This
is for you girl [pours some of her wine on the ground].
CG- What does spirituality mean to you?
DA- Well it doesn't matter what color you are. If you're gay or you're straight.
He [God] ain't about that. There are some gay people who are very
nice. There are some that are very nasty. There are some straight people
who are very nice and some who are very nasty. The rain falls on the
just and the unjust and people need to understand that spiritual means
not physical. We really need to look into that. Churches don't teach
people what they need to know. They just want people to come to
church-put money in that box. They're not feeding them the truth. As
long as I am here and God give me the breath, I will educate people
about what I know and what works for me.
We have to respect the Earth number one because she's our foundation.
Respect each other 'cause we're all part of each other. We're all family.
You are my sister. You are my brother. In this world when you get
anything, give it back. It's not yours. If you get a blessing today, give it
back tomorrow. Share it with somebody. Don't keep it. If you're born
into money, blessed are you, but give something. Do something for
somebody. Plant a tree. Do something. Give the Earth back her due
and that's what we're not doing. We're concentrating on money. Money's
the biggest thing now for people.
14 GILLESPIE / DE BEAUVOIR
I think my karma put me here, butl yearn to be in Europe all the time.
But my karma set me in a third world country, in the tropics, in a hot
climate. I love the fall. I don't like the snow, but I like the fall. I like that
cool weather I always did. [In Europe] I wasn't wearing jackets and
people were like, "what's wrong with you guys? How come you are not
cold?" I said, "'cause I don't feel cold." It was a beautiful experience.
Really, really lovely.
CG- Earlier you said that you cut cane when you were younger. What
was it like for you?
DA- It was fun. I didn't do it to make money. I just did it because I wanted
to see what it felt like. I wouldn't do everything, but there are some
things I would try. I wanted to feel my ancestral vibes coming through
say, "hey how did it feel to be in the sun all day doing this?" Wow! I
can't handle this. How did they do this? I am mixed with Arawak. I
am part Panamanian, Arawak, black, and Scottish white. My hands
hurt like hell and that was it. I didn't last a whole day. The sun was
burning down. You have a lot of things going in your face. It's not a
Picking cotton. I want to go and do it. But then a guy said, "You don't
want to go." 'Cause you have to pick so much to make some money
cause you know cotton is... some people put rocks in the bag and stuff
I've washed cars for organizations. I've done things that most people say,
"oh you don't do those things 'cause you do this and you do that." There is
nothing beneath me and there is nothing above me. That's how I look at
CG- Do you watch TV?
DA- Of course.
CG- What do you like to watch?
DA- I don't like those Hallmark movies. I don't like those. I like drama. I
like action. I like science fiction. I want to play on Star Trek. James
Bond. There was a guy two years ago, a director for James Bond, and
he said he wanted me in the next movie, but I don't know. I haven't
heard from him, but I think I would do some damage in that movie.
Grace Jones step back. Let me do my thing. I like movies that have
strong male roles and strong female. Girls must be strong. Must be. I
like Cleopatra Jones. I like Pam Greer. She's a mixture of sex. She's
just ruthless and the thing is that she does it but she is still feminine
about it. She doesn't have to act masculine to do it. I like comedies. To
me black comedies leave a lot to be desired. They are lacking
something, especially black American comedies. They border on sex.
They border on looks. They border on partying. I like Good Times. I
"BARBADOS. ." A CONVERSATION WITH DIVA ALEXANDER 15
like Jeffersons. Moesha. I like Living Single and what's the other one?
Friends. To me those are ok. Then I had another one. That soap opera
Generations. That was nice. Most of the black comedies I don't watch.
I think they are crappy. I love Are You Being Served. It is the ultimate.
The English have a different sense of humor. They are different and
they are very slap stick. I like slap stick in any comedy. It's funny.
"Abstract Is not my thing because I believe anybody can do that."
Although Diva conceptualizes herself as a part of a tradition of
transgendered performers in Barbados, she definitively distinguishes
herself from that legacy through her assertion of the role her show has
played in elevating that tradition. In terms of her self-conception as a
performer, Diva differentiates her show, currently staged at a restaurant
called Ragamuffins, from other such incarnations by what she terms as
its "class." She has a strictly, and rather traditionally structured sense
of cultural capital that manifests itself in her discussions of clothing,
manners, speech, and other factors that for her are markers of
sophistication and propriety.
Diva is a multifaceted artist whose palette colors a multiplicity of generic
canvases. She understands performance as a calling and her artistic
production manifests itself as performance. Performance, in her
conception, has tremendous agency and is inseparably connected to
the imperative of catalyzing spiritual and intellectual understanding
and transformation in others. The responses Diva generates from her
various audiences are also potentially revelatory of the relationship
between nationalism, popular cultures, and mimesis.
CG- Was yours the first transgendered show in Barbados?
DA- Well, not in Barbados. The first show of class. There were shows before
in the city [Bridgetown]. Just little hush hush things on Baxter's Road.
Yeah, they used to have these little shows when I was a child. They had
all of these different shows in the city. They were not as classy. What
I'm doing here is to desensitize the public and to show them that-hey,
people who you all consider different contribute in good ways to make
people happy Tourists come to Ragamuffins to see our show. We've
been in several magazines outside the country. We've been in Hello
magazine. We've been in Girl Talk in San Diego. We've been in
numerous magazines and I believe we must be doing something right
in order for this to be happening. It's the strength of God and my
willpower that keeps it going. We've been to London and we did
performances in London.
CG- So you do shows all over the Caribbean, the world?
16 GILLESPIE / DE BEAUVOIR
DA- Not the world. I'd do one in Japan. That's the place I want to go next,
and Paris. I've been to the U.S. I've been to San Diego. I want to go to
Miami I've been to New York several times, not to perform, just to go
and relax. I feel more comfortable in Europe, Italy. I've stopped off in
Switzerland for a short while. Europe is my playground. If you believe
in reincarnation, I've been told that my roots are in Tolange, France.
CG- What do you think you'll find there?
DA- Heaven knows. I'm not interested in what I'm going to find. I just want
to know why. I just want to go with my feeling here. I don't know. There
must be something. I don't know if sometimes you have an emptiness,
whether it be a quest to find God or a quest to find your soul mate or to
find peace and solace. There's always an emptiness there that you're
looking to fill and that could be part of it too.
CG- You mentioned art. Do you draw as well?
DA- I'm an artist.
CG- What kind of work do you do?
DA- I do still life. I do portraits. Abstract is not my thing because I believe
anybody can do that. This is art that I am doing now with the dancing.
I am a fashion designer. I design all of the clothes for the show. I'm a
big tall girl. I do weddings, I do pageants. As long as you have a
foundation and a basis to be an artist you can do anything. I used to do
graphic art at one point when I was seventeen. I did graphics. I did
animation. It was just a matter of getting somebody to say you have too
much talent, use it.
CG- Do you do the choreography for the show?
DA- I do. We make it as tight as possible. Some of us sing. Some don't. But
I try to get the girls [the other transgendered performers in Diva's
show, Bianca and Holly] to rehearse. The big one, [Bianca] she's a
dancer. She's a star, so you don't have to get her to do anything. She is
a professional dancer so she is very nonchalant about rehearsing. But
you need to rehearse. As a group of us there are three of us with totally
different personalities. The two of them get on my nerves especially
when we are traveling. Like I want to keep everybody in order 'cause
they are like here, there, everywhere. "Laughter, laughter, laughter."
It's a big party for them and so much noise. I have a vision. I know
where I want to go with this group. This group can go so far. They have
to decide if they want to go too. I'm not going to have anybody hanging
on my coattails. I have a vision and I know I must reach it. I must. I've
been through too much in this country. I have to prove to myself that I
can do it.
"BARBADOS..." A CONVERSATION WITH DIVA ALEXANDER 17
CG- When I was talking to you all the other day and I said "drag," Bianca
said that this is not a word that you use.
DA- We call it "showgirls. We are showgirls. We do a show and we put on
a show that is full of class. I've seen drag shows before and there is a
difference to what we do. Drag shows are gaudy sometimes and
everything is exaggerated. You find a lot of the queens go overboard.
The attitude is nasty. They perform and they do some strange things.
So we don't say "drag." We say "showgirls." That's the international
CG- Are you able to work exclusively at Ragamuffins and support
DA- No, that's a side thing. I work during the week. We don't only do
Ragamuffins. We do the hotels. It's a circuit that we do. We've done
Sandy Lane [the most exclusive and expensive hotel on the island]
once or twice. They're a bit strange.
CG- Do you have to deal with a lot of obnoxious tourists?
DA- No, not really. I normally lay down the law very early. Holly is very
passive and Bianca is very aggressive, and I am very firm.
CG- Do you chose your own music for the shows?
DA- I do songs that first of all when you listen to it had a kind of feeling.
Neal, the owner [of Ragamuffins], likes a lot of techno stuff He is
British. But you feel the music. There are some songs that I would do
that I just didn't feel. It has to have something that can do, something
dramatic. When I can burst out in flames. I do songs that are very
strong women. I'm a disco freak.
The karaoke bar next door is trying to drown us out. [Next door to
Ragamuffins restaurant, where Diva's show is held each Sunday, there
is a karaoke bar. The noise level competition between the people
singing karaoke and Diva's show is indicative of some of the hostility
her show generates.] When we first started doing the show, they did
not have karaoke there. We started pulling crowds. They had karaoke
on Saturday nights. Our show is on Sunday. He [Neal, the owner of the
karaoke bar] went through the gap [Bajan term for street] and said
well hey, "I'm having the show on Sunday." They saw the crowd coming
and they decided to do it on Sunday too. After a while it was a
competition between us two. We got loud. They got louder and it went
out of hand. Then one night Neal called the police and they got offended
and it was on from then. I would think that after four years they would
get accustomed to what it is. We started in February 1998. So it's four
18 GILLESPIE / DE BEAUVOIR
CG- Do you have fans?
DA- We have fans and regulars. A lot of kids like me. They chase me around
the hotels. The men here like tall women and women with big butts.
It's not a West Indian thing to be tall, but when they see one they think
it's something else.
Y'all didn't come to see my tent? [calypso tent during Barbados' annual
carnival. Cropover] This is my fourth season. I was the biggest secret
in the whole tent. People kept it hush hush. People came to see who
this Diva was. Was it a man or was it a woman? That was the thing and
I brought so many people to the tent that year. I did Whitney Houston.
The next year, 2000, Isang two Calypsos. So I've been doing that since.
CG- You wrote them yourself?
DA- Yeah. I write all my songs. Say if you give me a song andIsing it. I don't
feel it and I don't know what you want me to say. So I write from here
[indicating her heart]. I've started writing songs for next year. God
spare my life next year.
CG- Where did you go to school?
DA- I went to Combermere [one of the best preparatory schools on the
island]. I had a good time at Combermere. At college I had a good
time. I was supposed to go to Queen's College, but my uncle did
something wrong and Combermere was my third choice. Igot the marks
for Queen's College, but I did not go. He went to Combermere so he
said, "no you are going to Combermere. "It doesn't matter though where
you go. It's who you are when you come out. So I don't bother about
school. Like Morehouse and Harvard and Princeton.
CG- What was your calypso about this year ?
DA- It's called, "Taking Too Long to Come." It is a double entendre. People
thought it was something nasty. It was about politics and the country.
Things are so slow in this country to happen and people promising to
do things and can't get it done. The opening was like, I was in my
nighty sleeping and my husband or boyfriend call and I was asking
where was he and saying, "I was waiting on you so long to come. "And
then I tell him don't bother coming. 'Cause that's how the women do it.
You know they wait for their boyfriends. And most of the guys go and
then drink drink with their friends and then they come home two, three
o'clock and then have sex. So that's what I was trying to portray. Hey,
I know what y'all do too. And it was funny for a lot of people. I had on
this duster. And when the band strikes up, I have on this glamorous
gown. And everybody said, "Wow. Oh my God." Everybody thought
that was something different, but I didn't do justice there 'cause it was
only one song. Next year I'm going to put my all in to it. 'Cause there
"BARBADOS.. ." A CONVERSATION WITH DIVA ALEXANDER
are so many things that you can sing about and people are going to
hate you for what you sing about but it's a matter of you being honest
about what you sing about. But you have to educate the people about
what you sing.
CG- Do you wish you were born a woman?
DA- Yes Ido. I mean, to emulate a woman. Imean, I admire women because
they are really strong and women to me have a lot more to contribute
than men. Men have it made but you notice how the trend is shifting.
Women are doing what they are supposed to do. It hurts me when
women put me down 'cause I think so much of them. It hurts me to see
when they look at me dirty and they say mean things about me. I have
nothing against the guys. Believe me, they are such a comfort. But
women, yeah, I've always wanted to be. As you get older, you accept
how you are. You just go along with it. You don't fight it anymore. I
mean, yes I've had this thing about sex change. Those things came into
my mind. I've never had any alterations. Besides, that's a lot of money
as far as I know.
I'm writing a song right now for next year, God spare my life, to sing for
Cropover. It's called "A Song for Men," telling men exactly what their
role is and what they should be doing. You know, and it just came to
me last week. That's how I write my songs. And it is going to be a
beautiful song. I believe so. 'Cause I'm not bashing them. I'm just telling
them hey, this is my opinion. I can help you here. Men are there to
assist and to help. They're not leaders. It's a mutual thing. It's a reciprocal
thing. Men are not leaders because if you notice in ancient tribes, women
were head of the household. They planted food. Men went out and
"I couldn't live any other way and it's sad to be so uncomfortable
in this country and at dis-ease with the whole situation."
Diva's construction of both her private and performative selves
challenges both traditional definitions of masculinity as well as
homogeneous and patriarchal definitions of national identity. Her
philosophy, as articulated in this interview, illuminates the
intersections between definitions of masculinity and nationhood.
Diva embodies J.E. Jer-Don's assertion that "the process by which
homosexuals are marginalized points to an untenable tension in
national identity itself, where the political and cultural energy of
the nation are expended to expunge a homosexuality which,
according to official rhetoric, does not exist" (25). Various episodes
in Diva's narrative expose the tension she experiences as her liminal
subjectivity challenges some patriarchal definitions of Bajan
nationalism. Diva is also convinced that the seemingly impenetrable
GILLESPIE / DE BEAUVOIR
veneer of Bajan masculinity glosses a deeply sexually ambivalent
male population. Although Diva embraces traditionally feminine
behavior and emulates prototypical female pop icons, she proudly
foregrounds the masculine and intimidating aspects of her
physicality when describing instances where she has had to use
these attributes, particularly her six foot four height, in order to
defend herself against assault. Diva's David and Goliath-like
confrontations with authority are, however, the most riveting
narratives in her interview. In these moments, the complex literal
and psychological signifying she engages in reveals the strength of
her character as well as the depth of her commitment to her
startling, compelling, and persuasive philosophy. These episodes
also reveal the enormity of the obstacles she faces.
CG- Let's talk about Barbados and your experiences here.
DA- Barbados, the land of pretense, the land of hypocrisy. That's what you
want to talk about. To be a woman in Barbados is scary. We have a
land here of people who go by certain rules .. certain laws that
have been put in place in the 1870s. Laws that, to me, are not suited
or compatible with the times that we are living in. I'm not saying that
we have to change everything. I don't believe in that. I believe that
when you see society going in a certain direction and things are
happening negatively that you cannot control and being homosexual,
gay, or whatever you want to call it in this country is like most countries
I guess. It's a stigma, a stain on your reputation. It is a blemish. People
scorn you. People heckle you and call you all sorts of nasty names.
We all have a spirit. A soul. Our spirits are either masculine or feminine
S. our spirits have genders too. That is the nucleus of you being
female or male. But sometimes the physical side is not all there. It's
like a key fitting into a key hole. Sometimes it doesn't fit. So there's a
rubbing in that process. I believe strongly that my soul is female.
Strongly. The way I think, never from a male point. But yet I can see
from both sides. So I see both sides of the coin. I see the male side. I
see the female side. That's why I have a certain balance. Most of the
Gods that the Indians and things worshipped are ambiguous, bisexual-
looking gods that to them is a completion or to have that dual thing
CG- What is your experience of transgendered/gay life in Barbados?
DA- I live like this all the time. I get problems, but not a lot of problems.
People get a lot worse than I have. I believe in being true to one's self
and in representing the truth in a very moralistic and decent fashion.
People will accept me eventually and say, "oh she is not so bad. "But
we live in this closet. I don't believe in this bisexuality. They say
"BARBADOS.. ." A CONVERSATION WITH DIVA ALEXANDER 21
bisexual but they will still do stuff with a man. I say basically hey, I've
never been attracted to women. Never slept with one. Never had the
inclination to go with one. So how do you juggle two sexes at the
same time? It must be tremendous. It must be a real burden. I'm not
knocking anybody. Everybody has their own thing. I believe that if the
laws would allow people to be open, we wouldn't have a problem
with being bisexual, not knowing who's gay.
CG- Do you jump? [participate in a band in the Cropover carnival]
DA- I used to. I don't any more.
CG- Why did you stop?
DA- It's no fun anymore to me. The last year thatI jumped, I had five men
on me. I could not get away. No. I thought that if they had the chance
they would drag me off and do something really mean to me. So I
said, "uh, uh. No more for me. "I prefer to watch, and besides, Queen
Elizabeth doesn't jump in a band. I don't need that. It's fun to watch
and the sweatiness. I can't deal with that. You get TB that way.
Now I'm going back to our show. When we first started, our ultimate
aim was to look feminine. You know the epitome of womanhood. We
found that if your lash was hanging, or your wig was twisted, people
liked that. Bianca tries to be very perfect. Bianca is an Aries. Bianca
likes to be perfect. Me now, I look glam, but if my nail is coming off I
don't mind. I mean, there are many times that I took my wig off if it
was shifted. There's a little thing that I do now. I ask if there is a wig
dresser in the house, a hairstylist. Isay, "well honey, do my hair!! And
I take the wig off and give it to her." People like that. We need to stop
being so serious about it. Just bring it down a little bit for a laugh. lam
a big clown. I love RuPaul. RuPaul to me ... has a spirit that a lot of
drag or transgendered people do not have. I love RuPaul. It is RuPaul
who tends to propel me into this whole thing 'cause I wouldn't have
done it before. I was scared to go out like that. I had always had this
feminine thing but I would never go on stage in a dress and perform,
but honey once I started, it was making money. Let's go. But I love
RuPaul. I think RuPaul is fabulous and I think RuPaul has done a lot.
There are a lot of people who do not like RuPaul in the States I
understand. They should say hey, RuPaul has caused a revolution
somewhat. So don't look at it that way. Why hold a grudge? It's like
the gay people here. They grudge each other Most of them don't like
me because I don't go out and hang out. I don't go out and hang out at
the bars hahahahaha. Or they say, "You think that you're so posh. "I
know my place. It's Bajan, but still. What I'm saying is that if Igo to a
gay club or a gay bar. It's like,
22 GILLESPIE / DE BEAUVOIR
"She looks real bad."
"What is that she got on?"
"She with he. Well I had he last week."
I'm like, "I didn't come here for this. So I don't bother to go with
them. They don't like me. Because they see me on TV they don't like
me. Things that I do they cannot do. And they don't understand why.
CG- So you think that there are a lot of closeted people in Barbados?
DA- There are some who do it. As you know there is sex tourism. We don't
want to talk about it because we know what people will do for money.
The society or the family or you know, that kind of thing. It is very,
very rampant. And it's not acceptable to talk about it. So looking at
me is like throwing it in your face. Mind you. I might not get as many
men or any men. I found a trend in New York. I go on the sites [web
sites] and I've seen there is a site called BlackMen.com These are
men that look really, really good. The women would go mad. Some of
them have women. Some of them don't. Some of them say they want
guys in the gym. They don't want any fat and I'm like, "what's going
on here?" Nobody wants me. I'll live a lot longer. [laughs] To work so
hard. To lose so many lives. To fight Stonewall just to go back into the
closet. It's like you're regressing. It's very sad because in five years
time, what are we going to do? It's sad.
CG- Would you say that there is a gay community here in Barbados?
DA- Of course. We don't have any gay clubs as such, but there are places
where gays hang out. At Ragamuffins [the location of the show] we
get more straights. I don't really go out. I do my job. Go home. That's
me. We have a large gay community. Very large. Then you have the
straggle-ons-the bisexuals. Mostly it's at private houses. You go to
these private parties. It's a cliche thing. You hear about a party and
you would be surprised who is there-ministers, government officials.
People go because they want to rub shoulders with somebody. It's big.
It's big. What else is causing people to be inert in their behavior is
Jamaican dub-culture, but yet they have a large gay tourism. They
always sing, from as far back as I could remember, about Mama Mash
and, what else was there? Shabba Ranks started it Mama Mash and
Aunty Man, Batty Boy and this new word "chi chi man" so everything
is related to this [dub] and encouraging young people to hate them.
And I am saying if you don't like it, why put in such interest and such
energy towards it? ffI don't like something, I'm not going to sing about
it. The singing about it is going to be very minimal in my song. So all
these guys are on the bandwagon to shoot this body. It stirs up violence
and they want to hurt people. It happens here too. It happens here. I
"BARBADOS ..." A CONVERSATION WITH DIVA ALEXANDER
am a person. I can stand up for myself If it means that I have to kill
you before you hurt me then I'm going to do it and I'm very serious,
because I've had incidents in the past where people tried to hurt me
and they were shot. What they are condemning, they go and do the
same thing. With a man or with a woman they do it. They do this thing
about trunking [having anal sex with] women.
CG- So you see yourself as being honest?
DA- I believe I couldn't live any other way and it's sad to be so
uncomfortable in this country and at dis-ease with the whole situation.
Well I like to be myself all the time. I don't want to try and pretend
and say, "Hey, hey. What going on?" I can't deal with that. Too much
on my brain.
CG- Did you have trouble when you were younger with people trying to
threaten you physically?
DA- My childhood was very good. Around seventeen or eighteen, it started
to get very stressful. I have people trying to bully me. I was always a
tough one. I am one who looks very soft, but when you come to me, I
fight you. I don't give up until I see blood coming. I fought all my life.
I used to do martial arts. I use these [indicating her hands], girlfriend.
I have no fear. Igo into place where people would say. "You went up
there?" I don't care. I have to live my life and I'm not going to let
anybody tell me I can't go here or there. When you go to gas stations
and people don't want to serve you, I kick up a fuss and the nasty side
of me comes out. I believe in justice and treating everybody fairly.
And when I see that I say, "hey, uh-uh. People losing jobs for that. Hey,
I'm going to have your job." Simple, simple. Most of the time I get
people just looking. 'Cause I'm so calm.
One day this girl said, "I just want to tell you, I consider you so brave.
You are so cool. How do you keep so?" I meditate all morning.
