The Colour of Shadows
Images of Caribbean Slavery
(Caribbean Studies Press)
The title of Images of the Caribbean Slavery is a bit of false advertising. There are less than twenty pictures here of paintings and sketches by Richard Bridgens - - - and the reproduction is tiny, often without appropriate contrast. Only three show hints of the crueler elements of black lives in Trinidad. There are some lovely sketches of what they used to call "high life" - - - blacks dressed in their Sunday finery - - - along with portraits of some buildings in Port of Spain and a few dandy palm trees.
The text, however, more than makes up for the illustration's lacks. There are some grim passages on punishments meted out to those who worked the plantations where sugar was grown, cut, crushed, boiled and packed for shipment to Europe. For example,
Mary Anne French, nine, was said to have been beaten and then thrown to the ground by the estate manager, a Mr. Locker, who she said then knelt on her stomach. He had accused her of stealing fish from the estate house pantry, and flogged her with a switch, the cat o' nine tails, and a guava stick. Afterward Mary Anne complained to her father, Lewis Hall, of pain in her heart. He treated her with aloes and table salt, but she subsequently vomited blood.
There are several hair-raising stories of treatment of black slaves, but the true tragedy of their work may have been hidden, for one could literally die of overwork. Those who worked in sugar plantations had a life expectancy of seven years, far less than those working in, say, coffee or cotton plantations. The cultivation of cane was especially onerous because the sheath of the plants was tough, could only be stripped by hand with machetes.
Field workers were expected to start at six in the morning, with some time off for lunch, but were at it again until six at night, and then were required to crop grass for feeding livestock.
Those who didn't work in the fields were in the sugar mill itself where the cane was crushed with wooden logs, boiled in large vats, to be constantly stirred and skimmed. The heat and the lousy working conditions plus malnourishment contributed to the brief life expectancy of a worker on the plantation, and the treatment was the same for men, women, and boys and girls. Whippings and beatings were common, and those who tried to commit suicide were punished - - - as if their daily lives weren't punishment enough. There was also the sickness called melancholy which was, to say the least, virulent.One of the two reproductions that makes the case for the violence against the slaves was entitled the "Protector of Slaves Office." One of the ten characters represented in the drawing was a black woman, her shirt dropped behind her, showing scars on her back from lashings. Another black women has an injured arm, and a child has the distended belly of the starving. The actual office of the Protector came late in the day, being instituted only in 1824, ten years before the outlawing of "the peculiar institution." It was, according to the author, hardly helpful. The majority of decisions favored the slave-holder, and, as the Anti-Slavery Society noted, "It is indeed most humiliating to see the British Government reduced to the necessity of assigning the number of lacerations of the cart-whip which private caprice may inflict on the bodies of human beings like themselves." Slaves, once brought into the office and faced with the slave-holder quite often backed down, refused to prosecute. As you'd be expected to do when you were faced directly with the one who held all the chips.
Another sketch, "Negro Superstition," shows seven blacks practicing something called Obeah, "employing spiritual forces, casting spells, and often with divination to tell the future." It was essentially a court for the blacks to bring judgment within their own cohort, without depending on the obligations of the whites. One man is shown on his knees, and "the obeahman is twisting branches of a fern-like shrub said to be the Doo di Doo bush around the neck of the subject. . . . If he lies by denying his guilt, it will tighten until he confesses." In his comments Bridgens reported
that the obeahman would give the fronds a covert twist to frighten the culprit into confessing . . . [and] the refusal to undergo the ordeal was taken as an admission of guilt.
This is hardly a portrait of the toils of slavery. Indeed, the sketches of Bridgens are slim pickings. Of the twenty-seven plates from his self-published West India Scenery, many are of white buildings, others of plants and bushes, and most don't seem to be very telling. In fact Raymond's attempt to extract meaning from the somewhat bland (and not very good) portraitures is but to get carried away, especially when we can barely make out ourselves what it is being represented.
In "Negro Dance" the writer spots an "old lady gleefully sipping water or something stronger from a dish, relishing the dance in her own way even though she is too frail to join in." From the scrawny reproduction, I could barely find that "gleeful old lady," and certainly don't know how anyone much less the writer knows that she is "relishing the dance."
Even the works of Bridgens pushes the envelope, although he was supposedly there. The drums, we learn, were "made of a barrel, covered at the end with a piece of dried goat's skin" along with a calabash "filled with shot or stones."
When the former is beaten violently and the latter shaken unintermittingly, produce a din highly gratifying to the negro ear, but which it is almost impossible for the more delicate organ of a white man to bear. This is generally accompanied by the voices of several of the party, whose vocal efforts are, if possible, more overpowering that the noise of the instruments.I'd still like to give high marks to Colour of Shadows, not the least for the memories it brought back to me. No: I never, alas, had a chance to visit Trinidad except by reading Lauren Francis-Sharma's terrific 'Til the Well Runs Dry. My memories of this whole business came fifty years ago through the four or five months I spent working as a volunteer at the offices of the Anti-Slavery (and Aboriginal Protection) Society of London.
The board meetings, where I was assigned to take notes, were a riot of senescence, since many of the directors seem to have been around from the earliest days of the outlawing of the ownership of human flesh. Lady Gladwin-Bennett had some problem with her hearing aid, and the most consistent question aimed at Commander Fox-Pitt, the director, was either "Eh?" or "Speak up! I can't hear you."
Later, my friend Diana and I would take tea, sitting with the roll-tops in the file room with never-ending wooden cabinets, all of us overlooking the building next door where the Capuchin Poor Clares nuns were forever and a day going up and down the stairs, bent on their nunerly business.
Fox-Pitt was working valiantly with various governments out of Africa to make new constitutions, and since I was the only one at Anti-Slavery Society who could make the dratted old manual Royal typewriter work, I was to be found, day in and day out, slaving away on new constitutions for Kenya or Nigeria or Gabon or the Congo.
Fox-Pitt's scrawl was usually unintelligible and since he was often busy, I hesitated to bother him, sailed on without charts in what would turn out to be fairly important documents for the future of the once Dark Continent. When I came across the notation "Prot" it was all Greek to me so I, freshly arrived from our "dour, white, American divinity," I would type "Protestant," which, Diana later informed me, almost forced several emerging nations to discover themselves with a new and unnecessary religion stuck in the wrong place - - - in their brand new constitution - - - a mighty new almighty that they had certainly not planned on.