EXPLORATION AND COLONIZATION
Greater Antilles, 1609
Exploration and colonization of the Caribbean transformed European knowledge of the world’s geography and inspired extensive mapmaking. Mapping of the Caribbean islands and surrounding mainland was essential for navigation, administration, commerce and warfare. Following 1492, Spain claimed the entire Caribbean. During the seventeenth century, England, France and the Netherlands challenged Spanish hegemony and established their own Caribbean colonies.
European countries mapped both their own possessions and those of their rivals. Over the centuries, maps revealed increasingly accurate geographic knowledge, as well as rivalries between European powers. Maps from different time periods show how islands changed hands in relation to the outcomes of European wars, fought both on the European continent and in the Americas.
During the early period of colonization, Europeans were fascinated with the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean, primarily Arawak-related groups and Caribs. Indian cultures differed greatly from those of the Old World and challenged Europeans’ understandings of themselves. Drawings of Caribbean Indians illustrate their unique cultural practices, along with their encounters with Europeans. Some illustrations portray Indians and Europeans engaged in warfare, while others are idealized representations of peaceful relations.
TOWNS & CITIES
Establishment of towns
European colonization of the Caribbean involved not only the development of plantations but the establishment of towns for administration and commerce. Early town plans drawn by artists and mapmakers illustrate central plazas or squares surrounded by layouts of streets, typically in a grid pattern.
Artists also drew perspective views of port towns and cities, often with ship-filled harbors in the foreground. Such views suggest the economic significance of towns and cities as centers for trade in agricultural products and other goods.
Also common are drawings and photographs that focus on the architecture of colonial power, such as forts, walls, churches, administrative buildings and schools.
Illustrators of Caribbean towns and cities were fascinated by the region’s vibrant street life. Drawings and photographs capture the diverse social classes and ethnic groups that inhabited Caribbean urban centers and portray their interactions in public spaces. Diverse styles of dress are meticulously documented. In addition, images of carnivals and other festivals depict the temporary transformation of the urban environment into a setting for revelry and artistic expression through masquerades and other performances.
AGRICULTURE AND RURAL LIFE
NATURAL HISTORY AND DISASTERS
The beauty of the Caribbean landscape and its abundance of flora and fauna mesmerized observers of the region. Some early illustrations are fanciful, rather than naturalistic, and reflect artists’ efforts to comprehend unfamiliar species.
During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, however, the flourishing of natural history as a systematic science involved extensive and finely detailed documentation of the diverse geological features, plants and animals of the region. There was also increasing publication of drawings and paintings of landscapes during this period.
Though the Caribbean was typically represented as a natural paradise, artists and publishers also demonstrated that is was periodically threatened by volcanoes, earthquakes and hurricanes. Drawings and photographs of these disasters accompanied descriptive articles in the periodicals of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Artists produced horrific scenes that demonstrated the devastating effects of natural forces on the lives of Caribbean people, both on land and at sea.
GOVERNMENT AND REBELLIONS
The revolt of enslaved Africans in French San Domingue in 1791 led to the emergence of Haiti, in 1804, as the second independent nation-state in the Americas. The Dominican Republic achieved independence from Haiti in 1844, was re-colonized by the Spanish in 1861 and became independent again in 1865.
Virgin Islands riot, 1878
European imperial control of the Western Hemisphere began in the Caribbean and continued there for centuries. Today, some Caribbean islands remain the possessions of European countries or the United States. The longevity and intensity of colonial rule in the Caribbean, in turn, inspired a variety of forms of resistance and rebellion by local peoples. Illustrators for periodicals recorded major rebellions and the rise of independent nation-states in the region.
The Commission and Frederick Douglass
In 1871 a U.S. commission (which included an artist) conducted an extensive survey of the Dominican Republic, with an eye toward possible annexation. In 1865 artists documented the Jamaican Morant Bay rebellion, a major assault on British colonial rule in the Caribbean.
Cuba in 1878 and 1895
Illustrators and photographers also recorded the Cuban wars of independence from Spain during the nineteenth century and U.S. involvement in the battles of 1898.
Organized tourism in the Caribbean developed during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. During this period, Europeans and North Americans began to perceive the region as a new leisure destination, in addition to a source of agricultural products. Through books, pamphlets and advertisements, the emerging tourism industry generated enticing images of the Caribbean as a place for adventure and relaxation. Postcards, in particular, became a major medium through which tourists collected visual experiences and shared them with others.
Mass tourism in the Caribbean developed after World War II and, today, many North Americans and Europeans perceive the region primarily in terms of recreation. Tourism publicity materials draw on a long tradition of illustrations that emphasize lush landscapes, tranquil beaches and the picturesque customs of local peoples. Such stereotypical images, constantly recycled in the mass media, have a powerful impact on external visions of the Caribbean.
There are, however, alternatives to these images. Several generations of painters, sculptors, photographers and filmmakers, particularly those based in the Caribbean, offer visions that explore the region’s natural and social complexity from a wide range of perspectives.