Whenever I go, wherever I go the father is watching me. Angels are
there. I believe in that strongly. Situations where I could have died, I
just floated right through them. I had an ordeal this year. This is
tantamount to anything that has happened to me so far and in situations
like that quotes from the Bible come to you so easily. And I started to
recite Psalms 27 and I was released from what happened.
CG- What does it mean to you to be a Bajan?
DA- I have no idea what it is. I don't feel like a Bajan. When we have our
independence, I don't feel it. I don't know what it is. I don't really
have that thing. I don't feel like a Bajan to be honest. I am an
international person. I am very global. I think global. I don't want to
say I am a Barbadian. I am this. I am that. I know you Americans say
24 GILLESPIE / DE BEAUVOIR
"God Bless America" and that's what I've found. You Americans are
very patriotic. You wear your flag in clothing. It's not a bad thing. I
find it's very good. You know why? You all have an identity. It's taught
here. When I was in school, we were taught certain things. In terms of
fighting for your country no, 'cause we don't have that experience.
That's why Americans are so patriotic. When they fight for their country,
they come home and they feel good. So I think that's a part of it. "I've
been to war." We don't have that. I take independence to mean that
you are devoid or cut off from certain things. We still have to call on
the crown for certain things. The Privy Council. You have this. You
have that. There are things that are still legally bound.
There is a case going on. I'm suing the police. Right now. I'm not
supposed to talk about it. I went to court. Based on my appearance,
on my looks, on my voice, he [the magistrate] found everything with
me wrong. He started to question me and I had laryngitis that day and
my voice was like a whisper. So he is like, "what is wrong with your
voice?" So I said, "pardon me sir, but I'm just talking, but I have
laryngitis. I found out that he was going through the case and I was
waiting. So he said, "Were you born with that voice?" I said, "Frankly
sir, none of us are born speaking. The whole courtroom laughed out.
He felt bad. He didn't expect me to say that. Then he said, "Your gender
is also determined at birth." "Sir, what does my gender have to do
with this case?" "I see here, you were speeding one hundred miles.
Why is this?"
And this went on for five minutes. So then he said well he's not sure
how to address me. "However you choose, I'll answer." He said, "all
right then. Stand sir." He read me the thing and asked me how I
pleaded He asked me if I had an attorney. I said, no. The fine was
$1000.00 or imprisonment. He said, "anyway, step down."
The man wanted to send me up to Glendairy [the main prison in
Barbados] for four days on remand. I had to call a lawyer. I was in a
cell for four hours at Central Police Station. Police came and escorted
me with gloves on. I was walked across the courtyard. People take my
picture. Put me upstairs. Well, they put me by myself There were
criminals next to me, hardened criminals. I was wondering why this
was happening to me. All I could do was pray. Pray and trust the Lord
to deliver me like Daniel in the lion's den and I got out with a fine of
$500.00. Remember, he said it was $1000.00. Can't respect this country
because of what they've done to me. I am not independent. I am not
free. So I have no independence here. People never understand that.
I'm not free. So I don't identify with anything that they do. When it
comes to independence or waving the flag, I am not a free person. As
"BARBADOS .. ." A CONVERSATION WITH DIVA ALEXANDER 25
far as I'm concerned, I still have shackles on my hands. So until-it
can't be any other way.
When it is finished, lam going public. Isaw the bitch three weeks ago.
He saw me. He almost shit his pants. The way I felt there, I just felt
like ... and when he saw me and I walked straight towards him and
just swerve off like that. He don't know how I felt about him at that
point. I could have done something to him. I know that I would have
been incarcerated, but just to satisfy my thing, just fuck him up. It's so
easy to be violent. So easy. Let him fall on his own ways. Justice is
very important in my book and, I mean, I'm not a lawyer or anything,
but in whatever way I can assist or help people to free themselves
mentally, I will do it.
I was the Investigator [Barbadian tabloid newspaper] cover girl. Years
ago, about 1994, I was paid $1000.00 for the cover. All the real girls
were paid $100.00 and I got $1000.00. That paper sold out within
hours. 'Cause when I went to get one, they were all sold out. Something
got to be working for me. I had on a black suit and a wig. I wanted to
be as covert a possible. Ihad a short wig on like Naomi Campbell and
I had some blacksome silk and everybody loved it.
I had this reverend, that's a woman, called Lucille Baird. She came up
to me in Abed's one day, a store in town: "You shouldn't have done
that You have made God angry." If she could have hit me, she would
have hit me that day and I would have floored her. But that same week
that I was on the cover, a guy had raped an eight year old and threw her
down the well.
I said, "Listen to me. You know nothing about me. You are out of place
to be in my face and telling me what I should be doing. Furthermore,
you don't know who I am inside and now. I am on the cover of this
paper and yet there is a guy who kill and rape a eight year old. What do
you have to say about that?" She had nothing to say about that. But she
coming at me. What I do will affect me and nobody else but me, so you
step off Mind you, a woman who was with her pointed me out to her
And she came over to me huffing and puffing 'cause she had now been
ordained as a priest. I said, 'you need to step back or I will slap you
down. "She don't know. Simple, simple, simple. It was uncalled for.
That's why I don't go to church any more too. I was going to church
and I was going to be baptized right on this very beach and the reverend
refused to baptize me. Refused. I had confirmation class for eight
weeks. He could have told to me that he could not baptize me because,
because, because, because, right? All he kept saying was hair. I had
my hair down to here. [indicates waist] I cut it now. It's a big afro. But
my hair was like down to here.
GILLESPIE / DE BEAUVOIR
He kept saying to cut it and, "it's a shame for a man to have long
hair." "If that's the case, why is it you have a big picture of Christ with
long hair and a mustache to boot?" He said, "You shouldn't challenge
I said, "If I can't challenge it, then I'm not going to be in this church."
'Cause I need to challenge things and know why. I can'tjust sit down
and you tell me why. No way. He wait 'till we got on the beach. Seven
o'clock in the morning. I had the robe in my hand to put on and the
man snatched the robe from me. I can't baptize you. I walked home
and I cried like a baby. I walked right up that road and I cried. I get
home and I bawl. Bawl like a little child.
My hair was natural. I went straight to Carlton [a supermarket] and
bought a relaxer [to straighten hair]. I needed something to bring me
back But when I went home, I sat in my front door and I heard a
voice. I hear people saying how they does hear this voice and I was
like, that's bullshit. I hear this voice, so what's wrong? "I seek your
heart not your clothes. I don't care what you wear." This voice is
telling me this. And I was like, this I -my mind playing upon me. It
was God telling me, "Look, Idon't care what you wear. Just make sure
that your heart is right. Make sure that you do good to people. You are
a shining light and example." And that's what I try to be now. I try to
be a good example for my kindred who don't back me who hate me
but yet, I had to say to myself, if I wasn't a strong person I would have
I am writing a novel, Glass Houses. That was the first title. I have
several titles that I was going through. I've got to live a little more,
baby. I believe in the future to come you're going to find a lot more
people like me. I'm just like the catalyst of what is to come. I don't
think anybody's crazy. A lot of people they have in the institutions are
not crazy. When they start to take medication, that's when they go
crazy. We all have the capacity to think for ourselves. The mind is a
very masterful thing, but is also a very dangerous thing. I'm going to
write everything. There is still a lot I have to learn.
The interview with Diva creates a space within which to experience the largely
unheard stories that allow for the representationn of subjective experience
and for the interruption of the objectification of Caribbean lived experience.
Diva's narrative and other first person accounts of Caribbean life create a
threshold through which new ways of understanding history, race, gender,
class, ethnicity, sexuality, nationalism, and culture become possible. Through
her forthright disclosures, the interview with Diva challenges the
homogeneity and unidimensionality of popular constructions of Barbados
and the Caribbean by revealing through a subjective and marginalized vantage
"BARBADOS..." A CONVERSATION WITH DIVA ALEXANDER 27
point the myriad complexities of contemporary Bajan culture. Diva's narrative
illustrates the necessity of textual interventions in challenging the dominant
narratives regarding Caribbean peoples and in replacingg the act of narrative
representation within the control of the people of the Caribbean themselves.
28 GILLESPIE / DE BEAUVOIR
Barbados Tourism Authority Web Site. http://www.barbados.org/. (October
Cliff, Michelle. No Telephone to Heaven. New York: Dutton, 1987.
Herndon, Gerise. "Gender Constructions and Neocolonialism." World
Literature Today 67 (Autumn 1993): 731-737.
Jer-Don, J.E. "The Literary Insertion of Homosexuality in Caribbean
Identities." Diss. Brandeis University, 1998.
Pattullo, Polly. Last Resorts: The Cost of Tourism in the Caribbean. Kingston,
Jamaica: lan Randle, 1996.
Postcards to History: Tourist Representations
and the Construction of Postcolonial
Histories in the Anglophone Caribbean
Krista A. Thompson
University of Chicago
I distrusted the idea of glamour that was given us by postcards and
postage stamps (ideas repeated by our local artists): certain bays,
certain buildings, our mixed population.
V.S. Naipaul, A Way in the World, 1994
Today, nostalgic wonderful and tearful archeology (Oh! those colonial
days!) are very much in vogue. But to give in to them is to forget a
little too quickly the motivations and the effects of this vast operation
of systematic distortion. It is also to lay the groundwork for its return
in a new guise: a racism and xenophobia titillated by the nostalgia of
the colonial empire.
Malek Alloula, The Colonial Harem, 1986
I happened upon the old postcard of the Bahamas in a box labeled "West
Indies" in the back of an antique collectors' shop in Atlanta (fig. 1).
Discolored by time, its once vibrant colors appeared monochrome and
marked by the geographic distance it had traveled. One tourist, who had
visited Nassau in 1936, had purchased and sent the card to Miss Isabel
Gracely, her niece, in North Carolina. What, I wondered, had caught her eye
in this particular image of a young black Bahamian on a mule-drawn pull
cart framed by an arch of blooming bougainvillea? Why had she, just as I
had pulled out this particular representation from its dusty home, chosen
I paused at the old souvenir because it immediately triggered a memory.
My grandmother had once described the postcard to me with a tinge of
30 KRISTA A. THOMPSON
1W AM J R
Figure 1. James Sands, Two Natives Nassau, Bahamas, postmarked 1936, postcard.
3 1/2 x 5 1/2 in. The handwritten commentary on the card reads, "How would you
like to have this to ride down Congress St. doing what Eunice always [sic] wanted
to do in an auto. Aunt Syl." Collection of author.
uncharacteristic resentment. She recalled having worked for a store on the
island that had sold a postcard of a black man and a donkey, which was
sardonically captioned "Two Natives." As my eyes rest on the title of my
postcard discovery, I remembered her chagrin. Every time she was left alone
in the shop she would secret away the card equating the black Bahamian and
animal, ensuring that tourists would neither see nor collect it as a souvenir.
Despite these covert actions by my grandmother (and perhaps other black
Bahamians), a woman identified as "Aunt Syl" on the card did precisely procure
this image to send overseas. Perhaps to Miss Gracely, the addressee on the
card, the image of the black Bahamian, so offensive to one local shopkeeper,
was representative of "Nassau," as the caption also specified.
My concern in this essay, however, is not with senders or recipients: I am
primarily interested in the contemporary meanings of turn-of-the-twentieth-
century postcards for persons like my grandmother, in other words, for local
audiences. In recent years, these old postcards have been "returned to
sender," or at least returned "home" to their place of origin. Since the 1990s,
the century-old postcards have gained widespread visibility in the Bahamas
and throughout the Anglophone Caribbean region as local collectors have
actively acquired photographs and postcards of the islands dating from the
POSTCARDS TO HISTORY 31
late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries from throughout the globe.
They have published their global acquisitions in popular locally published
pictorial history books. Nostalgic Nassau (1991), Jamaica as It Was (1991),
Glimpses at Our Past: A Social History of the Caribbean through Postcards (1995),
Bygone Barbados (1998), Reminiscing: Memories of Old Nassau (1999), The
Bahamas in White and Black: Images from the Golden Age of Tourism (2000),
and A Journey of Memories [Trinidad] (2000) are but a representative sample
of these types of publications. This essay attempts to trace some of the
implications of these postcards, once issued to envious recipients or collected
as tourists' mementoes, on local memory and popular history on the islands.
It calls attention to the consequences, contradictions, and even dangers of
framing these cards as -to quote one publication- "our past." The conclusion
describes an exhibition of colonial photographs and postcards I curated,
which precisely explored the limits of reflecting on "our histories" in the
image pool of touristic representations.
By focusing on the afterlife of tourism-oriented photographs in
contemporary Anglophone Caribbean societies, I aim to build on prevailing
interpretations of colonial representations. While over the last thirty years
a substantial literature has developed on how "the West" imaged other
cultures and regions, few studies consider how such image worlds were
received and interpreted by the colonized.' This omission is especially
notable given that numerous scholars have called on researchers to be more
responsive to the multiple audiences and meanings of Orientalist
representations.2 These revisionists have, however, typically restricted their
own analyses to the reception of colonial imagery in Europe and Euro-
America. Even scholars who research the photographic traditions in the non-
Western world, "photography's other histories," have not interrogated the
possible interpretations and uses of colonial photographs in these societies.3
Rather historians of photography have been attentive to how colonized
peoples fashioned themselves as modern subjects in the photographic
medium in the postcolonial period,4 frequently in contradistinction to colonial
photographs. Less work has analyzed how local inhabitants reconstructed
their identities and histories precisely through the colonial photographic
archive.5 The recent republication of turn-of-the-twentieth-century colonial
era postcards in postcolonial English-speaking Caribbean societies attests
to the longevity and active social life of such objects among (formerly)
colonized populations and the need to investigate this constituency as an
audience for colonial representations.
'Two exceptions to this are T. Mitchell and Pratt.
2 See Lowe; Melman; Lewis.
3 The phrase "Photography's Other Histories" comes from Pinney and Peterson.
4 See also Appadurai; Behrend; Pinney; Bell; Brielmaier.
s See Lippard; Poole.
32 KRISTA A. THOMPSON
The Golden Era of the Postcard in the Anglophone Caribbean: Creating
the Islands' "Tropical Picturesque" Touristic Image
A cultural biography of the social life of the postcard in the Anglophone
Caribbean must begin at the beginning, retracing its origins, its producers and
its (intended) consumers and meanings. "Postal cards" or "view cards" of the
West Indies reached their height of production from 1895-1915, "the golden
era" of postcard collecting in the United States and Western Europe, particularly
Britain (Woody 13). As in other parts of the world, in the Anglophone Caribbean
the postcard arose as a popular visual accompaniment to the tourism industry
(Albers and James, 139). The Colonial Office in London specifically encouraged
local officials in the islands to produce postcard series to stimulate the region's
burgeoning tourist trade. In 1904, they urged: "It is added that a great effort is
being made nowadays to restore prosperity to the West Indies by making
the islands better known as holiday resorts. Quite an attractive series of
pictorial postcards would doubtless tend to the end in view" (DG 15 April
1904). The "attractive" pictorial postcard was thus recruited to play a role in
the restoration of prosperity to the West Indies in the wake of the decline of
the sugar industry.
Colonial governmental bodies, passenger steamship companies, hoteliers,
and local mercantile elites throughout the West Indies heeded this call,
especially in Jamaica and the Bahamas. Both islands were the first to have
tourist industries in the region. Companies specializing in transportation
such as the United Fruit Company, the Elder Dempster Company (owners of
the Imperial Direct Line), the Hamburg American Line, the Royal Mail Steam
Packet Company and the Cunard Steamship Line, to name just a few, created
postcard lines on Jamaica. In regard to the Bahamas, the Cunard Steamship
Line, the Florida East Railway Line, and Munson Lines published cards. Local
photographers, pharmaceutical companies, and mercantile elites, who owned
businesses in the ports, also produced and distributed their photographs
as pictorial postcards. The American Detroit Publishing Company and British
postcard companies, like the Raphael Tuck and Sons Ltd. and Valentine and
Sons Ltd., also sent representatives to the British West Indies. The postcards
were often printed and sometimes retouched in Europe (Germany was a
central postcard manufacturing center) or in the United States and then
returned to the islands where they were offered for sale.
Postcard sellers targeted tourists as the intended consumers of these
images, baiting visitors specifically in their ads. They boasted "Picture
Postcards -A big choice of views for visitors- Hope [Gardens], Castleton,
Montego Bay, &c and many of the inhabitants and their pickaninnies" and
deemed their shops the "Headquarters for Tourists [with] The Largest and
Finest Assortment of Illustrated Jamaica Postcards" (DG January 27, 1905;
DG January 2, 1904). In addition, American and British companies and
colonial governments distributed postcards to potential travelers at colonial
POSTCARDS TO HISTORY 33
exhibitions and at ports of call, especially from places with direct steamship
services to the islands, cities like New York, Miami, Palm Beach, Boston,
Philadelphia, Baltimore, Liverpool, Glasgow, Southampton, and London.
Postcards provided not merely a means of making the islands "better
known" to prospective holiday makers, as the Colonial Office specified, but
served to radically reinvent the West Indies' much maligned image. At the
turn of the twentieth century, within Britain and the United States the West
Indies were widely stigmatized as breeding grounds for potentially fatal
tropical diseases (Curtin and Stepan). As one industry supporter
recognized in 1891, "[t]o many old-fashioned people at home [Britain] to
book a passage for Jamaica is almost synonymous with ordering a coffin"
(Gardener qtd. in Hanna, 19). In addition to potentially natural hazards,
fears of the islands' rebellious black inhabitants also cast a cloud over
the burgeoning tourist trade.6 Thus, image makers had to transform the
islands drastically, from their association with disease and rebellion into
spaces of touristic desire.
Postcards played an essential role in this refashioning process by
presenting the region as a picturesque tropical locale, the picture of a tropical
Eden. "Picturesque," as I have argued elsewhere, in the context of the
Anglophone Caribbean often referred to displays of "tropical" or exotic
nature, which appeared ordered and cultivated, and representations of
society as orderly and disciplined (Thompson).7 The miniature photographs
thus featured artfully-designed tropical botanical gardens, impeccably
manicured hotel landscapes, orderly fruit plantations, and clean palm-lined
streets. A postcard of Nassau's Victoria Avenue, a road fringed with
equidistantly-positioned palm trees, by photographer James Sands,
epitomized the ideal of ordered tropical nature (fig. 2). The view cards
portrayed an island landscape, in essence, which had been tamed, one devoid
of "tropical" hazards. The postcards also presented an image of a black
society that had been successfully colonized. Images of blacks, which
pictured them as peaceful, "civilized," and loyal British subjects assured
travelers of their safety among the natives. As curator of the Barbados
Museum and Historical Society, Kevin Farmer, concluded after perusing his
institution's collection of postcards of Barbados, many postcards represented
the island as "an exotic location without danger."
6 The Haitian Revolution of 1798 and Jamaica's Morant Bay Rebellion of 1865 loomed
large in the imaginations of prospective travelers to the island. The more
contemporaneous Cuban War of Independence (1895-1898) and riots that took place
in Montego Bay, Jamaica (1902) likely revived fears of insurgency.
7 At the time, tropical nature did not so much signify the geographical derivation of
a plant form as it did a speciesis with strange or 'prehistoric' characteristics ...
prized as exotic, regardless of [its] actual geographical or climatic requirement"
KRISTA A. THOMPSON
.I I.... .. .
wlt rotuf. A VLI' t. ',A.ALC BAHA VfA.
Figure 2. Sand's Studio, Victoria Avenue Nassau, Bahamas, 1915-1930, postcard,
3 1/2 x 5 1/2 in. Collection of author.
Postcard producers also promoted the islands as premodern to travelers.
The figure of the black island native and donkey along with his bare-footed,
tree-climbing, sugarcane-eating representational counterparts frequently
performed this role of tropical backwardness in postcards. The "Two Natives"
postcard by white Bahamian photographer James Sands, as a prime example,
imaged the black inhabitant as not far removed from animals on the Darwinian
hierarchy of social evolution. Another viewcard of Jamaica produced by the
United Fruit Company that referred to a black market woman and her beast of
burden as the "Ford of the Rio Grande," similarly cast the island as lagging far
behind the modernity, enterprise, and technology of the United States on the
scale of industrial evolution. Both place and people were imaged as aspiring to,
yet lagging behind the time and history of the "civilized world." The postcards
presented the islands not just as geographically different, another foreign and
tropical world, but as a place temporally apart, a universe trapped in the past.
If the subject matter of viewcards did not adequately convey the islands'
tropical and premodern ideal, producers further embellished the islands'
touristic image through handpainting. This is evident again in one version of
the Two Natives postcard. Comparison to an earlier reproduction of the card
reveals that the electrical lines that tracked across the top of the photograph
were subsequently painted over. Such signs of modernity were antithetical
to the island's primordial natural reputation. The photographer also
POSTCARDS TO HISTORY 35
enhanced the image by adding color to the bougainvillea. The card evinces
a visual formula of Anglophone Caribbean postcard aesthetics, the subtraction
of elements of modernity (electrical wires) and addition of signifiers of
tropicality (tropical nature). The circulation of the same postcards over
decades further contributed to the notion of an unchanging and eternally
primitive Caribbean, arresting the region in a temporal representational stasis.8
The various stages of production and post-production -selecting subjects,
captioning, and overpainting- betray postcard makers' continual struggles
to assert the tropical picturesque narrative through postcards and their
attempts to control, stabilize, and contain the meaning of the cards, and the
image of the islands generally for travelers.
While some postcard producers aimed to carefully cultivate the islands'
tropical image and steer the meaning of the postcards, travelers' handwritten
remarks on the representations reveal the inevitable instability of the islands'
tropically picturesque image. Although some purchasers confirmed the validity
of this tropical ideal through their written commentaries, others continued to
view the islands as places of tropical danger. One handwritten remark, scrawled
on a postcard of Nassau's Royal Victoria Hotel gardens in 1906, for instance,
claimed that the island had "alligators, crocodiles, sharks- and niggers to bum."
The postcard sender listed (on an image representing "tropical orderliness"
no less) an inventory of tropical hazards, classing the man-eating amphibians
together with "the niggers." Thus from early on postcards became sites where
competing ideas and ideals of the islands and their inhabitants were prescribed,
inscribed, and destabilized. The postcard form, while enlisted in the service
of various touristic or colonial agendas, inherently and literally left a space
open on the bottom or back of the image for alternate interpretations.
The West Indies Postcards at Home: Local Uses and Interpretations of the
Although many viewcard producers imagined travelers as their primary
consumers, the islands' black inhabitants, the people most frequently
pictured in postcards, formed an inadvertent audience for these
representations. At the cost of one pence each, however, few black workers
could afford to purchase and send postcards, much less collect them.9 Hence,
8 The James Valentine Company, for example, first came to Jamaica in 1891. Twenty
years later they advertised the same series in the local newspapers.
