The Colour Of Shadows: Images Of Caribbean Slavery

Author:  Dawn A. Davis
Trinidadian journalist and scholar, Judy Raymond, gives us a snapshot of life as a slave in the Caribbean during the 19th century. With documentary images from Richard Bridgens, an Englishman who lived in Trinidad during the period, and a slave owner himself, The Colour of Shadows: Images of Caribbean Slavery unearths details in vivid hues.

Book CoverSprinkled with images of plantation life highlighting the drudgery of harvesting and processing sugar cane, African religious ceremonies, and stolen moments of respite, the book outlines how slavery marked the shaped the Caribbean island, much like other islands that make up the region. Indeed contemporary Trinidadian society still shows remnants of separate societies and classism that can perhaps be attributed to the colonial slave experience. Jamaica and Guyana are other examples.

Writes Raymond, “Slavery has left behind a deeply scarred society and yet few people can identify those scars, except lingering prejudice and mistrust, and economic disadvantages suffered by black people”.

Sugar Coat

Importantly Raymond does not sugar coat the experience that her research uncovered. Bridgens’ drawings was her starting point in identifying the development of the island’s social attitudes toward the African who literally built its economy that enriched the English plantocracy. Perhaps one of the most disturbing images is Figure 3, labeled “Negro Heads…”

Among the drawings are male and female African slaves with body tattoos (probably tribal markings), a man with a metal facial mask and a woman with a metal collar. Raymond describes that these implements were used as punishment for intoxication and dirt-eating. Bodily scarring were often used to identify run-away slaves.

A seemingly innocent drawing of a slave woman and man meeting on the street on a quiet Sunday morning, titled “Sunday Morning in the Country” speaks volumes if the image is studied closely. The woman wears a necklace with a cross around her neck. The Christian conversion of African slaves was part and parcel of the slavery experience, and this image as well as others, could be the basis for another piece of research by Ms. Raymond on how Christianity was used as a tool of oppression.

The drawing of an African religious ceremony, dubbed “Negro Superstition” deliberately maligns the practice as primitive and offensive, subconsciously branding Africans as heathens, thus the need for Christianity. Indeed Bridgens’ own commentary that accompanies his drawings underscored the sentiment of the day. Bridgens’ images also highlight the continuing contradictions of slavery. According to Raymond, the ‘Proctector of Slaves Office’ was set up in the Trinidadian colony to advocate for their rights. Apparently to protect slaves from illegal beatings and torture, the image shows slaves waiting in line to have their illegal wounds inspected by their ‘protectors’. But, she questions: “Why is the office of a man tasked with protecting the defenceless also mandated to regulate instruments of torture”? Also in the image are iron masks and collars and other implements of torture said to be under the Protector’s control.

En Masse

Raymond also points out that unlike islands like Jamaica and Haiti, slaves in Trinidad did not rebel or fight for their rights en masse. Perhaps the island’s geological formation did not allow it; there was no place to hide! It was not until the official abolition of slavery in the British colonies in 1834 that African slaves started to ‘breathe’, although they were indentured until 1838.

Only 190 pages, this little book of academic research is packed with painstaking detail, yet Raymond presents it in easy-to-understand language. We learn about the size of the plantation homes, the height of the front doors, the number of slaves on the plantation, details of slave ships. But, what also makes this book a pleasure to read is the writer’s use of metaphor and poetic rhythm to describe the sometimes harrowing scenes of daily life:

“Slavery was a blood-red thread woven thick and deep through the fabric of English life… Enslaved workers slept the sleep of exhaustion, stretched out on mattresses of dried cane leaves spread over beds of planks or heaped on a beaten earthen floor—even when they were not working, they couldn’t escape the cane”.
Raymond tells us that Bridgens was also a civil servant, an architectural designer, and furniture designer. But, it is his drawings of slavery in the 19th century Caribbean context that leaves a lasting impression, good or bad.

Author: Judy Raymond
Publisher: Caribbean Studies Press
Publication Date: 2016