9 "The usual cost of a picture postcard in the Caribbean was probably the same as it
was in Britain in the early years of the twentieth century: 'Penny plain, or two pence
coloured'- two cents or four cents. It might cost only half penny to send a postcard
locally, or a penny to send it anywhere else in the world (1 or 2 cents), but for a labourer
[sic] who was lucky to get 24 cents for a day's work, the cost of a card and mailing it
would have seemed a lot of money" (Gilmore p. viii). Ads in local newspapers offer "12
Selected varieties sent postfree for tenpence" (DG 13 January 1905).
36 KRISTA A. THOMPSON
generally the class transcendence often attributed to the mass-produced
postcard (Schor 211), the so-called "poor man's art form," in Europe and the
United States, was not a feature in the region. Yet, despite the seemingly
prohibitive costs, some black inhabitants did acquire postcards and put them
to new uses. In 1908, for instance, a traveler to Nevis documented that local
masqueraders wore costumes made out of postcards (Williams). In this
artistic appropriation, the masquerade participants co-opted and
personalized the postcard for their own purposes. The "poor man's art form"
literally became the poor black man's art form in Nevis, a Christmas
While some residents creatively displayed the cards, others denounced
the representations as thoroughly offensive. Sustained critiques of postcards,
and touristic images generally, throughout the first half of the twentieth
century reveal how local black audiences constantly surveilled the
presentation of the island in the miniature universe of postcards, being
particularly vigilant of the construction of the black race in these
representations. A speaker at the grassroots Universal Negro Improvement
Association (U.N.I.A.) organization in Jamaica in 1915, for instance, critiqued
the singular focus in postcards on the most economically disadvantaged
and uneducated segments of the black population. He called attention to
the deliberate "methods employed by a good many people in this island in
making up [the] advertisements," noting how photographers paid the island's
inhabitants "to pose," in essence to perform an image of black backwardness,
in postcard representations. Contemporaneously, E. Ethelred Brown, a
member of the Jamaica League, advocated a boycott of the offending
producers of postcards purporting to be "native scenes" and declared it
"the duty of those of us who are unfavourably and unfairly advertised to
protest . ." (DG January 18, 1915). While postcard producers constructed
the islands' picturesque image and naturalized this ideal through several
devices, black critics of these representations constantly called attention to
and protested the artifice of these representations the singular focus of
their subject-matter (black backwardness, poverty, tropicalness) and the
constructed character of their form.
To recap, postcards of the West Indies were originally produced to meet
the specific needs of the islands' tourism industries at the turn of the
twentieth century and were consumed primarily by travelers. This
tropicalized image world was, however, from early on inherently open to
alternate and even opposing meanings, as the changing captions and
handwritten commentaries testify. The cards, as publicly displayed images,
were also viewed by unintended audiences. While black inhabitants "wrote
back," protesting the visual narratives of these representations, these
critiques and contestations left no traces on the visual archives archives
that centrally pictured the islands' black population. The absence of these
POSTCARDS TO HISTORY
perspectives on the tropicalized image world, unlike the producers' captions
on postcards or its purchasers' handwritten commentaries, would
dramatically affect how subsequent viewers would interpret the photographs,
read the narratives of these representations, and represent the past,
particularly in popular pictorial histories in the region. Or, to use historian
Rolph Trouillot's terms, because blacks did not leave "concrete traces" on
either the "making of sources" (postcards) or "the making of archives"
(collections of postcards), it would dramatically effect "the making of
narratives" and "making of history in the final instance" (26).
Contemporary Picture Books: Narrating History through the Postcard
In more recent times in publications throughout the postcolonial world
unintended consumers of postcards have become primary ones. In many
former colonies postcards have become central tools in the reconstruction
of postcolonial histories of the subaltern and the deconstruction of the
imperious imperatives of postcard makers.10 Algerian scholar Malek Alloula,
for instance, through his study of colonial postcards of Algerian women aimed
"to return this immense postcard to its sender," to use the images to explore,
explode, indeed, to exorcizee" French colonial myths about Algeria (5).
Authors in the Anglophone Caribbean have also used postcards to reflect
on the colonial past; their picture books, however, have done different work.
The publications generally have framed the old images as historically
accurate representations of the past and proffer the picturesque society
featured on postcards as visual evidence of the "better days" of colonial rule
or the "golden age" of tourism. They not only privilege and reiterate the
narrative of picturesque tropicality, originally created to appeal to tourists,
but present key features of the islands' carefully crafted touristic image as
historical fact to local audiences. This is evident even in the subtitles of the
publications that frame the postcards as transparent windows onto "the way
we were," to cite the title of a book on Jamaica (Jamaica).
The typically brief texts that accompany the visual images in these
publications further frame the postcards and photographs as documentary
and objective representations of an earlier era. Nostalgic Nassau, for example,
promises a "nostalgic peep into the past" (1). And, Ann Yates, the author of
Bygone Barbados, offers "Barbadians and visitors ... a piece of our past"
(ix). On two occasions she describes her picture book as a "history" of
Barbados (ix). The author of The Bahamas in Black and White, Basil Smith,
10 See Alloula; Geary; Geary and Webb; Maxwell; Prochaska.
38 KRISTA A. THOMPSON
also bills his book as "a valuable record of the way things were" and "a
celebration of the work of this elite cadre of photographers who created the
images that made the Bahamas famous" (9-10). The producers of these
publications reintroduce these images as a visual history of the islands to
local audiences (as is suggested in their use of the collective "we" and "us")
These books base much of their claims of historical accuracy or
transparency on the simple fact that they use photographic picture postcards,
subscribing to the belief that the camera never lies. They work under the
assumption that because they feature photographs, these images picture or
document "the way we were." The Bahamas in Black and White, in the very
title, invokes both its use of photographic images, but also elicits a more
colloquial understanding of "black and white," as something that is clear,
documentary, and conclusive. Many of the titles point to the inclusion of
photographic materials by way of description, but they also index, by
extension, the images' historical accuracy.
Unsurprisingly, given these documentary claims, several authors interpret
the picturesque society featured on postcards as visual evidence of the
"better days" of colonial rule. Yates, for example, lauds the images in Bygone
Barbados as visual documents of the orderliness of Barbadian society in the
colonial era: "These photographs give us a wealth of information, they show
a well ordered, law abiding, church going and diligent island... with robust
commerce, many gracious buildings, schools and churches ..." (emphasis
mine). The "well-ordered" image of the island she detects in the photographs
is precisely the picturesque ideal makers of touristic representations had to
project of predominantly black societies to attract hesitant travelers to the
Some authors designate and celebrate the sites pictured in the cards,
particularly the places that epitomized the ordered tropical landscape, as
historically important. In Nostalgic Nassau, for example, Shelley Malone and
Richard Roberts lament the disappearance of the Royal Victoria Hotel's
gardens. They express sorrow that, "[t]he once splendid exotic gardens are
gone and sadly she awaits her demise. Ah ... but, thanks for the memories
dear lady" (46). In regard to a postcard of Victoria Avenue, another crowning
example of an ordered tropical landscape and ode in appellation to the British
Empire, they comment, todaydy unfortunately [Victoria Avenue's] charm is
gone, and it more closely resembles a parking lot" (27). They view their project
as a way to preserve the past: "Before the best of old Nassau is completely
forgotten, the authors hope to create an affection for the good (or bad,
depending on your point of view) old days" (1). Many of the sites and buildings
they cite as historically valuable are those that were designated as such in
early tourism campaigns. Generally, the books position both the societal
order and the physical sites (sights) long treasured in the visual economies
of tourism and reinscribe these myths and spaces of touristic importance as
POSTCARDS TO HISTORY 39
the state of the past and historical treasures respectively. They also position
this era, which coincides with British colonial rule, as "the good old days,"
even though Malone and Roberts concede that some people may differ with
their point of view.
Another trait of early postcards resurrected as historical fact in some of
these accounts is the idea that the islands remained unchanged, that time,
in essence, stood still during the colonial period. The authors of Nostalgic
Nassau pick up on the "representational sameness" inherent in the postcard
image world, but interpret this as indicative of Nassau's unchanging character
during the colonial era. They claim, "[t]he Bahamas has altered more in the
last thirty years [the Bahamas gained independence in 1973] than in the
previous one hundred and thirty. Most of the early Victorian domestic
architecture has disappeared, due to public apathy and the greedy demands
of property developers with little appreciation of history" (1). They suggest
that in the colonial era the island remained unchanged, but that in the post-
Independence period "Old Nassau" had disappeared due to people who lack
an appreciation of history. The authors base their historical claims on old
postcard representations, which precisely imaged the islands as places
outside of history, time, and modernity.
While postcards historically left a space open for competing
interpretations, these publications present the materials in a more closed
form, siphoning off possibilities for alternate interpretations. Even though
at least one author did acknowledge the viability of differing interpretations,
the glossy picture books share several organizational and design features,
which construct the interpretative frame for these representations. Although
all books, of course, structure their narratives, the re-presentation of the
multi-sided and multiply-narrated postcards in the contemporary picture
books would explicitly shape how the postcards could be read by their newest
recipients- contemporary local viewers.
First, the writers seldom contextualize or describe the historical
circumstances under which many of the representations they proffer were
created; they do not allude to the touristic impetus behind many of these
photographic creations. The books do not address the issue of the original
(intended) consumers towards whom these images were directed. Without
describing the touristic impetus of these postcards, these books can re-
circulate the images in a contextual vacuum, or in a new context, as objective
images of the region.
Second, few of the publications identify the particular creators or
publishers of the postcards. Even when the authors mention the names of
photographers in their introductory remarks, they seldom attribute
particular representations to specific image-makers. As a result of this
authorial erasure, multiple images from numerous creators and publishers
are recomposed into an anonymous visual pastiche. The paucity of research
into photography in the Anglophone Caribbean in general may account for
40 KRISTA A. THOMPSON
this lack of contextual information." Many public photography archives in
the region, including the National Library of Jamaica or Department of
Archives and Public Records in the Bahamas, do not identify photographs
or postcards by their makers. If their collections are systemically organized
at all, they are classed by subject matter. The non-attribution of these images
in the archives and in publications conceals the identity of photographers
and presents the representations as collective, impartial, and transparent
visual records of the islands.
Third, the mailing addresses and postal markings, which indelibly
document many cards' previously traveled international routes (which often
appeared on the verso of cards), are seldom reprinted in publications.
Interestingly, the postcard's authenticity, according to critic Susan Stewart,
was generally based on their being purchased in or sent from their place of
origin- they had to be materially connected in some way to this originating
locale (138). The absence of postal marks in contemporary publications
suggests that the currently perceived authenticity of the cards lay not in
their places of origin (i.e. the collections of persons in Europe and the United
States). Rather, by downplaying the former transnational origins of many
cards, the books' creators imply that the images never left home. Perhaps
these earlier routes would disrupt the "rootedness" of the postcards- their
ability to speak as objective documents about the origins and history of the
islands. The publications reinstate the postcard as "native" to the islands
and as "national" documents, when actually both the production and
consumption of the postcards were components of a multi-layered
Fourth, the printed captions that originally appeared on many of the
postcards and the senders' handwritten messages have often been erased
in the republication of these materials. The books generally do not reprint
the back of the cards. By concealing the earlier personalized reading of the
cards, the postcards re-circulate without traces of its previous use, its former
interpretations. This erases the history of the cards as sites where competing
interpretations sometimes coexisted, where visual representations were
explicitly open to subjective rather than objective interpretation.
The contemporary picture book authors' own printed comments, however,
may be viewed as a new form of handwriting, the assertion of another private
inscription on the postcard archive. The authors' own "handwriting," in this
instance the more indelible and authoritative form of the printed word, claims
possession of the postcards as evidence of their past. Unlike the singular
personal inscription of the cards by early travelers, however, the authors
strive towards a more collective reclamation of images, as is evident in the
" David Boxer's groundbreaking research in Duperly (2001), example, promises to
transform the field of research into photography and perhaps the photographic
archives in the region.
POSTCARDS TO HISTORY 41
constant referral to "our past" in the publications. However, to authenticate
the postcards as objective documents of a collective past, the representations
could not bear traces of their previous use by travelers.
That the earlier caption or handwriting could disrupt the easy
appropriation of these postcards into contemporary narratives of the
picturesque past is evident in what appears to be the deliberate erasure of a
caption on a postcard republished in Nostalgic Nassau. The authors reprinted
a version of Sands' "Two Natives" postcard, but hid its caption, overlapping
it with another card. If the old caption had remained, the majority black
population in the Bahamas might find it difficult to interpret such an image
as evidence of the "good ole days." It might even (re) provoke local black
contestation of the representation of race in postcards, and resentment of
the racist practices so commonplace during the era in which they were
produced. Preempting this possibility, the authors erased the old caption.
Not unlike early postcard producers, who retouched or changed their
captions in an attempt to make the image work for its touristic cause, this
action marks an attempt to control the meaning of the cards, although now
by removing a caption rather than adding one. Erasure also calls attention
to the authors' self-conscious and active role in selecting and recollecting
the past. Like tourists picking postcards of the Anglophone Caribbean to
remember their travels, the authors choose particular representations to
reconstruct the islands' history. These authors not only selectively tell the
history of the islands through choices they make, but also attempt to direct
interpretations of the images for other viewers by not allowing them the
opportunity to see postcards in their historically layered complexity.
Postcards and Making History in the Final Instance
The question remains: whose stories do these new narratives of the past
tell? Who precisely frames the publications for public consumption and to
what end? Revealingly the creators of all these books and the most avid
collectors of postcards and photographs in the Bahamas and Jamaica are all
from the white elite classes of these societies (with few exceptions). The
racial and class backgrounds of the collectors, although not determining
factors, do provide some perspective on their possible interest in and use of
these colonial and touristic representations. Significantly, under colonialism
generally, and within the race and class hierarchies institutionalized under
this system, white elites garnered economic and political privileges on the
islands. They occupied the highest rungs on the social ladder (under British
colonial elites). Members of this group were also often the economic and
social benefactors of tourism.12 Given this background, perhaps it is not
12 White mercantile elites benefited most economically from the fruits of the travel
industry, as tourists frequented their businesses in port districts. Moreover, tourists
42 KRISTA A. THOMPSON
surprising that white collectors would be attracted to images of the colonial
era and the heyday of tourism and would position these representations as
"the good days." Of course, not all collectors and compilers of these books
aim consciously to venerate the colonial past. Indeed, they may simply
organize the books, their recollections, based on their own experiences and
understandings of the past (their "private albums"), revisiting, visualizing,
and even celebrating their histories from their own perspectives. Through
their published postcard collections they can recreate the social world that
they, or their families before them, once inhabited. In this respect, the
publications may be viewed very literally as private albums, personal visual
records, of the past. Author of a postcard book on Trinidad, Joseph Abdo
Sabga, concedes as much when he prefaces his publication with the words:
"I hope that you will find this selection to be an interesting one, bringing
back fond memories, and acting as a personal album on a Journey of
Typically, this private commemoration of the good old colonial days,
however, is seldom presented as a select view of the history of the islands,
but rather as a journey of memories on which all viewers can personally
embark. As such, the books often posit that socially and economically society
as a whole was better off during colonialism. Regardless of the various
authors' motivations, when most of the publications seem to re-present
history from similar (white elite) perspectives, this version of history has
become reified. In this way, as Farmer points out, many of these publications
engage in and authorize a kind of "romantic amnesia, for in fact 'the good ole
days' weren't that good for many members of these societies."
The picturesque ideal, which many postcards of the islands conjure, was
created both as parts of and against the backdrop of social and political
repression of the majority of the population. The images presented on
postcards obviously gloss over the conditions of segregation and
discrimination under which much of the islands' inhabitants suffered during
colonialism, and in the name of tourism. The same hotel that Malone and
Boyd picture, for example, and recall nostalgically with the words "thanks
for the memories, dear lady" was described by black Bahamian suffragette,
Doris Johnson, as "the symbol of white superiority" in her recollections (10).
The hotel was one of the last establishments to be desegregated in Nassau.
Thus the colonial nostalgia in which many of these books engage proffers a
very select version of history that can naturalize and neutralize the violence
of colonialism and tourism, presenting it to contemporary audiences as an
ideal period in their history. In this process, the same images used to sell
had social cache for local whites; they brought modernity to the colonial outposts.
During the winter tourist season elites enjoyed rubbing shoulders with metropolitan
travelers and took advantage of the modern entertainments and amenities in hotels.
These hotels were frequently off limits to blacks until the mid twentieth century.
POSTCARDS TO HISTORY
the islands to a tourist clientele a century ago have more recently been re-
employed to sell this colonial past to the islands' contemporary inhabitants.
Re-envisioning the History of the West Indies Postcard: The Bahamian
It was in the context of the reappearance of the picturesque postcard wearing
the invisible mask of history that I curated in an exhibition entitled Bahamian
Visions at the National Art Gallery of the Bahamas in 2003, which allowed me
as an art historian to add a footnote to the complicated biography of the
West Indies postcard. The exhibition, composed of thirty turn-of-the-
twentieth-century photographs of the Bahamas and their postcard
descendents, attempted to provide an alternate vision of postcards from
that presented in the picture books. If the postcard publications had precisely
re-presented the postcards as "history" by suppressing (or ignoring) the
motivations surrounding the creation of the images and by erasing alternate
interpretations of these representations, Bahamian Visions attempted to make
this history of production and consumption a part of the viewing experience
of the exhibition. The show foregrounded the history of the active
manufacture of the islands' natural tropical image.
Visitors to Bahamian Visions immediately encountered explanatory wall
text, which outlined the circumstances under which the tourism-oriented
photographs and postcards were produced. Viewers, who were patient
enough to scan the eight panels before the photographs captured their
attention, were introduced to three photographers, whose works the
exhibition featured: American photographers William Henry Jackson (1843-
1942) and Jacob Frank Coonley (1832-unknown) and Bahamian James
Osborne Sands (1885-1978). They learnt that the photographers were hired
by an American hotelier, the British colonial government, and the local
tourism promotional board, respectively, to create alluringly picturesque
representations of the winter resort. The emphasis on particular image
makers and their patrons aimed to counter the non-attribution of these
representations to specific visual authors in popular postcard publications.
While the show was divided into three, highlighting the individual vision of
each photographer, their singular focus on very select motifs called attention
to the limited scope of a more wide-ranging touristic vision of the islands.
Each section of the exhibition contained "postcard modules," where one
photograph was accompanied by four or five postcards permutations of
the same image. The reproductions gave the photographs new "life," as
Susan Stewart puts it, through their miniaturization (Stewart 60). The
modules drew attention to the various devices photographers used to
produce and transform the meaning of a single photographic image. They
visualized, to quote Stuart Hall, the "active labor of making things mean"
both through the active selection of and construction of subject matter
44 KRISTA A. THOMPSON
and in the development and post-development phase of production (64 qtd.
in Albers and James 137).
A postcard module section focused on one of the most popular and
enduring photographs of the Bahamas, an image by Coonley entitled On the
Way to Market (1888-1904). The image features a black vendor posed with a
basket of turkeys on her head. The rare studio photograph offered a unique
glimpse of, and behind, the theatrical stage on which the island's touristic
image was performed. In other words, the image, to recall Hall, called
attention to the "active labor" of creating the island's touristic image.
Standing before the album in print, viewers could easily recreate the moment
of the photograph's production. In the image palm fronds, prerequisite props
in the recreation of a tropical island scene, look hurriedly and determinately
strewn across the background and floor of the photographer's studio. The
black woman also seems pulled into this makeshift fabricated world. A
reluctant inhabitant of the studio's landscape, she regards the photographer
with cool nonchalance, seemingly as indifferent to his presence as the turkeys
upon her head. In addition to the model and backdrop, the photograph
reveals the wider studio environment, including the window that Coonley
uses as a light source. The palm backdrop, Anderson's wooden pose, the
turkey props, and studio lighting all point to the various devices used to
construct the island's touristic image.
While the early print leaves its photographic slip hanging (showing many
of the studio props used to create the image), subsequent postcard
reproductions of the image, also featured in the exhibition, erased or
downplayed these elements over time. In a version of the photograph
postmarked 1910, most of the details of the studio's interior, the Brechtian
backstage, were cropped out of the image. A subsequent reproduction of
the postcard dating from 1915-1930, focused even more squarely on the
vendor and her foul. The image creates the impression that the photograph
was shot outdoors in a tropical landscape rather than in a studio environment.
Interestingly, the back of the postcard gave credit to another photographer
altogether, James Sands, who likely purchased Coonley's glass plates when
he took over the New Yorker's studio in 1904. Sands further transformed the
image through hand painting. He added a light azure blue to the sky and
forest green to the palms, more faithfully representing the exterior landscape.
The sequence of images provided a visual time lapse, allowing visitors to
inspect the "naturalization" of the studio construction over time. Fittingly,
one sender of a version of the postcard scrawled across the back of the
representation: "This picture is natural," even though the different versions
of the On the Way to Market betrayed anything but their "naturalness." This
hand written appraisal of the image, dating from 1910, also appeared in the
module; casting a literal spotlight on the frequently blighted back of the
postcard and former interpretations of the image. The purchaser's
inscription, their insistence on the "naturalness" of the representation,
POSTCARDS TO HISTORY
exposed another layer in the active production of the meaning of the postcard.
Beyond deconstructing the photograph's naturalizing devices, the module
put the postcard's century-long social biography on exhibition. The last
manifestation of the viewcard included in the display appeared as late as
1996, when a locally-based artist and collector, the late Brent Malone,
republished a series of Coonley's photographs as postcards. Interestingly,
Malone restored the photograph to its full composition for the first time in
approximately fifty years. He also colored the image in faded pastel colors,
putting a rose-tinted patina of the past on the photograph. The artist encased
the image in a frame composed of straw, a material associated with market
vendors in contemporary Bahamian society. Perhaps the straw provided a
late twentieth-century addition to the ever-changing tropes of tropicality.
Overall, the module -in contrast to the picture books that frame single
postcards as yielding a fixed or transparent meaning- animated a history of
the postcard from its "natural production" through its century-long
reproduction, during which the image, its interpretation, and even its author,
While the Turkey Vendor drew attention to the tropical world Coonley
recreated in his studio and how subsequent cropping or hand painting
transformed that image over time, another module focused on changing
captions and unchanging representational genres. One sequence of images
started with a Sands photograph and postcard captioned Two Natives, a title
identical to the postcard I found in the antique shop. While the image was
different from my postcard, it included many of the visual ingredients of my
acquisition: a young black man, on a donkey drawn cart, surrounded by
bougainvillea. Sands would return to this theme throughout his half-century
long career, rearranging the same photographic icons as if they were well-
worn props in a recurring theatrical production. But there were variations
on the theme. One card produced between 1915-1930, for instance, was
creatively titled "Three Natives" and included two black men instead of one.
In addition to slight changes in the visual formula, on occasion the
representation circulated devoid of its more familiar caption. A version of
the "Two Natives" postcard was also published under the caption "Typical
Gateway," drawing attention away from the man and mule altogether and
directing it to the flowering archway. The caption change within the repeating
same representational genre highlighted the seemingly arbitrary attachment
of captions in general, and essentially undermined "the authority" of the
printed text. How did the postcard producer go about formulating a textual
summation of the visual image? What factors, for instance, informed Sands'
change of caption from the derogatory Two Natives to the more benign Typical
Gateway? How, given the changing script of the postcard, should
contemporary viewers interpret the meaning of these images historically
and the more recent captioning (or decaptioning) or historical narration of
46 KRISTA A. THOMPSON
Cognizant of how local interpretations had been written out of the postcard
archive, museum visitors were invited to leave their own captions, names,
and addresses on (caption-less) reproductions of the Two Natives and On
the Way to Market postcards. The commentaries remained on view in the
exhibition supplementing, indeed becoming an integral part of, the visual
history of the images. How would contemporary Bahamian viewers respond
to the Two Natives image my grandmother so detested? Might a local museum-
goer recognize some of the postcardized personages and identify
photographic subjects who had been rendered anonymous caricatures in
the visual economy of tourism? Could the public postcards function as
private mementoes of a family member, offering viewers an unexpected
glimpse of a loved one?
While many exhibition visitors' commentaries were not revelatory in the
ways I anticipated, they did reveal an interesting new interpretative chapter
in the biography of the postcards. If the postcard publications invoked a
colonial nostalgia, several captions revealed that viewers framed the images
as respectable representations of hard-working black or "African," as one
museum-goer specified, Bahamians. As a resident of Fresh Creek, Andros
explained on the back of the On the Way to Market postcard, "This woman
looks as though she is struggling to make enough money to buy food. She
look like she need special help, but will be successful through all her trials."
Another museum-goer from Nassau reiterated, "Hard days work is never
done." A California resident added, "He knows how much we can bear."
Despite the woman's seeming tribulations, many museum visitors interpreted
the woman as a "Strong black woman." Similar sentiments regarding
economic toil were expressed on the back of the Two Natives image, where
one visitor from Fort Lauderdale wrote, "Earning his keep 'another day,
another dollar.'" The images, which circulated as commodities in the leisure
industry at the turn of the twentieth century, were primarily interpreted as
documents of black labor and hardship.
Some exhibition visitors were specifically attentive to the labor of blacks
as photographic subjects and the circumstances surrounding their
"postcardization." One resident of Cable Beach, Nassau, tried to recreate
the turkey vendor's thoughts as Coonley positioned her in front of the camera's
viewfinder: "I'm tired and dislike my photo being taken!" Such a comment
thoroughly denaturalized the picture-taking process and cast a spotlight on
the power relations between the photographer and his photographic subject.
What did the vendor make of her sudden place on the photographer's stage?
What did she understand, what did Coonley reveal, about the fate of her
photographic image? Did she ever walk, in the course of her daily routine, by
a store and see her own visage staring out at her from a postcard rack? Would
such an encounter be disquieting or heartening? The museum commentator's
remarks, however, do not convey victimhood, but defiance. They plainly
suggest that within the complex and unknowable circumstances that led to
POSTCARDS TO HISTORY
the production of the photograph, the vendor's very disposition communicates
some level of agency, if not resistance.
Another exhibition visitor implored on the back of the image of the turkey
vendor "Who is this Lady? What was her name?" searching for the story of
the woman who came to inhabit the picture. The two questions, of course,
begged of the viewcard information it had historically denied. If the postcard
archive did not document the interpretations of many black residents, they
even less frequently revealed anything about their black protagonists. The
"turkey vendor," however, was a somewhat unique case. Indeed, in large
part because of her photographic celebrity, when the woman who posed in
the postcard died it made front page news, even in the organ for the white
elite, The Nassau Guardian (NG 16 September 1908). The report revealed
that the "hawker of poultry and ... the original of the well known photograph
(taken several years ago) of a woman with a basket of turkeys and chickens
on her head," was named Lizzie Anderson. It also detailed that she met an
untimely death and was found with her neck broken at the bottom of a well.
The exhibition and, more specifically, the catalogue were able, at the very
least, to offer an answer to one of the inquisitive museum goer's questions;
they gave Anderson, formerly an anonymous black face who stared out of
the world of postcards, a name.
Overall, the exhibition offered another public display of twentieth century
photographs and postcards, presenting another way of visualizing the history
of these images and the narratives of history they enable and disable. Unlike
the form and content of the postcard publications, which organized the
viewcards into the neat and unfolding narrative of a book, the display across
the museum's walls allowed a more filmic and fragmentary visual experience
of the images, their replays and recasting over time and space. The exhibition
highlighted the various devices used in the creation of the postcard's footage
and looped the same visual images on the recurring wheel of touristic
representations. This curatorial strategy aimed to recognize and reproduce
the forms of critique long made about postcard representations. Recall that
since the early twentieth century black observers had contested the postcard
makers' singular focus on certain "native scenes" and the "methods" they
employed to perpetuate these representations. Bahamian Visions refracted
the postcards through the prism of these historical critiques, interpretations
long segregated from the postcard archive. By allowing these perspectives
to share the visual stage with the history of the postcards and their makers
and having (local) viewers leave concrete traces on the archive; the exhibition
attempted simultaneously to display a history of tourism-oriented
photographs, to call attention to the making and unmaking of historical
sources and postcard archives and, perhaps ambitiously, to inform and
transform the "making of history in the final instance" (Trouillot 26).
48 KRISTA A. THOMPSON
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Stewart, Susan. On Longing.: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the
Souvenir, the Collection. Durham: Duke UP, 1993.
Thompson, Krista. The Tropicalization of the Anglophone Caribbean: The
Picturesque and the Aesthetics and Politics of Space in Jamaica and
the Bahamas. Dissertation. Emory University, 2002.
Thompson, Krista. Bahamian Visions: Photographs 1870-1920. Nassau,
Bahamas: National Art Gallery of the Bahamas, 2003.
Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History.
Boston, MA.: Beacon Press, 1995.
Williams, Antonia. West Indian Journal. U of West Indies Library, Kingston,
Woody, Howard. Delivering Views: Distant Cultures in Early Postcards. In
Delivering Views: Distant Cultures in Early Postcards, ed. Christraud M.
Geary and Virginia-Lee Webb: 13-45. Washington D.C.: Smithsonian
Institution Press, 1998.
Yates, Anne. Bygone Barbados. St. Michael, Barbados: Black Bird Studio, 1998.
Calenda: The Rise and Decline
of a Cultural Image
University of the West Indies, Cave Hill
It is with the French Creole world, more so than the Spanish or the English,
that the cultural image calenda came to be associated, in spite of the fact
that from the earliest citations of the word it was deliberately identified
with the Spanish. Also, remarkably enough, in spite of geographical proximity
and constant migration, the cultural image calenda was never a feature of
those Caribbean islands that were English for most of their history. The
paradox in all of this is that the calenda was said to be African in origin. The
fact is, however, that one has to make a distinction between the cultural
feature itself, which no doubt had African roots, and the label it acquired in
the French Creole world, which was the work of French writers. In a 2004
article Roberts discusses the origin and associations of the word calenda;
here the cultural image will be examined.
When Jean Labat introduced the word calenda to the French reading public
in 1722, he said that it referred to a specific dance apparently performed by a
specific ethnic group: "It comes from the Guinea coast and apparently from
the Kingdom of Arda." ( 1724 2:51). Labat lived and worked in the smaller
French Caribbean islands from 1694 to 1705, but it was to the year 1698 and to
the slaves in Martinique that he was referring. Labat's tentative location of the
geographical origin of the calenda in Dahomey (modern-day Benin) was
substantially based on the fact that it is the place from where a great number
of the slaves on his plantation in Martinique came. Labat claimed that he learnt
their language and thus found out more about their culture.
In his presentation of the dance, Labat described the movements of the
dancers together with the musical accompaniment. He also gives assessments
of and reactions to the dance. This is what he said about the formation and
the movements of the dancers:
The dancers are in two lines, one facing the other, the men on one side and
the women on the other. Those who are tired dancing and the spectators
form a circle around the dancers and the drums. As to the dancers, they
hold their arms almost like people who dance and play castanets. They
jump, spin around, go forward two or three feet from each other, then
withdraw until the sound of the drum tells them to touch each other by
bumping their thighs against each other, that is the men's against the
women's. On seeing them do this, I thought it was their bellies they were
bumping, but it was only their thighs. They withdraw immediately
pirouetting, to begin again the same movement with totally lascivious
gestures, as often as the drum gives the signal, which it did several times
one after the other. Occasionally, they would hook their arms and do two
or three circles always bumping their thighs and kissing. (Labat 
The notable features of the calenda, as described by Labat, were: (i) the
name of the dance itself, calenda; (ii) men and women in two lines respectively
facing each other surrounded by spectators in a circle; (iii) the dancers
jumping into the air with arms half raised and spinning around;(iv) the
approach of the dancers; (v) the bumping of thighs on the signal of the drum
and then the withdrawal; (vi) the pirouetting and other movements; (vii) the
hooking of arms and dancing briefly as couples; (viii) the repetitions of the
procedure. The dance involved physical prowess and an element of display.
It was controlled by the rhythm of the drums. It was seen to have a strong
sexual element in it.
As to the musical accompaniment, Labat said the following:
To give rhythm to this dance they use two drums made of tree trunks
hollowed out to unequal thicknesses. One end is open, the other is covered
with a sheep or goat skin with the hair removed and scraped like parchment.
The bigger of the two drums which they call simply the big drum, can be
about three to four feet long by fifteen to sixteen inches in diameter. The
small one which is called the baboula is about the same length by eight to
nine inches in diameter. Those who beat the drums to control the dance
put them between their legs, or sit on them, and beat them with the flat of
the four fingers of each hand. The person who plays the big drum produces
a measured and steady beat; but the person playing the baboula beats as
fast as he can, and without regard to the beat, and as the sound which he
produces is much less than that of the big drum and higher pitched, it only
makes noise without following the rhythm of the dance or the movements
of the dancers. (2: 51)
The notable features of the musical instruments were: (i) there were two
drums of about the same length but different in diameter; (ii) the small drum
I This passage and others in this paper have been translated by the author.
CALENDA: THE RISE AND DECLINE OF A CULTURAL IMAGE
was given a specific name baboula; (iii) the big drum gave the beat and
controlled the dancers; (iv) the smaller drum just made noise and did not
follow the beat.
The instruments were at times accompanied by singing and clapping,
which he described as follows: "The most competent sings a song, which he
composes on the spot, on whatever subject is relevant, the refrain of which
is sung by all the spectators and is accompanied by a great clapping of hands."
(2:51) Overall, then, the total description of the dance contained several
details, but there were only two new terms or linguistic images that were
given, calenda and baboula. What will be seen to be interesting is the
maintenance of these words as they lived out their own lives.
After his description of the movements of the dance, Labat gave the
following judgement of it: "It can be seen from this short description how
much this dance is the opposite of modesty" (2: 52). He then spoke of
measures taken by those whom he regarded as decent (French) slave masters
to stamp it out:
As the postures and movements of this dance are of the most unseemly, the
masters who live a decent life forbid them from doing it and insist that they
not do it, which is not a small matter because they like it so much that
children who can hardly stand try to imitate their parents whom they see
dancing it and spending entire days doing this exercise. (2: 52)
For Labat, there was a stark contrast between these decent slave masters
and Spanish Creoles on the whole. Even before he described the dance, that
is, as soon as he mentioned the word calenda, Labat immediately said that
the dance had become widespread in Spanish America among the Spanish
themselves: "The Spanish learned it from the Negroes and dance it in the
whole of America like the Negroes" (2: 51). This was despite the fact that, as
far as Labat was concerned, the dance was indecent:
Notwithstanding, it is so much to the taste of Spanish Creoles of America
and so common among them that it constitutes the greater part of their
amusements and even forms part of their devotions. They dance it in their
churches and processions, and the nuns do not fail to dance it Christmas
night on an elevated theatre in their chancel, opposite their grill, which is
open, so that the people can share the joy that these good souls show for
the birth of the Saviour. It is true that men are not allowed in with them to
dance such a devout dance. (Labat  1724 2: 51-2)
One must assume that Labat had some evidence for saying that the calenda
was widespread and popular in Spanish America, but what incident or
evidence he had in mind to substantiate his story that the nuns danced it on
Christmas night is not immediately apparent. L6pez Cantos, in arguing that
the word fandango in eighteenth-century Puerto Rico did not always mean a
specific dance, supported his point with an example: "Asimismo, el fandango
poseia otra acepci6n. Se le tomaba por sin6nimo de baile entire blancos. Ya
casi a principios del XVIII acusaron al cura de La Aguada de ir un dia -a un
fandango" (2001: 215). The example (and there are others) that L6pez Cantos
gives supports the meaning of fandango and provides some support for Labat'
s claim that the calenda was in some way connected to the Catholic Church
in the Spanish colonies. The link between the fandango and the calenda will
be made clear a little later.
Apparent support for the claim that the calenda was well known in Spanish
America came almost fifty years later from another French priest. In 1769
Antoine Pernety said the following: "There is however a very lively and
lascivious dance which is danced sometimes in Montevideo; it is called
calenda, and the Negroes as well as the Mulattoes, whose temperament is
hot, love it to death" (Quoted in Ledru 1810 2:75).
Pernety differed from Labat to the extent that he associated the liveliness
and lasciviousness of the calenda with the hot temperament of the Negroes
and Mulattos. As to the dance itself, Pernety repeated most of the details
given by Labat as the source of the dance (the Spanish love for the dance
and its frequency among them, the indecency of the dance, children who
can hardly stand dancing it; the singing that accompanied the dance, all the
movements of the dance, and the story of the nuns dancing it on Christmas
night). It should be noted also that Pernety' s words were cited by Ledru in
1810 (2:75-6). Pernety's text matches Labat's very closely, except for the fact
that Pernety claims to be talking about Montevideo, Argentina. It also makes
a few additions to the dance and does not specify the instruments that were
used. The closeness of the two texts casts some doubt on the authenticity of
what Pernety is claiming for Montevideo. Furthermore, unlike Labat, Pernety
was just a temporary visitor to the place he was writing about. Yet, in spite
of the wholesale borrowing, Pernety's location of the calenda in Montevideo
might not have been total fiction.
Another French writer, Pierre Ledru, also identified the calenda in a part
of Spanish America, in this case Puerto Rico. Ledru was on a trip collecting
information and visited several places, including Puerto Rico in 1797. In
describing the celebration of the birth of a first born near Loiza Aldea, Ledru
said the following:
The mixture of Whites, Mulattos and free Blacks formed quite a pleasant
group: the men in pants and Indian jackets, the women in white dresses
with long gold necklaces. They wore on their heads a painted kerchief on
top of which was a braided round hat and they executed in turn Negro and
Creole dances* to the sounds of the guitar and the drum popularly called
bamboula. (1810 2: 75)
[*The chicca and the calenda, voluptuous dances, a little lascivious.]
CALENDA: THE RISE AND DECLINE OF A CULTURAL IMAGE 55
In order to explain the calenda, Ledru quoted Pernety and unwittingly
gave the impression that he did not know about Labat's earlier description
of the dance which Pernety copied. However, Ledru not only located the
calenda in Puerto Rico but also named the drum used by the musicians
bamboula, a name which had to come from Labat since Pernety had not
given any names for the instruments. As to the authenticity of what Ledru
said, there is no evidence to suggest that Ledru's knowledge of Puerto Rico
was more than that of a visitor, but again it seems unlikely that the celebration
which he described was entirely fictitious, even though the names calenda
and bamboula could have been reproduced from literary sources.
Toward the end of the eighteenth century another writer in French, Moreau
de Saint M&ry, gave a detailed description of dances and accompanying
musical instruments in Saint Domingue in an article called Danse, which he
said he wrote in 1789. As to the musical accompaniment, it retained what
Labat gave but added to it. The name of the small drum was changed to
bamboula to make it relate to the word 'bamboo.' Rattles and banjos (banzas)
were added to the band, and in spite of the fact that these additional
instruments were African in origin, this development was a matter of
evolution and creolisation. As to the dance itself, while there were similarities,
there were also differences from Labat's description. The following is part of
what Moreau de Saint Mery wrote:
A man and a woman, or a number of couples, proceed to the middle of the
space and begin to dance, always figuring two by two. This dance, which
has little variation, consists of a very simple step: you stretch out one foot
and then you pull it back and then follow with the other foot. With the
outstretched foot you strike the ground several times quickly with the toe
and the heel, just like in the anglaise. The man spins or circles the woman
who also turns and changes place with the man. The only other thing of
note is the movement of the arms which the man lowers and raises with the
elbows quite near to the body and the hand almost closed; the woman holds
the two ends of a kerchief which she waves. (p. 190)
The approach and retreat and the bumping of thighs or bellies are no
longer identified or highlighted, but the dance is still referred to as a kalenda
by Moreau de Saint M6ry who went on to state that in spite of its stated
simplicity, it could be lively and was a favourite: "the Negroes get so
intoxicated with such pleasure that they always have to be forced to finish
this kind of ball named kalendas..." (191). Then, Moreau de Saint Mery went
on to talk about what presumably was another dance:
Our Creole customs have adopted another exotic production which, also
coming from Africa, has had a more widespread influence than all the Negro
dances which I have spoken of. It is a dance known almost generally across
the colonies of America as the chica which it is called in the Windward
Islands and Saint Domingue.
When you want to dance the chica, instruments, whatever they are, play a
tune, absolutely dedicated to this kind of dance and in which the beat stands
out clearly. The art for the woman, who holds the ends of a kerchief or the
two sides of her petticoat/underskirt, consists principally in shaking her
hips while maintaining the rest of her body motionless. To stir up the
excitement, a man approaches the woman while she is dancing and jumping
headlong forward he falls almost to touch her, withdraws, jumps forward
again and seems to convince her to give in to the spell which is taking hold
of them. Eventually, when the chica seems to be at its most expressive,
there are in the gestures and movements of the dancers an accord which is
easier to imagine than to describe. (193)
What was interesting about Moreau de Saint Mery's description of the
chica is that it had some of the features of the calenda as described by Labat,
including: the approach, the retreat, the jumping in the air and the bumping,
which here is reduced to almost touching. In addition, and more significant,
is the association of the chica with the Spanish, the Catholic mass, and the
nuns at Christmas, exactly as Labat had spoken of the calenda (195). That
Moreau de Saint M6ry was referring to what Labat recorded is quite clear. It is
also clear that he was repeating information without questioning it. At the
same time, however, Moreau de Saint Mery, who probably did not have Labat's
preoccupation with the Spanish, gave current information about the chica:
It is the Negresses of the Dutch island of Curacao who must get the crown
for their way of dancing the chica; it is even difficult to imagine how far they
are able to push the desired art: their bust seems independent of its base
and they shake so fast that the very sight of it is tiring. (194)
Another point of difference between Moreau de Saint M&ry and Labat is
that whereas Labat locates the origin of the calenda in Dahomey, Moreau de
Saint Mery related the chica to the Congo principally, though claiming that it
was widespread among Africans: "The chica came to us from African
countries where almost all the different nations dance it and principally the
Congos. The Negroes brought it to the West Indies where it soon became
naturalised" (195). One modern commentator who makes a connection
between the calenda and the Congo is Maureen Warner-Lewis:
That kalinda was predominantly a Congo input into Trinidad culture I deduce
from the significant number of Congo names among remembered stickmen
and popular stickyards and from the emotional involvement with stickfight
culture of Congo descendants. (1991:151-2)
A question therefore arises as to the accuracy of Labat's claim that the
dance was called the calenda as well as to the geographical origin of the
dance. As pointed out in the aforementioned 2004 article by Roberts, the
CALENDA: THE RISE AND DECLINE OF A CULTURAL IMAGE 5b
word calenda was most likely a European word. Further evidence to support
the argument that Labat projected the word onto the Caribbean is that there
was a well-known twelfth-century French troubadour, Raimbaut de Vaqueiras,
who composed a song called kalenda maya which became very famous at
the time. It is quite likely that the word calenda came to Labat from this
French source as well as the older Roman sources. As stated previously,
Labat associated the calenda with Ardra/Dahomey because that is where
the slaves on his plantation were from.
Moreau de Saint M6ry was born in Martinique but spent much of his life
in St. Domingue and wrote very detailed accounts of both sides of the island
of Hispaniola before the revolution. Yet, there is some ambiguity or overlap
in the way that he used the term kalenda over the years. In the [ 1789] article
Danse it is as if he divided Labat' s calenda into two different dances: the
Kalenda and the Chica. In his later  book on Saint Domingue Moreau
de Saint M&ry gave them as varying geographical names for the same dance:
"Another Negro dance in Saint Domingue which is also of African origin is
the Chica, simply called Calenda in the Windward Islands, Congo in Cayenne,
Fandango in Spain, etc." (1, 45).
Here he indicates that the dance was called Calenda in the Windward
Islands, but in the earlier work he claims it was called Chica in the Windward
Islands. Again it must be assumed that he knew first hand what he described
in the article and later in the book. Yet, one would have to treat his later
statement on the calenda as more mature knowledge.
Another source of information which one can use to show links between
African, European, and Caribbean dances is Spanish Golden Age literature. It is
a source which would have been accessible to Labat and other European writers.
In his detailed study of the Negro in Spanish literature, Manrique Cabrera came
to the following conclusion about African dances in Spanish literature:
Examinando various autores hemos Ilegado a comprobar que hubo
efectivemante various bailes introducidos en Espafna por los negros. Algunos
de estos son el zarambeque, el guineo, el ye-ye, el cumb6, etc. No hemos
podido determinar, sin embargo, si algunos de estos bailes son uno mismo.
Alguno, como el zarambeque, lleg6 a tener una gran popularidad a juzgar
por las veces que aparece citado en las obras examinadas. Que trascendieron
estos bailes a la poblaci6n blanca lo demuestra el hecho de que la escena a
veces aparecen interpretados por personajes blancos. (1992:146)
In addition to the zarambeque, the guineo, the ye-ye and the cumbe,
Manrique Cabrera looked at the zarabanda and voiced his suspicions of a
link with Africa thus:
En el entremes Los negros de Sim6n Aguado encontramos unos negros
bailando la zarabanda. Sobre este baile hemos hallado alguna informaci6n
tanto en Cotarelo como en Antonio Cair6n. Ninguno, sin embargo, nos da
indicios de que la zarabanda tuviese algo que ver con ritmos africanos, en
lo que a su procedencia respect. El caracter lascivo de este baile, destacado
por todos los que lo described, nos hizo sospechar alguna relaci6n con los
bailes negros. No queremos afirmar esta hip6tesis por carecer de pruebas,
pero si nos complace hallar algo que confirm nuestra sospecha en el
articulo sobre la zarabanda en la Enciclopedia Espaina donde leemos:
'...Se cree que fue importada en Espania por los conquiatadores Arabes,
que, a su vez, debieron tomar sus principles elements de la chika o danza
de negros africanos.' (1992:142)
The Encyclopedia of Music also gives information on the zarabanda linking
it to Spain, Africa, and the New World:
Some evidence suggests that the zarabanda originated in the Spanish
colonies in America, making it the first popular Latin American dance. Other
evidence seems to suggest an African origin. A possible scenario might be
that the zarabanda was brought to Spain by the Moors during the twelfth
century, but was heavily modified by American influences during the early
sixteenth century. (www.musicaviva.com)
It is interesting to note that in 1789 Moreau de Saint Mery made comparable
comments about the fandango, which in 1797 he said was just another name
for the chica:
America has not been the only place, in this respect, to receive the influence of
Africa, because the Moors made the passion of the fandango a normal part of
Spain. The fandango is nothing else but the chica, only a little less developed,
because the climate or other circumstances were less propitious. (1789: 195)
Note also that L6pez Cantos, referring to eighteenth century Puerto Rico,
says: "Hacia principios del XIX se consideraba el fandango como el baile
nacionarl" (2001: 214). In the literature, therefore, the links between the
calenda, the chica, the zarabanda and the fandango are difficult to unravel.
It is clear that the New World description, over a period of time, of the
dance Labat called calenda was driven more by the written record than by
direct observation. It is clear also that the record itself did not start with
Labat in the New World. In addition to the Spanish literary record, there was
also a preceding West African history. From Marees (1602) to Barbot (1679-
1732) there is a filling out of a scenario with details, details about music and
dancing along the Gold Coast, which is both the result of consulting previous
sources and a matter of independent observation. The archives show how
the various slave traders changed and added to the record. The following
are two of several generalised statements, made by seventeenth-century
writers about Gold Coast dancing, which shed some light on the pre-
Caribbean history of the calenda:
CALENDA: THE RISE AND DECLINE OF A CULTURAL IMAGE 59
As soon as they strike up, the men and the women divide immediately, and
putting themselves (two and two) directly against one another, they begin
their dance, marching up to one another, and then recoyling in good measure,
clacking their fingers, as they pass nodding their heads, whispering certain
words into one another ears, tossing their fans, with a thousand postures
and gesticulations. (Villault 1670:208-9)
The men and women who are to dance divide into groups of equal
numbers, facing one another in couples; and when the dance begins, they
approach one another and withdraw in cadence, leaping and stamping their
feet on the ground. They snap their fingers and bow their heads together;
they talk to one another, loudly, quietly or in whispers; they bring their
stomachs close together and sometimes knock their bellies together, while
clapping hands at the same time; they move sometimes quickly, sometimes
slowly, and sometimes sideways or backwards... And there are some who
recite certain verses, singing, to which the others respond in refrain, as if it
were a musical choir. These Moors take such pleasure in this exercise that
they have schools almost everywhere expressly to instruct the young people
in it. (Barbot [Hair 1992:564])
Despite the fact that there is no mention in the Gold Coast record of a
name for the dance, the similarities between the calenda and what these
writers described for the Gold Coast are remarkable. The other connection
that is not really surprising is that the writers were French. In short, then,
the calenda, as an African cultural image transposed to the New World, was
developed by colonial writers writing in French.
Between 1770 and 1810 a number of accounts on the British West Indian
islands described dances of the slaves, showing them to have some
similarities to those in the French Caribbean literature, but no specific names
of dances were given by the writers and there were several significant
differences from what Labat described. It is only around the time of
Emancipation (Alexander, J.E. 1833 1:157-8) that a specific name for a dance
emerged in the literature in English islands and it was this dance more than
the others which had a little closer resemblance to the calenda described by
Labat. It was called the Joan-Johnny or Joe and Johnny and was said to be "an
African dance" and a "real negro dance." It was located in Barbados and
Demerara (British Guiana). In the middle of the nineteenth-century it seemed
to be very popular, for Day (1852) describes it thus:
Joe and Johnny, being a real negro dance is always held in the open air. The
'Tum-tum' was an old familiar sound, and guided by its spirit-stirring thump,
I found a numerous assemblage of ladies of colour, forming a ring in the
unenclosed back-yard of a negro hut. Being in fact a plot of ground behind
the house. ... (46)
The object of the dance was to show the paces of the ladies to the
admiring beaux, and a couple of dark beauties paid their 'Aquaar-ter dollah'
60 PETER ROBERTS
each and commenced. The first movement was an en avant by both, the
feet close together toeing and heeling it very gently, the retirez the same;
then the feet were straddled in a somewhat indecorous manner for ladies,
moving along and round d la fandango. Here, however, the ladies turned down
the outer ankles as near the earth as possible, meanwhile advancing and
retiring together, and then 'slueing round' each other, holding up their frocks
d la minuet de la court, with their heads looking down at their feet. (47)
I went on New Year's Day, in the evening, to another 'Joe and Johnny.'
This was the 'real thing.' How the band did work!- how they stamped, and
wagged their heads in all the extasies of intense excitement, feeling to the
full a! much delight as the dancers. The figure of the dance was perhaps
more apparent than before -the en avant deux, the retirez, and what we
should call a 'set' to each other, the arms (holding the frock) wagging up
and down, much as we see done in the negro dances on the stage. No one
within the witchery of the music could keep still. Black nymphs, sleek as
moles, showed by their contortions, how impossible it was. Arms
involuntarily went up and down, and dark feet writhed like eels. This was
dancing with the soul in it, and even the little black boys improved the
occasion. I never could have imagined any thing so universal. St. Vitus
seemed to pervade the whole company. With respect to the music, a triangle
was added to the instruments of the preceding 'Joe and Johnny,' and the
'tump' was different in form to the first. (52)
As described by Day, the dance had an advance and a retreat and a circling,
and, just as Moreau de Saint MWry had done, Day compared it to the fandango.
However, the dance in the English islands which was closest to what Labat
saw at the end of the seventeenth century was described exactly two hundred
years later as an 'ancient' dance in Nevis:
It is only in the remote country districts that the people sometimes gather
in the evening and indulge in one of the ancient dances to the music of the
drum and tambourines, and the chorus of 'Baudoula, Baudoula,' or 'Rooma,
little boy, rooma' till the morning. One such event took place at a collection
of huts on an abandoned plantation in Nevis, which I was privileged to
witness through the influence of my negro guide and factotum ...
The music struck up to a monotonous air, and a man and a woman took
their places on a cleared spot of ground. They moved slowly at first, with
much affectation of dignity and elaborate bowings and courtesies. Soon,
however, the music grew livelier, and they began to accentuate their
movements with the patting of hands and the tapping of bare heels on the
ground. Their haunches twisted, and they sprang higher and higher in the
air, advancing upon each other so as to lightly touch their stomachs together
and retreating with a backward bound. The music grew louder and faster,
and the full enthusiasm of a wild African dance took possession of them.
Their movements grew almost frenetic, and the perspiration dripped from
CALENDA: THE RISE AND DECLINE OF A CULTURAL IMAGE 61
their ebony faces. All at once they broke out into a chant, whose measure
was accented by the clapping of hands, and in which all the spectators
joined. It was an utterly rude melody, but somehow had a fascination in its
monotony and its wild, high notes. This was the song, utterly unintelligible
at the time, but afterward obtained from one of the performers:
I went to Long Hall well:
I meet Seeago Day.
I ask her to lend me the bucket
The bucket to draw little water
The water to boil little junfy
The junfy to go on me belly.
0, yaw, 0, yaw, 0, yaw,
Knock me kenaw
0, yaw, knock me kenaw
Come in, yaw,
Den me knock your kenaw.
'Junfy' [Note: junfy>funji] signifies the Indian meal with which the plantation
negroes were fed in the slave days, and to "knock me kenaw" [Note: kenaw
< ken < skin] was an invitation to touch stomachs together, which was so
frequent a movement in the dance. ... Meanwhile the children were not the
least amusing part of the spectacle. They were thoroughly infected with
the spirit of the music, and all danced and bobbed and jogged together,
down to the smallest tot, who could hardly stand on his little brown legs,
with indefatigable activity and in perfect time to the music. Their little faces
shone with perspiration and delight, their beady eyes glistened, and their
teeth glittered in a silent laugh of enjoyment. When the first performers
became tired or had danced their time, for they seemed absolutely
indefatigable, they were succeeded by others, and sometimes four or six
were dancing at a time to apparently the same measure, and if the chant
differed in words, its rhythm was the same. One old man with grey hair
showed as much activity as the younger ones, and hopped and capered
with even greater variety to the palpitations of his heels and the
grotesqueness of his movements.
There was absolutely nothing indecent about the dance, nothing but an
exhibition of animal good humour and possession of the spirit of music ...
The dance which I saw was chiefly an exhibition got up for my benefit and,
although genuine in its way, and, when begun, fully entered into by the
performers, it was doubtless a somewhat artificial relic of ancient days.
(Williams 1898: 111-7)
The words baudoula and rooma which Williams said were part of the
chorus can be regarded as two variant names for the dance. The word
baudoula goes right back to Labat' s baboula, whereas rooma is apparently a
variant of rhumba/rumba. This is the first time that this name is associated
with the dance. The rumba is generally regarded as Afro-Cuban and is said to
have developed as basically percussive, with the small drum and big drum,
their roles and relationships exactly as Labat described the baboula and the
grand tambour. Williams regarded the dance as rural, ancient and local, which
together suggest that the word rooma was not imported from Cuba. If this is
so, then it challenges Spanish etymologies for the word and points to an
African ethnic source instead.
Sometime within the first half of the nineteenth century the word bamboula
came to be applied to a specific dance in the smaller French Caribbean islands
as well as in the Virgin Islands. The four islands (St. Lucia, Martinique,
Dominica, and Guadeloupe) are in a line, quite close to each other, and
connected by constant traffic. As a result, transfer of features of culture across
the four islands, which at times were all French, would have been quite
normal. The bamboula seemed to have evolved from the calenda because
there were points of similarity between them and also because the name
itself (bamboula) showed evidence of continuity from Labat's word. On New
Year's Day 1838, R. Max-Radiguet, a visitor to Martinique, witnessed a
bamboula for the first time and, after identifying the instruments as drums,
rattles and castanets, described the basic movements as follows:
In the bamboula, the leading role belongs to the man: he sings strange words
at the top of his voice; he continually knocks his elbows against his hips
and chest and he hits his belly and thighs with his hands. In the least
animated moments of the dance, he suddenly makes some terrific leaps,
then he falls back to the ground bent in two; soon he recoils trembling and
afraid, then he advances feigning the wildest joy; he spins around,
somersaults, hits each shoulder in turn with his head, and embellishes his
role by doing cartwheels and walking on his hands, like our street urchins
in France going after a postchaise.
The woman shakes a white veil which she raises as her cavalier approaches;
she measures her steps to suit his, advances and withdraws with him; then,
at an agreed moment, the black Veronique wipes the perspiration which is
running down the face of her partner. (Grehan 1842 4:335-6)
Max-Radiguet then summed up the overall experience by saying
The bamboula seems to me to be the most violent gymnastic exercise
imaginable and you must be thoroughly seasoned and hardened to fatigue to
take part for a few minutes in this delightful amusement. (Grehan 1842 4: 336)
This description moves the bamboula beyond simple dancing (viewed
from a European perspective) into a more elaborate performance with the
male as the main focus of attention. With seven different performances taking
place at the same time (according to Max-Radiguet) and with a constant
replacement of dancers, the competitive element would have been very
strong and the whole scene must have been spectacular.
CALENDA: THE RISE AND DECLINE OF A CULTURAL IMAGE
In the case of St. Lucia, around the same period, Breen also spoke of the
bamboula, using the term for the activity rather than the drum, which he
called tamtam. Breen was more than a casual visitor, having spent a number
of years in St. Lucia, and was not short of confidence about his knowledge of
St. Lucia. His comments on "Negro dances" were part of his description of
the Rose and Marguerite activities in St. Lucia:
The Negro dances are of two kinds: the ball and the bamboula. When
conducted within doors it is always called a ball when "sub dio" a bamboula.
The use of them varies according to the state of the weather; but there is a
marked predilection for the out-door recreation (1844:196, footnote).
The tamtam is a small barrel, covered at one end with a strong skin. To
this, placed between his legs, the Negro applies the open hand and fingers,
beating time to the belair with the most astonishing precision (1844: 197,
Breen's description of the bamboula, however, did not match that of Max-
Radiguet in its details.
Bilby and Marks (1999) noted in their comments on the 1962 recordings
of Alan Lomax, which were produced as a compact disc titled Caribbean
Voyage: Dominica-Creole Crossroads:
The performers told Lomax that this wake song/boula was originally from
Guadeloupe, where, they explained wakes are occasions for both mourning
and rejoicing the deceased individual's passage to the next life. They further
explained that this type of musical event is known in Guadeloupe as boula.
Bilby and Marks go on to say that the related term bamboula was used in
Guadeloupe during slavery to refer to African-based dance and drumming
events in general, as opposed to musical events characterized by European-
influenced styles, which were called soirees.
The fact that the boula in Guadeloupe was characterized as a wake song
does not mean that it was sombre; it could have been quite the contrary.
Throughout the slavery period one event which captured the attention of
Europeans was slave funerals and this was because of the level of rejoicing
that they exhibited.
If the dance that had been identified as the calenda had evolved into the
bamboula, what happened to the name calenda? The fact is that the calenda
as a dance had not disappeared, for toward the end of the nineteenth century
Lafcadio Hearn, speaking of Martinique, said the following: "The old African
dances, the caleinda and the b6i6 (which latter is accompanied by chanted
improvisation) are danced on Sundays to the sound of the drum on almost
every plantation in the island([ 1890] 2001: 110)." Hearn then went on to say:
The caleinda is danced by men only, all stripped to the waist, and twirling
heavy sticks in a mock fight. Sometimes, however especially at the great
64 PETER ROBERTS
village gatherings, when the blood becomes overheated by tafia-the mock
fight may become a real one; and then cutlasses are brought into play. ([ 1890]
From Hearn's description it would seem as if the calenda had evolved
quite significantly. Yet, there was a connection between what Hearn described
as the caleinda and what had been given as part of the pre-Caribbean scribal
record of the calenda. The element of stickfighting, which had now become
central, is related to what Jobson described in the first quarter of the
seventeenth century for the Guinea Coast: "And when the men dance they
doe it w ith their swords naked in their hands, with which they use some
action ..." (1623: 107). It is also related to what Jean Barbot said he witnessed
and described: "Meanwhile the Moors began to wrestle and fight one another,
occasionally breaking into a sort of dance, in which they struck their shields
with their cutlasses in cadence" (Barbot [Hair 1992: 565]). There is also a
connection between Hearn's description of the caleinda and that of Max-
Radiguet. In the latter the man was the dominant figure; there was a
competitive element; there was an advance and retreat, as in the stick fight;
and there was a performance element. Is it that the old calenda had split into
two, or is it that the dance had reverted to an earlier stage, or is it that the
advance and retreat and the movements had always remained central for
the dancers themselves, in contrast to writers who described the dance?
The answers to these questions may be provided in part by Morton Kahn's
1931 book on Suriname in which there is a description of a dance event. It is a
description that at one and the same time elucidates and confounds. Chapter
Four in the book is titled 'The Dance' and it describes a night of serious dancing
among one of the maroon or 'Bush Negro' communities. The maroon
communities in the interior of Suriname are generally considered as having
the greatest level of retention of African culture in the New World because
they not only moved away from European influence from very early in the
colonisation period, but also because they remained substantially cut off from
it until the twentieth century. What Kahn describes for the specific community
is therefore paradoxically most African and most creolised, in the sense of
having evolved on its own for over 200 years in isolation in the Americas.
Kahn describes a sequence of dances the bandamba dance, the awasa
dance, the sacatee dance, a special Apuku dance, the Cromanti dance and
the obeiah dance but it is the instruments described that immediately
establish the link with Labat in 1722. Kahn 1931 says:
The big tomtom, elaborately carved on the outside, is the apenti, or signal
drum. The smaller nanda and the baby baboula (an African word meaning
'to make a hollow sound') are dance drums. ... the little boy who will not
relinquish his hold on the baboula. The child is finally allowed to remain.
He can keep time well enough and that is what the baboula is for. (53-5) The
little baboula keeps steady time, throbbing like a heart-beat. (59)
CALENDA: THE RISE AND DECLINE OF A CULTURAL IMAGE
While the name baboula is exactly as Labat gave it, its role in the band is
the complete opposite. While writers after Labat distorted the word to make
it relate to 'bamboo,' Kahn identifies it as an African word with a different
meaning. Like writers after Labat, Kahn identifies the saka-sake (rattle) as
one of the instruments in the band. As far as the dance space is concerned,
the description is the same: "the crowd has arranged itself in a circle, with a
bare space in the centre" (Kahn 1931: 55).
The sequence of dances starts slowly with a woman and then girls dancing
and builds up to a climax later in the night with what Kahn calls "the wild,
mad dance of the evil spirit" (61). Several of the features described by writers
elsewhere are given in one or another of the dances described by Kahn. The
awasa dance, which takes place after the females dance alone, is basically a
courtship dance which contains the features that in other descriptions are
identified as pirouetting, jumping in the air and bumping thighs/bellies. Kahn's
description restricts these movements to the male and compares them to
those of birds of prey flying and circling their victim, the fowl. The bumping
is not presented as reciprocal but as the action of the male who mimics coitus
(58), which the female evades. Other dances are done and then the climax of
the night's performance comes with the obeiah dance. About this Kahn says:
The three religious dancers whirl like furies. One dances with a wicked-
looking machete; he makes it whistle through the air A second dancer dashes
into the bahkra's hut with his whirling bush-knife, hacking at everything in
sight. The remaining obeiah dancers have a sham battle, fencing skilfully
and dangerously with their bush-knives. First they stalk an imaginary enemy
with poised machetes. Then two such blacks, with glazed eyes, slashing at
each other with yard-long knives. This is the obeiah dance. (61-2)
In his analysis Kahn states that "The awasa dance of the Saramaccaners was
borrowed from the Aucaners, among whom it is a direct West African survival"
(1931:191). At the same time it resembles the stickfighting kalenda described
by Hearn and others.
Even though the entire Suriname 'performance' contains what seem to
be more African features, there is no way of showing that as a whole it is
nearer to any single event in any part of West Africa than what is described
for Martinique, Saint Domingue, or elsewhere. Evolution of cultural
performances is part of all human communities and in fact the bigger and
more homogeneous the community, the less likely it is to want to hold on
tenaciously to the past. In addition, the more viable the community as a
politically independent unit, the more likely it is that it would want to have
its own cultural identity. In other words, the Suriname performance would
have been reflective of Bush Negro experience and aspirations over a
two hundred year period. Consequently, it cannot be regarded as a West
African template for tracing the source of African features in other
66 PETER ROBERTS
One of the consistent observations made by colonial writers is that the
slaves danced for hours, a fact that encouraged commentators to classify
these events as 'plays' with various scenes. Another observation was that
the singing of the slaves was mostly ex tempore. Taken together, these
observations suggest that it is better not to regard each 'scene' as an
independent dance, but instead as a variable part of a whole, and survivals
should therefore not be seen as separate (parts of) dances. Features or motifs
of courtship dances, commemorative (battle) dances, and spirit possession
dances survived with different adaptations and in different combinations in
various locales according to the exigencies of each situation. Distinct names
given by commentators to 'units' served to separate and reify them, but this
separation may be more a feature of academic analysis than a representation
of the conceptions of the performers themselves.
Today, there is little or no folk knowledge of the dance that Labat described
and called the calendar; it is the image of the stickfight calenda that is almost
exclusively known today in the islands where it is part of their cultural history.
This seems unfortunate, for it means that there is general ignorance about
the links between the calenda and the more famous dances known worldwide,
such as the rhumba and the fandango. The fact that there is little historical
knowledge of the calenda also means that major features of the Caribbean
heritage in dance remain obscure. The same can be said for the way in which
each community of slaves in the Caribbean selected from their ancestral
culture and put together their own 'plays.'
What seems remarkable in this tracing of the life of the calenda is that a
word used in so many different countries by so many different people
preserved an appearance of uniformity in spite of a web of connections and
variants as well as substantial changes over time. I submit that this was
because Labat's initial written version of the word was adopted in a canonical
way and repeated unquestioningly. This was a case of the written word being
used by writers whose knowledge was limited to create a non-representative
reality. Furthermore, the idea of cultural uniformity was not accidental; it
was part of a philosophy about presumably 'uncivilised' people. Note the
words of Moreau de Saint M6ry in 'Danse:'
The dance among civilised people is subject, like almost all other aspects of
their culture, to the caprices of fashion, while simple or savage people preserve
a dance in an almost invariable form. A greater sum of ideas offering more
combinations, variety in all areas can hardly but be the attribute of a more
perfected people; and perhaps the dances of diverse peoples may serve, on a
graduated scale, to identify their degree of civilisation. (1789: 172-3)
Contrary to what Moreau de Saint M6ry claims about uniformity, the
survival of different motifs in different sequences and structures is what
characterises the dances in the various places described by writers. It is
this unpredictability of creolisation that has always confounded cultural and
CALENDA: THE RISE AND DECLINE OF A CULTURAL IMAGE
Alexander, J.E. 1833. Transatlantic Sketches, Comprising Visits to the Most
Interesting Scenes in North and South America, and the West Indies. With
Notes on Negro slavery and Canadian Emigration. London: R. Bentley.
Breen, H.  1970. St. Lucia: Historical, Statistical and Descriptive. London:
Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans. Reprint, London: Cass.
Day, C. 1852. Five Years'Residence in the West Indies. In Two Volumes. London:
Colbourn and Co.
Hair, P., A. Jones and R. Law (eds.) 1992. Barbot on Guinea: The Writings of
Jean Barbot on West Africa 1678-1712. London: The Hakluyt Society.
Hearn, L. 1890. Two Years in the French West Indies. New York: Harper &
Jobson, R. 1623. The Golden Trade. London.
Kahn, M. 1931. Djuka: The Bush Negroes of Dutch Guiana. New York: The
Bilby, Kenneth and Morton Marks. "Caribbean Voyage Series," (CD booklet,
Alan Lomax Collection). Caribbean Voyage: Dominica-Creole Crossroads,
Labat, le R. Pere Jean. 1722. Nouveau voyage aux isles de l'Amerique. Paris.
Ledru, A.P. 1810. Voyage aux iles de Tgncriffe, la Trinitg, Saint-Thomas, Sainte-
Croix et Porto Ricco, execute par ordre du gouvernement frangais, depuis
le 30 septembre 1796jusquau 7juin 1798, sous la direction du capitaine
Baudin, pour faire des recherches et des collections relatives a I' histoire
naturelle ... Ouvrage accompagn6 de notes et d' additions, parM. Sonnini.
Paris: A. Bertrand.
L6pez Cantos, A. 2001. Los puertorriqueios: mentalidady actitudes (Siglo XVIII).
San Juan: Ediciones Puerto Rico.
Manrique Cabrera, F. 1992. El Negro en la literature espailola. Fundaci6n F.
Manrique Cabrera: Puerto Rico.
Marees, Pieter de. [ 1602] 1987. Description and Historical Account of the Gold
Kingdom of Guinea (1602). Translated from the Dutch and edited by
Albert van Dantzig and Adam Jones. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Max-Radiguet, R. 1842. Un Bamboula A la Martinique 1838. In Grehan, Amfdee.
La France maritime. Vol. 4. Paris: Pilout & Co. pp. 334-336.
Moreau de Saint M&ry, M.L.E. [ 1789] Danse. 'Annexe: "La Danse" Article extrait
d'un ouvrage de M.L.E. Moreau de Saint Mery ayant pour titre: Repertoire
des Notions Coloniales.
1797. Description topographique, physique, civil, politique et
historique de la Partie frangaise de l'isle Saint-Domingue. 1958. Nouvelle
68 PETER ROBERTS
edition entierement revue et complete sur le manuscrit accompagnee de
plans d'une carte hors-texte suivie d'un index des noms de personnel,
par Blanche Maurel etEtienne Taillemite. Paris: Soci&t6 de 1'histoire des
colonies francaises et Librairie Larose. Vol. 1.
Pernety, A-J. 1769. Journal historique d' un voyage fait aux iles Malouines en
1763 & 1764, pour les reconnoitre, & former un etablissement; et de deux
voyages au detroit de Magellan, avec une relation sur les Patagons. Berlin:
Etienne de Bourdeaux.
Roberts, P. 2004. The Calenda: Origin and Associations. La Torre, IX, 32, pp.
Villault, N. 1670. A Relation of the Coasts of Africk called Guinee. London.
Warner-Lewis, M. 1991. Guinea's Other Suns: The African Dynamic in Trinidad
Culture. Dover, MA: The Majority Press.
Williams, A. 1898. Under the Trade Winds. Providence: Preston & Rounds.
"Zarabanda." Musica Viva Encyclopedia, Frank Nordberg. 20 February 2006
"To Be Free is Very Sweet:" Racialised
Representations of Slavery in Maria Nugent's
Journal and Mary Prince's History
University of Warwick
After nearly 500 years, the abolition of the British slave trade in 1807 finally
brought to an end the legal transatlantic trafficking of millions of African
men, women, and children within the British empire. The trade involved the
kidnap, capture, and forced transportation of African peoples from their
homelands to Caribbean and American colonies, where they were sold into
perpetual slavery. Beginning in the sixteenth century, colonial European
settlers in the Americas had begun to establish a plantation-based system of
crop production, cultivating sugar, tobacco, cotton, rice, and indigo for
national and international markets. Successful large-scale cultivation
required a steady, cheap and pliable labour force. Initially, the planters
experimented with a mixture of indigenous Amerindian labour and imported
indentured white servants from Europe. For diverse reasons, neither source
adequately and consistently fulfilled the planters' demands, and the
plantocracy was forced to look elsewhere for new labour. They found the
solution to their production problems in Africa, where several European
nations among them Portugal, Spain, and Holland had already
established a lucrative trade in the supply of African slaves to Spain and
Portugal's nascent American colonies.1 Witnessing the success of Brazil's
slave-produced sugar industry, and recognizing the enormous profits to
be accrued from the traffic, British merchants and traders also began
trading operations, supplying enslaved Africans to Caribbean and American
colonies. Between 1640 and 1700, an estimated 134,500 Africans were sold
to plantation owners on the British Caribbean colony of Barbados, where
their unfree forced labour facilitated the island's rise as the first British
colony to develop successful full-scale sugar production. So immense were
' See Williams (1970) and Thomas (1997).
70 CECILY JONES
the profits from slave-produced sugar that observers soon proclaimed
Barbados one of the richest spots in the world. By the close of the seventeenth
century, unfree African labour formed the backbone of the Barbadian plantation
labour policy. Observing the phenomenal success of the Barbadian plantocracy,
planters on neighboring islands tried to follow suit.2
Slave societies throughout the Americas enacted comprehensive Slave
Codes governing the master-slave relationship. Enslaved Africans were
legally defined as a species of property. As property, they were denied
judicial rights accorded to humans. The Codes further established slave-
owners' absolute right of ownership in their human property, denied the
enslaved freedom of will, movement or expression, ensured the absolute
submission of the enslaved to the authority of their owner, and functioned
as powerful mechanisms through which slave-owners could exert control
over virtually every single aspect of the enslaved's existence. Slaves could
be bought, sold, mortgaged or leased according to their owner's will,
without regard for their familial bonds and obligations. Masters could inflict
violent punishment or torture against male and female slaves alike, without
fear of judicial intervention, and even the murder of a slave might attract a
mere monetary fine. Slave Codes compelled owners to provide their
enslaved labour force with shelter, food and clothing allowances, but
beyond these basic provisions, imposed few other requirements on the
master. Plantation labour regimes were harsh, and enslaved field workers -
men, women and children alike were forced to toil for long hours, from
can'tt see to can't see;' leisure time was limited and entirely at the owner's
Slave Codes gave owners legal mastery over the enslaved, but that
authority was always coloured with fear of resistance. Resistance originated
in the hinterlands of Africa, continued on the long and terrifying Middle
Passage, and persisted wherever slavery existed. Resistance assumed
diverse forms, ranging from mundane acts of defiance to outright violence,
such as the successful 1792 slave revolution in the French colony of Santo
Dominga.4 Powerful campaigns in England and America by anti-slavery
societies forced intense parliamentary debates on the issue, and despite
vigorous opposition by the Caribbean planters and their Westminster allies,
Wilberforce's Abolition of the Slave Trade Bill, was passed in 1807, sounding
the death-knell of one of the most horrendous and sustained acts of genocide
2 See Dunn (1973) and Beckles (1990).
3 For a comprehensive overview of the Slave Codes of the Caribbean, see Goveia
(1970) and Higginbotham (1978). The personal writings of slave owners also provide
insight into the nature of the master-enslaved relationship. See, for instance, Hall
4 See Genovese (1979). On the nature of gendered resistance to slavery in the
Caribbean, see Mathurin Mair (1975); and Beckles (1989).
"To BE FREE IS VERY SWEET:" RACIALISED REPRESENTATIONS OF SLAVERY... 71
in human history.s Abolition of the slave trade did not immediately bring about
an end to the institution of slavery. Throughout the Americas, slave-based
cultivation continued to drive plantation economies, but it became increasingly
evident that the institution could not long be sustained. Continued abolitionist
pressure, and, according to Eric Williams, declining profits from the colonies,
ultimately undermined slavery's economic viability (Capitalism and Slavery).
On the first of August 1838, emancipation finally came, delivering liberty to
millions of enslaved Africans in the British colonies. In the southern
slaveholding states of the North American mainland, however, nearly another
thirty years would pass before the American Civil War (1860-65) led to the end
of the legal enslavement of African-Americans throughout the United States.
The historiography of slavery has benefited immeasurably from the
integration of gender as an analytical category, for it has illuminated both the
centrality of gender in shaping slave societies, and the importance of slavery
in shaping gender relations. As historians assert, slavery was not a gender-
neutral process, and beliefs about gender underpinned the nature of social
relations between individuals in slave societies.6 Gender impacted the lives
of every individual, whether free or unfree, white or black, male or female,
elite or poor, in profoundly different ways. Further, racialised constructions
of gender produced different understandings of womanhood for black and
white women. As Caribbean and American slave societies matured, white
women were removed from production processes and relegated to the private
sphere of the domestic household, their lives increasingly limited to the
nurture and care of husbands, children, and the management of the
household and its domestic slaves. With the loss of their productive roles,
white women's status was transformed, as the prevailing ideology
constructed a new model of passive, modest, virtuous and dependent
womanhood. Adherence to these tenets of femininity provided white women
with status and privileges denied to black women, who experienced their
gender identity in profoundly different ways. Denigrated as ugly, immodest,
animalistic, and sexually licentious, African women were excluded from
dominant models of womanhood. They were defined primarily as labourers,
and their productive and reproductive labour were fundamental components
in the reproduction of slave societies. Hence, gender identity cannot be
easily disentangled from racial identity. Understanding the complexity of
gender and racial difference illuminates more clearly the divergent
experiences of black and white women within Caribbean and southern U.S.
5 For accounts of British and American abolitionist and anti-slavery movements
see Midgley (1992); Yee (1992); and Blackburn (1990).
6 See Mathurin Mair (1974); Beckles (1989); also Beckles (1998); Bush (1990);
Morrissey (1990); Fox-Genovese (1988); Gray-White (1985); and Morton (1996).
7 See Beckles (1993); Fox-Genovese's (1988); Gaspar and Hine (1996); and Bush (1981).
Slavery re-ordered the worlds of black and white women, but their
different racialised identities and class positions produced a diversity of
female experiences. The patriarchialism of Caribbean and southern U.S.
slaveholding societies demanded the subjugation of all women to white male
authority, but the exercise of power was not confined to white males. In
racially stratified societies grounded on ideologies of white superiority and
black inferiority, their racial identification with dominant ruling class white
males enabled politically marginalized white women to enjoy a range of social
privileges denied to most black women. The disparate interests of white and
black women in the slave economy ultimately militated against the possibility
that they might forge common ground on which they could stand together
against white male patriarchal authority.8 Black and white women's
responsibility for their families potentially represented a firm foundation for
mutual understanding, but the exigencies of slavery undermined sisterly
solidarity between white and black women. Enslaved mothers suckled their
mistresses' babies at their breasts, sore in the knowledge that at any moment,
they themselves could be forcibly separated from their own children.9
Mistresses enjoyed the right to legal protection from brutal husbands, but
enslaved wives could do little to resist the unwanted sexual attentions of
their masters, who routinely exploited the sexuality of enslaved women,
secure in the knowledge that her husband was rendered virtually powerless
in terms of protecting her.
White women were idealised as the epitome of female sexual virtue, their
sexuality confined to the bounds of matrimony, and 'protected' from the
'rampant' sexual attentions of 'animalistic' black males. For enslaved women,
there was little protection from her husband, her community, her master
or mistress, or the law. Enslaved women could be forced into involuntary
sexual unions with enslaved men, as slave-owners sought to augment their
labour force by "natural" increase. Most distressingly perhaps, enslaved
women carried the additional burden of the self-knowledge that, in bringing
children into the world, they were often consigning them to a lifetime of
enslavement. In general, British colonial law dictated that children inherit
their mother's status, a legal principle that ensured that the offspring of
enslaved women remained within the slave community. Hence, white women
represented the reproducers of freedom, and black women as the literal
reproducers of unfreedom.10
Warm, intimate relations might develop between a mistress and her female
slaves, and doubtless many mistresses and their female slaves recognized
their common subjugation to white male patriarchal authority, but ultimately,
8 See Morton (1996:9).
9 For a discussion of the centrality of enslaved women's reproduction, see Morgan
10 See Forde-Jones (2003).
"To BE FREE IS VERY SWEET:" RACIAUSED REPRESENTATIONS OF SLAVERY...
their integration and incorporation into racist social structures fatally
undermined the potential for sisterhood between white and black women.
In the final analysis, racial difference overrode their common gender identity.
Notwithstanding the now mythical narratives of Linda Brent/Harriet Jacobs
and Ellen Craft, enslaved black women of the slaveholding U.S. South left
behind few personal testimonies. In weaving together the fragmented strands
of their lives, feminist historians have of necessity relied primarily on texts
produced by whites to recover enslaved black women's histories." Finding
the authentic voices of black and white Caribbean women has posed even
greater challenges for historians in this region. The History of Mary Prince,
published in 1834, remains the sole known surviving first-hand account of
slavery by an enslaved woman to emerge from the Caribbean (Ferguson 1997).
Only a handful of texts by white women of the Caribbean plantation period
have been addressed by scholars, and it may be of significance that these
were the products of women who were often temporary, rather than
permanent residents.12 Hence, while the writers of these texts and the
experiences they convey may not be representative of white Caribbean
women in general, they offer rare female perspectives on the slave societies
they observed. When compared to the voluminous accounts of anti- and
pro-slavery American women, one can only wonder at the scarcity of first-
person narratives of slavery penned by their Caribbean counterparts. Both
groups endured restricted access to education; the acquisition of literacy
skills often represented a punishable offence for enslaved peoples, while
educational facilities for white women remained limited. Inevitably, this has
meant that, to a greater extent than gender historians of the American
slaveholding South, Caribbean gender historians have been forced into a
I Among the best known narratives of enslaved African-Americans are William and
Ellen Craft's Running A Thousand Miles For Freedom: The Escape of William and
Ellen Craft From Slavery, (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State U P, 1999); Harriet Jacobs'
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself, (Jean Fagan Yellin, ed.
Cambridge: Harvard U P, 1987 [first published under the pseudonym Linda Brent,
1861]). See also Gates (1988).
12 The texts that have received the most critical attention are: (1) Janet Schaw's
Journal of A Lady of Quality; Being the Narrative of a Journey from Scotland to the
West Indies, North Carolina and Portugal in the years 1774-1776 (E.W. Andrews and
C.M. Andrews, eds. New Haven: Yale U P, 1939); (2) Maria Nugent's Lady Nugent's
Journal of Her Residence in Jamaica from 1801-1805 (see Wright 1966); (3) Elizabeth
Fenwick's The Fate of the Fenwicks: Letters to Mary Hays, 1798-1828 London (A.F.
Fenwick, ed. Methuen, London, 1927); (4) Mrs. A.C. Carmichael's Domestic Manners
and Social Condition of the White, Coloured and Negro Population of the West Indies,
2 vols. (New York: Negro Universities P, 1969 [originally published London, 1833]);
(5) Frances Lanaghan's Antigua and the Antiguans, 2 vols., (London: Spottiswoode,
1967 [originally published anonymously in London, 1844]). For a nuanced discussion
of these texts, see Brereton (1995).
greater reliance on public and private documents generated not by or for
women themselves, but by male slave-owners, travellers, and social
commentators. Reliance on these sources plantation journals, travel
accounts, vestry records, etc. offer serious methodological challenges, but
nevertheless they represent important sources of women's histories, and
are deeply revealing of the diversity of female experiences of slavery. In
what follows, I explore two women's eye-witness accounts of Caribbean
slavery and slave society during the nineteenth century. Maria Nugent's
Journal of a Residence in Jamaica (1839) describes her experiences as the
wife of George Nugent, Jamaica's Governor General, during her sojourn on
that island-colony between 1801-1805 (Wright 1966). The second narrative,
The History of Mary Prince relates the personal experiences of an enslaved
woman in Bermuda and Antigua (Ferguson 1997). Together, these texts
provide crucial insight into the nature of enslavement, but more than this,
they reveal the difficult, tense, and contradictory relations between free white
and enslaved black women facing each other across a racial divide.
By virtue of their shared gender identity, black and white women were
both subordinated subjects of white male patriarchal authority. Whether a
female was a slave or a mistress, their reproductive capacities were
appropriated to the service of slave society, limits were placed on their social
and sexual freedoms, and they were denied political rights. Warm ties of
affection might develop between enslaved women and their mistresses, but
theirs was a divided and mutually antagonistic world, and as Hilary Beckles
has argued, many black women "..probably suffered their greatest degree of
social exploitation at the hands of white women..." (Beckles 1993: 66-82).13
Doubtless, some few mistresses recognized the parallels in the lives of white
and enslaved women, indeed, many went so far as to assert that patriarchy
made slaves of all women. Yet in the racially stratified slave societies of the
Americas where gender and race functioned as key organising principles,
their social location within the dominant white group afforded all white
women, regardless of social class, not only a privileged status, but conferred
in their hands the ability to exercise power over all enslaved persons. In the
final analysis, though united by their gender, racialised difference represented
a chasm that was too wide to bridge.
When in July 1801, newly appointed Governor General of Jamaica, General
George Nugent, and his wife Maria arrived on the island to take up his post,
the colony was still widely regarded as one of the greatest jewels in England's
imperial Crown. The Jamaican plantocracy basked in their reputation as the
wealthiest of West Indian planters, their economic success fuelled by slave-
cultivated sugar production. The Jamaican society that the Nugent's entered
was one based on a strict racial hierarchy; the minority population of free
13 See also Bush (1981: 245-62).
"To BE FREE IS VERY SWEET:" RACIALISED REPRESENTATIONS OF SLAVERY... 75
whites asserted and enjoyed hegemonic dominance over the mass of
coloured and black classes below them.14
It was against this socio-economic and political background that the
Nugents began their residency in Jamaica. Throughout their four year
sojourn, Mrs. Nugent kept a daily journal of her experiences. She was a keen
and articulate observer and her journal remains an invaluable, if not unbiased,
source on social, gender, race and class relations as they shaped the contours
of Jamaican slave society. As governor's wife, Mrs. Nugent enjoyed the
position of First Lady of elite white Jamaican society, and her perspectives
were undeniably informed by her status as a privileged imperial subject.
Mrs. Nugent herself was clearly conscious of her own rank as a member of
the English ruling class, and constantly made reference to what she suspected
to be the degeneracy of white Creoles.
Governor and Mrs. Nugent both accepted and subscribed to the racialised
social order that rendered Africans the social and cultural inferiors of whites.
Indeed, the Jamaican plantocracy justified the enslavement of Africans
through recourse to racist ideology that depicted Africans as primitive
savages, in need of the civilising influence of whites, a belief shared by Maria
Nugent who regarded slavery as the natural fate of uncivilised and unchristian
Africans. Receiving the news of her husband's appointment to Jamaica, Mrs.
Nugent dryly assessed her own forthcoming role: "I am," she wryly
commented "to play Governor's Lady to the Blackies" (Wright 2). This was
her own imperial burden, to be dutifully borne for the sake of country and
empire. Playing 'Governor's Lady' to the "Blackies," with all its maternalist
overtones, constituted an acceptable, indeed, dutiful, role for a white woman
of Nugent's status. As a newcomer to Jamaica, Mrs. Nugent admitted little
knowledge of slavery, but resolved to become educated on the subject, even
going so far as to read Wilberforce's anti-slavery essays. From neighboring
whites, enslaved peoples, and her regular evening levees with groups of
mulatto women, she acquired a variety of perspectives on slavery and
conditions of the enslaved. Her observations and discussions soon led her
to feel sufficiently well-informed about the 'truth' of slavery. In her opinion,
members of the anti-slavery lobby were sadly misguided and misinformed
in their assertions of the inhumanity of West Indian slave-owners. In April
1802, Nugent writes,
[I] amusedd myself with reading the Evidence before the House of Commons
for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. As far as I at present can see and hear
of the ill-treatment of the slaves, I think what they say upon the subject is
greatly exaggerated. Individuals, I make no doubt, occasionally abuse the
14 For an in-depth analysis of the development of Jamaican slave society, see
76 CECILY JONES
power they possess; but generally speaking, I believe the slaves are
extremely well used. (Wright 86)
Certainly, they appeared happier, healthier and altogether enjoyed better
material conditions than the Irish labouring classes. As she lamented, "I only
wish the poor Irish were half as well off" (Wright 86).
The slaves themselves were "all good-humoured and merry" but
irritatingly, seemingly immune to her efforts to impose her own rigorous
standards of cleanliness upon them. King's House was woefully squalid, the
result of neglect by lazy "blackies" who were themselves "dirty," and "smelly,"
motivate d to work only with the promise of material incentives. Fortunately,
the domestics responded to her cajoling with good humour, "singing odd
songs, only interrupted by peals of laughter" as they went about their work
(Wright 53). Their good humour was not surprising, for "I must say, they
have reason to be content, for they have many comforts and enjoyments."
Still, even with inducements, the efforts of the Governor's Lady to wrest
labour out of the domestics at Kings House continued to be a source of
personal frustration, and she failed to recognize their 'languor' as a strategy
of resistance, seeing instead her housekeeping problems as symbolic of the
innate dirtiness and laziness of Africans. She "reflected all night and make
up my mind that the want of exertion in the blackies must proceed from this
According to Nugent, the fundamental problem was not slavery per se,
but rather that slave-owners had failed in their duty to inculcate a sufficiently
strong work ethic in their slaves. If anything, slave-owners perhaps over-
indulged their slaves. Touring the island, she observed the numerous
provisions planters made for their slaves -hospitals for the sick, public baths,
'maternity leave' for expectant mothers, time off to raise provision grounds,
Christmas and other holiday entertainment, annual clothing allowances,
regular food rations- evidence, to Mrs. Nugent's mind, of the
benevolence of Jamaican planters. To be sure, she conceded, some planters
did mistreat their slaves, but these constituted a minority.
Conversely however, the association of whites and blacks produced
detrimental effects on the social, cultural and sexual morals of society.
Jamaican planters, Mrs. Nugent observed, displayed total disregard for the
spiritual state of their slaves' souls not surprising, given what she perceived
as white society's own laissez faire attitudes towards religion. The planters'
disregard for religion had a particularly pernicious effect on the "blackies."
Mrs. Nugent fervently believed that the inculcation of religion among the
enslaved would not only produce a more orderly slave community but would
lend towards the eventual abolition of the Slave Trade. As she reasoned,
"there would certainly be no necessity for the Slave Trade, if religion, decency
and good order, were established among the negroes." The absence of formal
Christian marriages among the enslaved represented a particular source of
"To BE FREE IS VERY SWEET:" RACIAUSED REPRESENTATIONS OF SLAVERY... 77
grievance. Mrs. Nugent shared the general belief among whites that Africans
were ruled by ungovernable sexual impulses, evident in their practice of
serial mating. The planters' disinclination to promote formal marriages
between the enslaved only encouraged casual sexual behaviour, inevitably
creating disorder among the enslaved community. Monogamous Christian
marriages among the enslaved would, Maria Nugent argued, be advantageous
in several respects; slave marriages would have the effect of producing
stability and order among the enslaved, increasing their happiness. In
recalling a conversation with Mr. Vaughan, owner of Flamstead plantation,
she shares her opinion, "on his estate, ...he has Christened all his negroes
and induced many of them to marry, and lead regular lives. He says, they
have in consequence improved in all respects; are sober, quiet and well-
behaved; and the last year twelve children were born of parents regularly
married. How delightful this is! I wish to God it could be made general, and
the benefits arising from it, in every point of view, would be incalculable"
(Wright 242). Slaveowners would also benefit from encouraging Christian
marriages among the enslaved. Happily married slaves would be more
inclined to produce healthy offspring, thus inadvertently reproducing the
slave population by natural increase, and eventually rendering the slave trade
"out of the question provided their masters were attentive to their morals."
Nugent's advocacy for slave marriages missed an essential point; though
joined together in holy matrimony by God, husbands and wives could be
separated by their owners, sold away from the plantation, perhaps never to
meet again. Moreover, planters wielded ultimate authority over slave families,
and enslaved husbands had no claims to authority over their wives or
children. There was the blind spot in her argument. Mrs. Nugent's suggestion
that marriage might tend towards greater stability within the enslaved
community sprang from her own rosy vision of patriarchal Christian
marriages in which the family was sacrosanct. The ties that bound enslaved
husbands, wives, and children in familial relationships could be all too easily
loosened. On their part, white males saw few advantages to encouraging
religion or marriage among their slaves; as Mrs. Nugent quickly learned, white
males of all classes freely indulged in sexual relations with enslaved women,
and staunchly defended this prerogative. She could hardly remain oblivious
to these voluntary or unwilling interracial liaisons; among the mulatto women
with whom she held frequent soirees were many "daughters of members of
the assembly, Officers etc." (Wright 78). The white women of her circle were
always eager to engage in gossip and told her "strange stories of the influence
of the black and yellow women, and Mrs. Bullock called them serpents"
(Wright 12). These sexual encounters across racial boundaries were, she
believed, the result of white males' own lack of moral fibre and leadership,
and set a poor example to enslaved blacks. When questioned about his
reluctance to marry, a male slave replied: "Hi Massa, you tell me have one
wife, which is no good! You tinky I no see you buckra no content wid one,
two, tree or four wives" (Wright 87). How, she mused, were the blacks to
acquire sexual morality when daily they witnessed the depravity of their
White women also suffered from their husbands' sexual relations with
black and coloured women. They were injured by the knowledge of their
husband's mulatto mistresses and offspring, and white family life was
disrupted as wives and children were forced to endure the constant evidence
of white male's penchants for black and mulatto women. Discord reigned in
white households as husbands neglected and mistreated their wives in favour
of mulatto mistresses, and at times, jealousies over these illicit relationships
could end in tragedy. Nugent's journal records one such murder. Slavery
therefore retarded the development of strong family structures among both
black and white populations.
It would be difficult to argue that Mrs. Nugent recognized any common
ground between herself and enslaved women. She recognized flaws in the
institution, but stopped far short of offering a sustained criticism of slavery
itself. To do so would have required a critical questioning of the basis of the
justification of slavery, and Maria Nugent, though asserting her belief in the
humanity of Africans, nevertheless perceived them as a species of inferior
beings. Christianity represented the surest route to African salvation and
ultimately, contentment with their lot. Imparting the word of God was a task
she undertook seriously, insisting that her own domestics be taught religion,
daily teaching them their catechisms, providing them with Christian tracts,
and organising their baptisms.
Maria Nugent often described Africans as "childlike," and "happy" yet
paradoxically her Jamaican sojourn was constantly overshadowed by fear
of these childlike peoples. When in 1802 news reached Jamaica of a black
uprising in St. Domingo in which 320 white people had been massacred, Mrs.
Nugent had to revise her opinion of these 'children.' While professing the
loyalty of her own slaves, there was ample evidence all around her that the
enslaved of Jamaica were not immune from revolutionary fervour, and might
be tempted to emulate their Haitian counterparts. Rumours of real or actual
conspiracies constantly circulated throughout Jamaica, leaving Mrs. Nugent
in a persistent state of worry for her family, and one that would not abate
until the summer of 1805, when the threat of an imminent uprising persuaded
George Nugent of the necessity of his family's departure from Jamaica.
Seven years separated the publications of Lady Nugent's Jamaica Journal
and Mary Prince's autobiographical narrative of her experiences of slavery.
Mary Prince's testimony, however, was not that of a free, elite white woman,
but that of an enslaved African woman. This first person testimony represents
a rare female voice, but the History's value exceeds it's rarity; within anti-
slavery discourse, the History acquired immense propaganda worth, as for
the first-time, an enslaved woman's own voice exposed British audiences to
the reality of the indignities, humiliations, and brutalities suffered by the
"To BE FREE IS VERY SWEET:" RACIAULSED REPRESENTATIONS OF SLAVERY... 79
enslaved within British colonies. Mary's memoirs represent a direct assault
on the institution of slavery, but above all, the History bears testimony to
how the powerless may, with tenacity, courage and strength, become
instruments of their own freedom.
In a Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792), Mary Wollstonecraft argues
that patriarchal marriage reduced European women to a state analogous to
that of slavery. Patriarchy established white women's subordination, but
perhaps their self-representation as slaves was to overstate their case.
Enslaved African women certainly recognized the subordination of European
women under male patriarchal rule. They perceived inequalities that
structured gender relations between white women and men, and
acknowledged that patriarchal wrath could descend equally on both black
and white women. Yet few would have accepted that white women's
subordination was tantamount to enslavement. White women enjoyed some
property rights, could be educated, and were afforded the protection of the
law from abusive husbands. No such redress was available to the enslaved
who suffered brutality at the hands of masters and mistresses. Enslaved
women understood too that while many mistresses might be humane in their
treatment of their slaves, ultimately, they still held rights of ownership over
the slave body. Their association with the household sphere meant that
mistresses and enslaved women, especially household domestics, lived
together in close proximity, and sometimes forged intimate relationships
across the racial barriers. Maria Nugent's accounts of her regular levees with
the black and coloured women of King's House reveals close 'friendships'
that could arise between free white and enslaved black women. Yet, while
they recognized their shared gender, enslaved women acutely perceived their
own alienation from dominant models of womanhood, and the privileges
that accrued to white women by virtue of their proximity to, and intimate
and familial relationships with, white males. Enslaved women would gladly
have exchanged their chattel status for the free status enjoyed by their
mistresses. To be sure, white women lacked formal social power, but these
women of African descent knew the true meaning of enslavement. Mary
Prince was well aware of what it really meant to be a slave.
"I have been a slave myself I know what slaves feel I can tell by myself
what other slaves feel, and by what they have told me. The man that says
slaves be quite happy in slavery that they don't want to be free that man
is either ignorant or a lying person. I never heard a slave say so" (Ferguson
94.). Thus declares Mary Prince to her readers of her History. In asserting
the privilege of experience, Prince undermines Nugent's representation of
colonial slavery as an essentially benevolent, paternalistic institution. Maria
Nugent's observations could enable her to claim herself a knowledgeable
authority on slavery, but Mary Prince's testimony represents a potent
denouncement of slavery from the perspective of one who had herself been
Mary Prince was born into slavery, sometime around 1788, in Bermuda, a
British colony. Her early years were spent with her siblings and her mother,
in the household of their owner, Charles Myners. Mr. Myners died while
Mary was still in her infancy, and her family was sold to Captain Darrells.
His household was managed by Mrs. Williams, his daughter, and "a kind good-
hearted woman," who "treated all her slaves well." Mary and her siblings
played happily together with Miss Betsy, the young daughter of the house,
"with as much freedom almost as if she had been our sister." This was, as
Mary recalled, "the happiest period in my life, for I was too young to
understand rightly my condition as a slave." But adolescence bought with it
an end to this quasi-idyll, ushering in a new phase in which she came to fully
comprehend the meaning of her condition as a slave (Ferguson 57-58).
Straitened financial circumstances led Mrs. Williams to hire out Mary to a
Mrs. Pruden. Parting from Mrs. Williams and her young playmate Betsy was
a "sore trial," for as Mary confessed, next to her own mother she had loved
her mistress "better than any creature in the world." Mrs. Pruden proved to
be a "passionate" though "not unkindly" woman, and Mary enjoyed her role
as nursemaid to Mrs. Pruden's young children; indeed, it was from Miss Fanny
that Mary acquired elementary literacy skills (Ferguson 58-60).
This "happy state" came to an end with the death of Mrs. Williams, her
former mistress. The widowed Mr. Williams, intending to remarry, recalled
Mary's family to his household, and sold them to raise funds for his
forthcoming nuptials. No doubt the young Mary was conscious of the
paradox that in seeking to rebuild his family, Mr. Williams brought about the
separation of her family. Distressed but helpless to prevent the sale, Mary's
mother prepared her children, dressing her daughters in clean shifts before
taking them to the market-place where auctions were held. This was
tantamount to death itself... "See, I am shrouding my poor children; what a
task for a mother!" (Ferguson 61).
Her experiences on the auction block fermented Mary's consciousness of
the powerlessness of the enslaved, and in particular, the absolute denial of
enslaved women's rights to motherhood. Hoping to attract the attentions of a
decent master or mistress, Mary's mother was forced to collude with the sale.
She "placed us in a row against a large house, with our backs to the wall and
our arms folded across our breasts." In arranging her daughters in this manner,
perhaps Mrs. Prince, aware of slave masters' sexual abuse of female slaves,
attempted to cover up signs of her daughter's burgeoning sexuality. Her heart
throbbing "with grief and terror so violent," Mary could only stand mutely
observing her mother's distress, vainly hoping that a kind benefactor might
come to their rescue. "Did one of the many bystanders, who were looking at
us so carelessly, think of the pain that wrung the hearts of the negro woman
and her young ones? No! No!" Mary later described her deep humiliation as
... [the vendue master].. .took me by the hand, led me out into the middle of
the street, and turning me slowly around, exposed me to the view of those
"To BE FREE IS VERY SWEET:" RACIAULSED REPRESENTATIONS OF SLAVERY...
who attended the vendue.. .Strange men.. .examined and handled me in the
same manner that a butcher would a calf or a lamb he was about to purchase,
and who talked about my shape and size in like words and I could no more
understand their meaning than the dumb beasts. (Ferguson 62-63)
Before being led off to her new home, Mary further endured the spectacle of
her younger sisters subjected to the same ordeal, sold to different owners,
the family torn apart by separation, "one went one way, one another, and
our poor mammy went home with nothing" (Ferguson 63).
The degradation endured on the auction block, and the subsequent
enforced separation from her mother and siblings represented the defining
moment of young Mary's coming to knowledge of herself as a species of
property that could be owned, bought, sold, mortgaged, hired out, put to
long hours of hard labour, and subjected to brutal punishment for alleged
infractions without legal protection. This was what it truly meant to be an
enslaved "negro," a state which until then Mary admitted only partial
knowledge. From this point, her world was abruptly and rudely transformed.
Before, life had been tolerable, but in the house of her new owners, Captain
and Mrs. Ingham, Mary's life became a constant struggle for survival, as they
strenuously sought to assert their control and the power "of the white
people's law" over this young girl's body. Mrs. Ingham immediately set about
showing Mary her duties; no sooner had Mary entered her new home than
her mistress thrust her young child into Mary's arms, before issuing a
reprimand to Mary, still raw with grief at the loss of her own family. "You are
not come here to stand up in corners and cry, you are come here to work."
Besides nursing her mistresses' young child, Mrs. Ingham taught Mary
...to do all sorts of household work; to wash to bake, pick cotton and wool,
and wash floors and cook. And she taught me, how can I ever forget it!
More things than these; she caused me to know the exact difference between
the smart of the rope, the cart-whip and the cow-skin, when applied to my
naked body by her cruel hand. And there was scarcely any punishment
more dreadful than the blows I received on my face and my head from her
hard heavy fist. She was a fearful woman, and a savage mistress to her slaves.
With these words, Mary challenges extant understandings of the white-
black female relationship under slavery. It was Mrs. Ingham who most
forcefully made her understand, not only what it meant to be a slave, but the
vast racial and social chasm separating free white and enslaved black women.
Mrs. Ingham's gender denied her public power, but within her household,
the mistress reigned, vigorously exercising authority and power over her
slave. Violence patterned and structured the relationship between Mary
and Mrs. Ingham, as the latter resorted to brute force in efforts to force
Mary's submission to her authority. Mrs. Ingham's brutal treatment extended
to all her slaves. Most shocking of all was the brutal beating of Mary's fellow
slave and friend, the pregnant Hetty, whose savage thrashing, urged on by
an angry Mrs. Ingham, resulted in the premature birth of a still-born child.
Physically malnourished and weakened from the persistent beatings, Hetty
soon followed her child to its grave. Protected by the law that refused to
extend protection to those who most needed it the enslaved the Ingrams'
were not called upon to account for their role in Hetty's early death, and
their ill-treatment continued unabated. Their demands increased, and Mary
was forced to assume the dead Hetty's tasks in addition to her own duties.
Finally, traumatised by Hetty's death, and unwilling to accept their continued
brutality, Mary ran away from the Ingham household, fleeing to her mother's
house. Though pained to hear of his daughter's ill-treatment, in efforts to
avert the harsh punishments meted out to runaway slaves, Mary's father
returned her to her owners, with the fervent plea that they temper their
harsh treatment of his daughter. This episode heightened Mary's awareness
of her parent's absolute powerlessness, and their inability to protect her
from the Ingham's wrath. "Mothers could only weep and mourn over their
children, they could not save them from cruel masters from the whip, the
rope and the cow-skin" (Ferguson 70). Her father lacked any authority and
his pleas for leniency fell on deaf ears. Mary alone would have to speak up
for herself, and with immense courage, she informed the Inghams that she
would no longer tolerate their harshness. On this occasion, Mary won out,
and escaped the expected punishment. But the remainder of her life with
the Inghams remained unchanged a daily routine of hard labour, poor food,
and ill-treatment, until five years later when she was sent away to Turk's
Island. Mary's joy at leaving the Inghams was tainted by the manner of her
departure once again wrenched away from her parents and siblings,
forbidden to bid goodbye to them. "Oh the Buckra people who keep slaves
think that black people are like cattle, without natural affection. But my heart
tells me it is far otherwise" (Ferguson 71). She nevertheless retained optimism
that her new owners would prove more humane than the Inghams.
But her new owner Mr. D proved a callous master who worked his slaves
unceasingly. In him, Mary discovered that she had in fact, merely gone "from
one butcher to another." For the slightest infraction Mr. D punished his slaves
unmercifully, displaying not the least emotion, remaining immune to their
tears and pleas for mercy. In the salt mines, Mary was forced to "work,
work, work" with little respite even when afflicted by painful salt boils caused
by standing for long hours up to her knees in salt water (Ferguson 72-73).
Inadequate diet, poor healthcare, overwork and constant floggings typified
the lot of Mary and her co-workers. Inevitably, the salt-mines proved the
undoing of Mary's already precarious health, and Mr D eventually took Mary
back to Bermuda. There, despite unrelieved labour, Mary found life somewhat
more tolerable than on Turk's Island, though the beatings continued and
Mary had to further contend with Mr. D's sexual advances, which when
"To BE FREE IS VERY SWEET:" RACIAUSED REPRESENTATIONS OF SLAVERY... 83
rebuffed, provoked further punishment from this 'indecent man' (Ferguson
Sexual abuse by white males of enslaved women is a central motif running
through slave narratives. Prince however refrains from explicit discussion
of the sexual abuse she suffered. Indeed, while her exposure of the cruelty
of slave-owners is unrestrained, by contrast Prince offers only carefully veiled
hints of her own sexual exploitation at the hands of masters, or of her own
sexual agency. These silences on a crucial gender-specific aspect of African
women's enslaved experiences can only be understood in the context of her
autobiography's publication. Prince was no doubt aware that frank sexual
revelations might offend the religious and moral sensibilities of the History's
intended audience of female middle class supporters of the anti-slavery
movement. No doubt the decision to omit any discussion of Mary's sexuality
- whether voluntary or involuntary was also informed by Thomas Pringle,
the book's editor, but it is also possible to suggest that this elision speaks of
Mary's own desire to preserve for herself a sense of feminine dignity, to offer
a self-representation as a model of moral womanhood in the face of efforts
by her owners to erase her femininity.
Hoping perhaps to escape Mr. D's unwanted sexual attentions, Mary
eventually managed to negotiate her purchase by Mr. and Mrs. Woods, who
were in the process of removing to Antigua. Mary's relationship with the
Woods differed little from that of previous owners. She was verbally and
physically abused by master and mistress, and Mrs. Wood in particular
seemed to gain sadistic pleasure from Mary's constant beatings and
humiliations. Continual strife reigned between mistress and slave woman,
as Mrs. Woods struggled to impose authority over every aspect of Mary's
life. Mary however refused to submit to the Woods authority, and in myriad
ways began to work towards securing her eventual freedom. After finishing
her tasks for the Woods, she took in washing, sold coffee, yams and other
goods in efforts to procure sufficient funds to secure her freedom. She joined
the Moravian church, which offered spiritual comfort and the friendship of
the missionaries there. She also met a free black man, Daniel, a carpenter,
whom she married without first obtaining approbation from her owners. It
was an audacious act that kindled the fury of Mrs. Woods. Disregarding pleas
that she be allowed to purchase her freedom, the Woods refused Mary her
liberty. In 1828, an opportunity for freedom finally presented itself when Mary
accompanied her owners to England. There domestic slavery had been
abolished. Escaping from their London residence, Mary made her way to
the Anti-Slavery Society, where her case was investigated. Outraged at her
story, the Society presented a petition to secure Mary's freedom before
Parliament. The Woods determined to maintain ownership rights over Mary's
body, but eventually were forced to return to Antigua, leaving Mary behind
in London. Their departure was not the end of Mary's troubles. From Antigua,
the Woods continued to assert their rightful ownership of Mary, whose
struggle for freedom was eventually won with the signing of the Slave
Emancipation Act in 1833.
In contrast to Maria Nugent's vision of slavery as a civilising, benevolent
force, Mary Prince's narrative reveals how this peculiar institution reduced
masters and mistresses to levels of brutality. Whites argued that Africans
were an uncivilised, brutal and primitive people; but paradoxically, it is the
former who are revealed as irrational, inhumane, capricious, unrestrained,
capable of great savagery and inhumanity. Slavery is dehumanising to all,
owners and slaves, white and black, men and women. In describing her
tempestuous relationship with Mrs. Wood and Mrs. Ingham, Mary is at pains
to show that female slave owners could be equally cruel and sadistic as
slave masters. Living alongside white women, Mary Prince could not be
immune to the iniquitous patriarchal gender order that deprived white
women of meaningful social and political power. Yet, Prince understood
that ownership and management of slaves conferred on white women the
ability to exercise a perverse power over the bodies of black men and women.
Some among her mistresses were 'kindly;' but Mary was in no doubt that
their economic, social, and racialised privileges derived from her own
Contestations of power between mistresses and enslaved women pervade
both narratives. Maria Nugent bemoaned the difficulties of extracting labour
from the domestics at King's House, while Mary Prince's efforts to negotiate
improvements in her labour conditions with Mrs. Ingham and Mrs. Wood
only served to provoke the mistresses' temper. Nugent's pro-slavery
consciousness underlined her unquestioning assumption of her right to
utilise slave labour, but enslaved women ceaselessly rejected owners' claims
to the fruits of their labour. When enslaved women protested the sheer
amount of labour demanded of them, malingered, shirked tasks, wilfully broke
valuable household items, talked back to their owners, or ran away, they
sent a resounding message to their owners that they recognized themselves
as more than slaves, as human individuals deserving of freedom. Mrs. Wood
regarded Mary's quest for freedom as a personal affront. She "was very angry
- she grew quite outrageous she called me a black devil, and asked me who
had put freedom into my head. 'To be free is very sweet I said, but she took
care to keep me a slave" (Ferguson 85-86). Freedom, Mary insisted, was not
the sole prerogative of whites who maintained their domination of blacks only
by rule of law.
Mary's struggles to assert her identity not as a slave but as a human being
and a woman inevitably provoked conflict with her mistresses. Stripped of
social power, white women's authority derived from their roles within the
household, particularly from their roles as mistresses of enslaved peoples.
The mistresses' fulfilment of her domestic responsibilities depended wholly
on her ability to successfully manage the domestic slaves knowledge of
which domestics were fully cognisant. Ceaselessly mistresses struggled to
"To BE FREE IS VERY SWEET:" RACIAuSED REPRESENTATIONS OF SLAVERY... 85
assert authority over recalcitrant slaves who, while grudgingly accepting
the master's authority, showed themselves less willing to accept similar
claims from the mistress. As one female slave in North Carolina commented,
"No Sir, Missus, 'ain't allowingg nobody what w'ar de same kind of shirt I does
ter whip me" (Fox-Genovese 313). Mistress and slave understood that the
household represented the limits of white female power, but that that power
was only ever at best, a delegated power; ultimate authority resided in the
hands of the master, and the mistress was only ever a representative of that
authority. Hence, enslaved women and their mistresses both sought to
establish the boundaries of the mistress/maid relationship. Prince's narrative
highlights the inherent tensions structuring her relations with Mrs. Ingham
and Mrs. Wood, both of whom implicitly understood that even partial
capitulation to Mary's pleas for a lighter workload or greater freedom
undermined their sovereignty. Neither mistress could countenance Mary's
pleas for freedom, understanding that their status as ladies was derived from
slave labour that freed them from drudgery. Both mistresses regarded
Prince's efforts to wrest for herself a degree of autonomy as acts of
subversion, her quest for self-determination a direct attack on their own
In the act of writing the History, Mary Prince literally wrote her way to the
freedom she regarded as her natural right. But the History is not simply
Mary's individual story; it is a polemic against slavery, told on behalf of all
voiceless enslaved peoples. Mary's narrative bears testimony to the
enslaved's undiminished belief in the rights of all people to freedom, their
resilience, their persistent will to survive in the face of great inhumanity and
brutality, the survival strategies and skills deployed by enslaved women in
their quest for freedom. In bringing to British abolitionist audiences the full
horrors of the peculiar institution, Mary Prince exposed the fallacious myth
of benevolent slavery. Unlike the privileged onlooker Maria Nugent, Prince
had no illusions that slavery was inimical to humanity; slavery dehumanised
every individual, both enslaved and enslaver, entangled in its mesh. Moreover,
Mary Prince's narrative revealed the imbrication of white women within the
institution of slavery; Mary did not experience white women as mere
bystanders or victims of slavery, as so many were wont to describe them,
but as active participants in a system that denied her humanity. To be sure,
some such as Maria Nugent empathised with enslaved women, but her
concerns extended no further than their sexual exploitation, its effects on
white society, and the moral vacuum arising from the general acceptance of
religious principles. An embedded sense of her own racial superiority, and
her acceptance of the institution of slavery, her belief in empire, her elite
class status prohibited an authentic understanding of the material realities
of slavery, and what enslavement meant to those denied freedom, hence her
insistence that the enslaved represented a 'happy and contented' people.
Mary's descriptions of the ill-treatment routinely meted out to the enslaved
86 CECILY JONES
by owners, the deprivations suffered, the long hours of arduous labour, the
forced separation of children from parents, of wives from husbands, provide
a stark counterpoint to Maria Nugent's insistence on the benevolent character
These contrasting interpretations of slavery can only be understood in
terms of each woman's location within the system the former a mistress of
slaves, the other an enslaved woman. As women, the two shared a common
gender identity, yet racial and class differences proved more decisive in
shaping the different material contours of their lives. Feminists have argued
that women's shared gender identity and their common subordination to
patriarchal authority provides a platform for understanding and solidarity
between women. A nuanced reading of both texts however, abruptly disrupts
and problematises the notion of woman as a singular category, highlighting
the crucial roles of race and class in structuring relations between different
groups of women. Ultimately, in a slave society, the fact of shared gender
identity among women counted for little.
"To BE FREE IS VERY SWEET": RACIALISED REPRESENTATIONS OF SLAVERY... 87
Beckles, Hilary. Centering Woman: Gender Discourses in Caribbean Slave
Society. Oxford: James Curry, 1998.
History of Barbados: From Amerindian Settlement to Nation-States.
Cambridge: Cambridge U P, 1990.
Natural Rebels: A Social History of Enslaved Black Women in
Barbados. London: Zed Books, 1989.
"White Women and Slavery in the Caribbean," History Workshop
Journal, No. 36 (1993).
Blackburn, Robin. The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery, 1776-1848. London:
Brathwaite, Kamau. The Development of Creole Society in Jamaica 1770-1820,
revised ed. Kingston, lan Randle, 2005.
Brereton, Bridget. "Text, Testimony and Gender: An Examination of Some
Texts by Women of the English-Speaking Caribbean from the 1770s to
the 1920s." In Verene Shepherd, Bridget Brereton and Barbara Bailey,
(eds.). Engendering History: Caribbean Women in Historical Perspective.
London: James Currey, 1995.
Bush, Barbara. Slave Women in Caribbean Societies. Oxford: James Curry, 1990.
"White 'Ladies,' Coloured 'Favourites' and Black 'Wenches:' Some
Considerations on Sex, Race and Class Factors in Social Relations in
White Creole Society in the British Caribbean." Slavery and Abolition
2.3 (December 1981).
Dunn, Richard. Sugar and Slaves: The Rise of the English Planter Class in the
English West Indies, 1624-1713. New York: Norton and Co., 1973.
Ferguson, Moira (ed.) The History of Mary Prince, A West Indian Slave Related
By Herself Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1997 [originally published
Forde-Jones, Cecily. "Contesting the Boundaries of Race and Sexuality in
Barbadian Plantation Society," Women's History Review, 12. 3 (2003).
Fox-Genovese, Elizabeth. Within the Plantation Household: Black and White
Women of the Old South. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1988.
Gaspar, David B. Darlene C. Hine (eds.). More than Chattel: Black Women and
Slavery in the Americas. Bloomington: Indiana U P, 1996.
Gates, Henry L. (ed.) Collected Black Women's Narratives. Schomburg Library
of Nineteenth-Century Black Women Writers. New York: Oxford U P,
Genovese, E.D. From Rebellion to Revolution: Afro-American Slave Revolts in
the Making of the Modern World. New York: Vintage Books, 1979.
88 CECILY JONES
Goveia, Elsa. The West Indian Slave Laws of the 18th Century. Bridgetown:
Caribbean Universities P, 1970.
Gray-White, Deborah. Arn 't IA Woman? Female Slaves in the Plantation South.
New York: Norton & Co, 1985.
Hall, Douglas. (ed.). In Miserable Slavery: Thomas Thistlewood in Jamaica,
1750-86,. London: Macmillan Caribbean, 1989.
Higginbotham Jr., A. Leon. In the Matter of Colour: Race and the American
Legal Process: The Colonial Period. New York: Oxford U P, 1978.
Mathurin Mair, Lucille. "An Historical Study of Women in Jamaica from 1654-
1844." PhD Diss., University of the West Indies, Jamaica, 1974.
____ The Rebel Woman in the British West Indies During Slavery. Kingston:
Institute of Jamaica for the African-Caribbean Institute of Jamaica, 1975.
Midgley, Clare. Women Against Slavery: The British Campaigns, 1780-1870.
London: Routledge, 1992.
Morrissey, Marietta. Slave Women in the New World. Lawrence: U P of Kansas,
Morgan, Jennifer. Laboring Women: Reproduction and Gender in New World
Slavery. Philadelphia : U of Pennsylvania P, 2004.
Morton, Patricia (ed.) Discovering the Women in Slavery: Emancipating
Perspectives on the American Past. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1996.
Thomas, Hugh. The Slave Trade: History of the Atlantic Slave Trade 1440-
1870. London: Picador, 1997.
William, Eric. Capitalism and Slavery, revised ed. Chapel Hill: U of North
Carolina P, 1994 [originally published 1944].
__ From Columbus to Castro: A History of the Caribbean 1492-1969.
London: Andre Deutsch, 1970.
Wright, Philip (ed.) Lady Nugent's Journal of Her Residence in Jamaica from
1801-1805. Kingston: Institute of Jamaica, 1966.
Wollstonecraft, Mary. Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Boston: Peter Edes,
Yee, Shirley. Black Women Abolitionists: A Study in Activism, 1828-1880.
Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1992.
Bad Black Men and Comical Chinese:
Racial Stereotyping in
Early Cuban Detective Fiction
University College London
This essay is an examination of the Cuban detective genre in Cuba prior
to the revolution, a period which has been neglected by academics
both inside and outside the island. Contrary to the established view,
there was a relatively highly developed cultivation of the detective narrative
in Cuba before revolution of 1959, and it is possible to argue that the post-
revolutionary boom in the genre was an extension of a tradition stretching
back to the early part of the twentieth century. So it is curious to ask why
academics have overlooked this period.
In her overview of pre-revolutionary Cuban detective writing Amelia S.
Simpson states that until 1971 'there was virtually no cultivation of detective
fiction in Cuba:'
Although translations of works from Europe and the United States had been
popular since at least the 1920s, the genre remained essentially an imported
model, a narrative form that was widely consumed yet scarcely practised
In reaching such a conclusion, Simpson was perhaps influenced by post-
revolutionary Cuban critics who play down the pre-revolutionary significance
of the genre. She refers to Luis Rogelio Nogueras who, in a 1978 article, states
that detective literature 'como muchos otros hechos de nuestra cultural' is a
product of the revolution:
No es un secret para nadie que hasta 1959, en Cuba s6lo unos pocos autores
se ocuparon esporAdicamente del genero. En su inmensa mayoria, se trataba
de relatos mAs o menos cortados seg(in el patr6n de la llamada "novela
dura" norteamericana, y que aparecieron (firmados con seud6nimos como
John D. Thomas, por ejemplo) en alguna que otra tirada masiva. (1982: 41)
90 STEPHEN WILKINSON
The critic Imeldo Alvarez states 11 years later in the introduction to his
anthology of detective writing, Narraciones policiales:
Antes de la Revoluci6n, la presencia del g6nero policial en Cuba fue disfrute
de los receptores, y no cultivo del los creadores, aunque se produjeron
algunas sefiales que hoy constituyen huellas arqueol6gicas. (1993:6)
Similarly, Armando Crist6bal Perez, writing in 1981, dismisses the pre-
revolutionary genre as insignificant and in the main overly inflected with a
colonial subservience to the dominance of European and U.S. tastes.
Commenting on the fact that the post-revolutionary boom in detective writing
had aroused an interest in what had been produced before 1959, he writes
that the genre 'no tuvo al parecer cultivadores.' There were occasional
attempts by a few authors, but in the main these texts were imitations of the
classics and manipulated by commercial interests which transplanted foreign
situations and characters into Cuban settings. The absence of a peculiarly
Cuban detective narrative was indisputable:
En cualquier caso, la ausencia de obras literarias de autores reconocidos y
de prestigio, dedicadas sistemAticamente al empefio conciente de creaci6n
alrededor del tema policiaco en Cuba, es un hecho indiscutible. (1981: 123)
Perez suggests that this absence was due to economic, political and social
conditions that impeded the development of the genre prior to 1959. He is correct
in the sense that social and economic conditions in pre-revolutionary Cuba were
not conducive to the cultivation of a mass literature. The low literacy rate,
immense poverty and a smaller population, all limited the market for books and
the demand for literature.' The Revolution created the market for a popular
genre such as detective fiction for the first time. However, in their dismissal
of pre-revolutionary detective fiction, Nogueras, Crist6bal Perez and Alvarez
might also be guilty of overemphasising its insignificance in order to make
the post-revolutionary genre appear even more impressive by comparison.
For although the quantity of output does not compare with the post-1971
boom, it is not true to say that pre-revolutionary detective fiction was
insignificant or that it was wholly characterized by being an imitation of the
classics or by the importation of foreign features.
If only printed literature is taken into account, it is fair to say that the
genre was not cultivated to a large extent but if, in addition, radio and film
' Lisandro Otero in Dissenters and Supporters in Cuba (1987: 72): 'In 1958, book sales
amounted to 0.2 per inhabitant, in the 1976-1980 period, sales were 5 to 6 books per
inhabitant... 1200 titles with 42 million copies were published in Cuba in 1980.'
According to Armando Hart DAvalos (1983: 24-25) the former Minister of Culture,
less than one million books per year were printed prior to 1959 and by 1983 they
were producing 50 million. In 1959 there were 17,000 university students, by 1983
this figure had risen to 200,000.
BAD BLACK MEN AND COMICAL CHINESE
production is considered, the picture is different. A simple list of the output
is impressive: before 1959 Cubans produced at least three full length novels,
two magazines, dozens of short stories, one silent feature film, a silent film
series, one short and two feature length 'talkies', and a popular radio detective
series featuring one of the most celebrated radio detective heroes in the
history of Latin American broadcasting. Rather than being a 'sporadic' output
it is possible to perceive a varied yet continuous flow of narratives. Also, in
terms of their 'national' characteristics, although the characters were by no
means all Cuban or the narratives always set in Cuba, nonetheless far more
could be described as Cuban than Simpson, Nogueras, Alvarez and Crist6bal
Perez suggest. Even where foreign influences were most dominant, readings
of the genre can still inform an understanding of Cuban society as it developed
through the first part of the twentieth century especially since the issue of
race is a central concern.
As far I have been able to ascertain the first detective narrative created in
Cuba was the film La hija del policia o en poder de los iidiigos. Produced in
1917, it dealt explicitly with the issue of race and, more particularly, the
activities of the secret Afro-Cuban cult of AbakuA. This silent epic, some 72
minutes in length, was the work of Enrique Diaz Quesada who is credited
with having written, directed and edited it with the financial help of the Cuban
circus entrepreneurs Santos y Artigas whose circus was featured in the final
scenes.2 The Cuban Film Institute (ICAIC) Cinemateca Archive in Havana,
sadly does not have a copy of the film since it is believed to have been
destroyed in a fire along with Diaz Quesada's ten episode detective serial El
genio del mal, first shown in 1920, reportedly the first film serial made in
Cuba. No records survive about the serial but a synopsis of La hija delpolicia
o en poder de los nfifigos in the journal Cuba Cinematogrdfica reveals that
the main concern of the film-makers was to deliver a parable attacking the
'plaga social' of the Abakua cult (1917:18).
The plot involves a detective, Pepe Ramirez, who succeeds in penetrating
a group of the cult and arrests most of it members. Those who escape vow
to avenge themselves and hatch a plot to kidnap his daughter. The ensuing
adventure follows the detective's investigation and ultimate rescue of his
child. Towards the end of the film, Ramirez is helped by two journalists, one
of whom, Federico Gibert, according to the synopsis 'posee la sagacidad de
Scherlock [sic] Holmes' (1917:18), a reference which indicates the extent to
which Anglo-American detective heroes had penetrated the Cuban market
by this time. However, the most salient aspect is the film's fascination with
and condemnation of the Abakua cult.
The film includes scenes of an Abakua ceremony which, according to the
2 This is evident from a reading of the plot summary in Cuba Cinematogrdfica 1917.
Photocopy of article in author's possession.
Fig. 1 A scene from La hija del policia. The caption reads: 'El Policia Ramirez presta
su juramento ante el cabildo de fidfilgos.' From Cuba Cinematogr6fica (1917).
[...] result de gran originalidad para el pfblico y se ha hecho con todos
los detalles posibles. (1917: 10)
Evidently there is a paradoxical interest in the cult: on the one hand the
film plays on a public fascination for its occult nature, while on the other it is
professing a desire to eradicate the cult's influence. Instrumental in this is
the character Luciano, a young black, the nephew of a witch who is associated
with the cult and
[...] que aunque quiere a su tfa porque ella lo ha criado, es opuesto a
las prActicas del fetichismo y muy a menudo reprende a su tia por eso.
Luciano resolves to help Ramirez because he feels sorry for the girl when
he sees her bound and gagged in his Aunt's house. Such feelings are the
result of his having received the benefits of an education:
Es Luciano la prueba palpable del beneficio de la escuela pfiblica. Vedlo en
esta pelicula, como en medio de un mal ambiente, su instrucci6n lo pone a
cubierto de un fanatismo ridiculo. (1917: 11)
This faith in the 'civilising' powers of education is thus counterpoised by
the way in which the film indulges some commonly held mythologies about
BAD BLACK MEN AND COMICAL CHINESE 93
Enrique Sosa in his study Los Radiigos (1982) traces the history of the cult
back to free slaves who worked as labourers in the ports of Havana and
Matanzas during the government of Miguel Tac6n (1834-36). Tac6n, while
being a particularly despised Spanish Governor, paradoxically tolerated all
kinds of African music and culture and allowed the AbakuA cult, among others,
to flourish. The film, which is shot in Havana, Guanabacoa, Regla and
Matanzas, is accurate in its locations because it is in these particular regions
where the sect survives today. According to Sosa it is
[...] la finica sociedad secret de su tipo en nuestro continent con tan
valiosos aportes a nuestro acerbo cultural y folkl6rico. (1982:11)
Nevertheless the cult acquired the sinister reputation for being allegedly
responsible for numerous evils including murder. Sosa reports that in the
late nineteenth century, the cult was widely believed to be a refuge for
criminal elements that resulted in a great deal of popular mythology about
it. Hysteria was whipped up by the media of the day. Sosa remarks on
how the cult was established among urban working class blacks that also
used membership as a means to obtain work since the cult leaders were
often foremen. Based in the poorest areas of the city, some groups also
became the bases for gangs of thieves. In addition, the cult has two
branches, the Efik and Ekoi who from time to time quarrelled and fought one
another. This accounted for its sinister reputation that was then exacerbated
by the press:
Algunos barrios de La Habana se hicieron famosos por la particular fisonomia
que les dio la presencia en su vecindario de numerosos nfifigos, con la
caracteristica en muchos de sus integrantes de una actitud exhibicionista,
jaquetona y regida por normas especiales que abrieron los fambds [temples]
a delincuentes o predelincuentes. En tiempos de enfrentamiento entire
sociedades de las ramas efik y ekoi, la mala fama de dichos barrios, por su
peligrosidad social, con la del fifiigismo, se increment, a lo cual contribuy6
hiperbolizando hechos y denigrando sus ritos y sistema de creencias, la prensa
mis desvergonzada y sensacionalista del pals. (1995: 35) 3
Lydia Cabrera points out that the first such stories about the fiffigos
were put about 'a mediados del siglo pasado' by Don Antonio de las Barras
y Prado whom she quotes as writing in Memorias sobre la Habana:
3 An illuminating sensual (and possibly pejorative) connotation is offered by the
word fambd. Ortiz in his Glosario de afronegrismos (1991: 193 first published in
1924) tells us that fambd is both the name of the fiafiigos' place of worship and a
vulgar term meaning a person's behind, whereas Santiesteban (1985: 205) lists the
definition merely as a masculine noun meaning 'trasero' (behind).
94 STEPHEN WILKINSON
Los fifiigos forman una asociaci6n tenebrosa de robo y pillaje, para entrar
en la cual, tiene el ne6fito que [...] beber sangre de gallo [...] y depu6s
como ultima prueba de valor, le entregan un pufial para que salga a la calle
a probar el hierro, lo cual hace dando una pufialada al transeunte que mejor
le parece [...] (1970:21)
Such ideas, according to Cabrera, were denounced as 'pura invenci6n' by
the old devotees of the cult with whom she talked. Her informants wished to
divulge their secrets to her as a corrective:
Este error, calumnia la mas humillante para el fi'fiigo lo es para toda la
gente de color-, decidi6 a un anciano, a SaibekM, y otros iniciados, a romper
su silenio y aclararnos su Misterio con verdadero interns, aunque se sabe
en qu6 consiste el gran secret de Abakua. (1970: 11)
When, in 1904 a twenty-month old white baby was kidnapped and later
found murdered, this racist myth took a macabre turn. As Aline Helg has
documented, the so-called Zoila case became a public scandal in which the
AbakuA were blamed for the murder (1995: 109-113). According to HeIg, the
hysteria resulted in the authorities appointing a white judge to investigate the
killing. A series of white witnesses testified to the guilt of a brujo, African born
former slave Lucumi Domingo Boucourt, and a Cuban born black, Juana
Tabares. They were garrotted for the murder in 1906. The case had followed
the murder of Celia, a young girl in Havana, apparently at the hand of a black
assailant. The twin cases thus confirmed the racial stereotyping. Such was
the pervasive power of these rumours that even before the Revolution in 1959,
nannies were still warning their rich charges that if they were not good the
idifigos would take them away (Sosa 1982:12). HeIg adds that this journalistic
mythologising was given academic support by the ethnologist Fernando Ortiz,
whose early racial theories of crime are discussed below (1995:112).
Thus when La hija del policia was made, there was already a climate of
suspicion and fear of the Abakua cult prevalent in white Cuban society, and
the film itself was both a cause and effect of this. In this respect, in common
with much detective fiction of the time, and the Sherlock Holmes stories in
particular, the film shares a fascination with the racial, exotic and possibly
supernatural as the source of evil. In such stories as Conan Doyle's The Speck-
led Band, The Sign of Four or Wilkie Collins's The Moonstone it is the Orient
from which all manner of evil is perceived to stem.4 Edward Said in Orientalism
4 In The Speckled Band the murder is effected by the use of a trained snake that the
murderer has recently brought back from his travels in India. Holmes describes it
as 'a swamp adder -the deadliest snake in India.' A red herring is provided in the
story by a camp of gypsies outside the house who seem to be the most obvious
BAD BLACK MEN AND COMICAL CHINESE
(1979) has positioned Doyle within a
canon of Victorian writing that he sees
as part of a larger, culturally bound way
of conceiving the East as exotic, cruel,
sensual, opulent and barbaric in such a
way as to legitimise and naturalise West-
ern civilisation and its domination over
Without examining Orientalism as a
discourse one cannot possibly
understand the enormously systematic
discipline by which European culture was
able to manage and produce the Orient
politically, sociologically, militarily,
ideologically, scientifically and
imaginatively during the post-
enlightenment period. (1979: 3)
The net result of Conan Doyle's fiction
is to demonise the Orient and to implic-
itly affirm 'English civilisation'. There is
a sense that the urban safety of bourgeois
London is threatened by the proximity of
the 'colonies,' in particular in the East Fig. 2 Illustration overleaf: Mas-
End where the Chinese and the port area saguer's drawing for Fantoches 1926,
are located. It is with such arcane and taken from the 1993 edition of the
closed societies (the Chinese, the Hin- novel (Havana: Editorial Capitin
dus) and dangerous geographic areas San Luis: 124).
(the East End, the haunt of the Ripper) that Victorian detective fiction is
obsessed. The detective, be he Poe's Dupin in the inner city of Paris or Conan
Doyle's Holmes in fog-bound Victorian London, is a figure who can traverse
these prohibited spaces and bring their secrets to light. The Afro-Cuban cults
suspects. They echo the mysterious Brahmins in Collins's The Moonstone (1992:34)
who arrive at the Verinders' house in search of their diamond. Like the Gypsies in
Doyle, the Brahmins are innocent. But they are seen to be proof of the curse
associated with the theft of the gem, stolen from a sacred temple in India, which,
by its possession seems to bring disaster on those who possess it. The butler,
Betteridge, describes the situation thus: '...Here was our quiet English house
suddenly invaded by a devilish Indian Diamond bringing after it a conspiracy of
living rogues, set loose on us by the vengeance of a dead man... Who ever heard
the like of it in the nineteenth century, mind; in an age of progress, and in a country
which rejoices in the blessings of the British Constitution?' For a detailed discussion
of Conan Doyle's fascination with Empire, see Thompson (1993).
and the dangerous black neighborhoods of Havana would seem to hold a
similar fascination in this film.
This comparison becomes all the more interesting as one explores later
Cuban detective stories that also display a fascination with Afro-Cuban cults.
The Mfidigos are also suspected of being responsible for the attempted murder
of the society beauty, Rosa, in the 1926 novel, Fantoches 1926. As in La hija
del policia, in this narrative they are also given a female accomplice, which
would be extremely unlikely in reality as the AbakuA sect is strictly for men
only. Lydia Cabrera describes how she had difficulty getting old devotees of
the cult to talk to her and how they would not let women touch their drums
or other instruments (1970:11, 152). Thus, linking a bruja or female witch to
the cult, as in both these narratives, is creating a false and, for women at
least, pejorative connection. Both were written by white, male, middle class
Cubans. Interestingly, Fantoches 1926 was jointly written by eleven members
of the Grupo Minorista, a literary protest group founded by the poet, Ruben
Martinez Villena, that congregated on Saturdays at the Hotel Lafayette.5 In
Fantoches the occult African explanation for the mystery transpires to be
the product of a deranged and racially obsessed judge who all too readily
believes the story of M6nica, a 'senil y decrepita' servant (1993:126). In the
final chapter, written by the novelist, Carlos Loveira, a rational explanation
of the shooting is provided, along with a denunciation of Judge Rodriguez de
Arellano's version of events. Like Luciano in La hija delpolicia, contemporary
Cuban blacks are described by Loveira as more interested in education than
African cults. In summing up the Judge's mistaken version of events Loveira
Su obsesi6n pronto convertida en monomania, le impidi6 ver lo absurdo de
que j6venes hombres y mujeres de color, que Ilenan hoy, ansiosos de saber
y educaci6n, los salones de los institutes, de la Universidad y los clubs,
pudieran seguir obedeciendo viejas y salvajes conjuras racistas o fetichistas.
Fantoches was published in twelve instalments in the monthly magazine
Social throughout 1926. Each month, a different member of the Minorista
5 The Grupo Minorista was formed following the so-called Protesta de los Trece against
the sale, by the corrupt government of Alfredo Zayas in 1923, of the Santa Clara
convent. The poet Martinez Villena led the protest. He and others in the group
went on to form the Minoristas. According to Ana Cairo (1978: 34), the idea for the
novel grew out of a desire to incorporate European ideas into Cuban literature.
Although she found no direct documentary evidence as to the origin of the project,
her understanding is that it came about because the group wished to experiment with
avant-garde forms of literature. Jos6 Antonio Portuondo, in his preface to the 1993
edition of Fantoches, points out that the weekly sports and literature newspaper El
Figaro had published two novels prior to Fantoches 'using an identical plan' (1993: 6).