The Life of a Lot: Critical Plots in the Colonial Narrative

(C-U)*

Edgar Othniel Lake

 Editor's Note: The reader is informed at the outset of the following article that the charge to write derived from its author's presence at the institute session during which artist, planner and cultural consultant Myron Jackson presented a series of slides and lectured on the subject "Life of a Lot."

 
Glimpses of the 1829 engraved series, "Ten Views in the Island of Antigua," were seen in Myron Jackson's slide presentation on the "Life of a Lot" panel, at the University of the Virgin Islands' Teachers Summer Institute on Virgin Islands Culture.

Among some 160 slides spanning Europe, Africa, and our own Southern Hemisphere, Jackson constructed a hagiographic narrative from otherwise unrelated landscapes, inferring how lots had been colonized - and otherwise used.

It seems no small irony that an inevitable contradiction would ensue: fusing colonial images of the Caribbean with contemporary images of his travels to Europe and Africa. And it is this spook crossroad--post-colonial regenerative images, and the "convention of absence" surrounding William Clark's preeminent Caribbean engravings--which prompts this critical response.

Indeed, new constructs are now implied between sugar as an 18th century commodity, and colonial images as a 20th century commodity. Consequently, our ongoing structures of historical presentations with colonial materials, must be constantly reappraised.

One such dialectical tension exists between the romantic and mythic images of colonial plantation life, and the savagery of the bonded and indentured experience. Where European excesses have been self-evident, great efforts have been exerted to ground these into antecedent medieval ideologies. On the other hand, indigenous populations and colonized peoples - however misrepresented - have rarely had their myths, fables or codas appropriately mentioned, much less integrated into any rationalization of their subaltern status.

William Clark's 1829 paintings of colonial Caribbean plantation life, "Ten Views in the Island of Antigua," are clearly definitive of 19th century plantation sugar production. (Only George Robertson's Jamaican series, 1775-78, rivals Clark's output. Further, only the illustrative panels from "Cultivating Corn in the Andes," early 1500's, from Guaman Poma de Ayala's "Nueva Cronica" (1615)), reflect the earliest narrative of how New World land was cultivated. In fact, three sequential panels, presenting rectangular plots bear strong resemblance to Clark's later "grid" compositions.) (Kongelige Bibliotek, Copenhagen, in The Smithsonian's "Seeds of Change"/ "Old World Cargo Changes the Americas" panel.)

Yet, none else offers so complete a documentation with so benign a draftsmanship of the landscape, machinery, and laborers as Clark's 1829 images.

Clark's "Ten Views . . . " is also a visual manifesto which obviously served the propagandists of the colonial gentry.

As a guest painter of Christopher Codrington at his Betty's Hope estate, (named for the latter's daughter), Clark was afforded ample access to the incongruities of plantation life, to include Codrington's off-island cross-breeding estate. Yet, his paintings reflected the humanist's accommodations of his day, as well as the enhanced gratitude for his patrons. Small wonder that Caribbean scholar Eric Williams used a symbolic eight (as in El Dorado's pieces-of-eight) of these images in his 1970 magnus opus, "From Columbus to Castro: the History of the Caribbean."

Since then, the history of appropriation regarding these images has been vastly unchartered. Indeed, they invite yet another chapter in the post-colonial construct: the Invention of the Caribbean.

Most recently, noted cultural scholar Edward Said in his magnus opus text "Culture and Imperialism" (1993) throws the gauntlet to the proverbial sugar mill floor, plumbing Jane Austen's Industrial Age novel "Mansfield Park" (1814), and implicitly linking Thomas Bertram's fictional Antigua plantation to Clark's images: "But just because Austen referred to Antigua in Mansfield Park . . . without any thought of possible responses by the Caribbean . . . there is no reason for us to do the same."

(pg. 66)

Some 160 years after Clark's engravings, it remains poignant that it is from an American colony in the Caribbean - the U.S. Virgin Islands--a genuine image-generating colony, addressing its own peripheralities and self-definition--that these matters of democratic vision surface.

II

 

 

Isidor Paiewonsky's "Witness Accounts of Slavery in the Danish West Indies" (1989), offers the classic colonialist appropriation of Clark's images. One of William Clark's images, "Cutting the Sugar Cane", is a plot of land on the Delap's Estate, bordering Liberta Village, in Antigua. Yet, Paiewonsky in his book, lends no geographical address, nor source of reference, for this document.

In fact, his substitute caption ("Slaves Cutting Sugar Cane Under Supervision"), can be construed as curiously derogative, if not redundant, given the fully descriptive characters in Clark's composition.

Gregson Davis, Aime Cesaire scholar and Antiguan author, in his book "Antigua Black", pointedly transcribes the language of colonial observers and plantation owners. In fact, Davis underscores the symbolism of Clark's only figure of supervision, sitting on a horse - with his back turned to the field of workers by understandably captioning the chronicle of his people's history with cryptic accuracy.

His caption corresponding to Clark's engraving "Cutting the Sugar Cane", reads as follows: "The negroes, provided with cutting bills, then arrange themselves as when hoeing, each taking his or her respective row...The manager, during the busy time, is employed in arranging the required supply for the Mill, which in good breeze demands the greatest exertion of everyone on the estate." (pg. 64)

Some 30 years before, William Beckford wrote a telling description of this work scenario, which is still a manifesto worth knowing--now, two centuries later: "Their different instruments of husbandry, particularly their gleaming hoes, when uplifted to the sun, and which, particularly, when they are digging canefields they frequently raise all together, and in as exact time as can be observed, in a well-conducted orchestra, in the bowing of the fiddles, occasion the light to break in momentary flashes around them."

Moreover, as sub-plot, the landscape of Clark's painting, "Cutting the Sugar Cane", has been curiously altered by Paiewonsky: the hill ranges and windmill structure poorly reproduced. The canefield - both lot, and plot - is symbolically appropriated and rendered as a surreal "landscape", with its tropicalist "tropes" removed. Extended even further, "Author's private collection" is tacitly rendered as a credit line, replacing the artist's name, and date-line citation.

By contrast, Gregson Davis' book title, "Antigua Black", is an allusion to the notorious black pineapple, once dubbed "Black Pride" in the colonial era. (There is still only one plot of land, on Antigua, dedicated to the cultivation of that fruit. Although pineapple is the island's "National Fruit", its iconography as both cultural - and static colonial trope, and the economical exploitation required to make it commercial, is a delicate boundary.)

Further editorial incursions occur when Paiewonsky carves up another of Clark's paintings,"Planting the Sugar Cane", by cropping the colonial structure (Monks Hill Fortress) so that a footpath, now medieval-like, crosses the plane of the reproduction, moving upwards, to nowhere. Several people of African descent are removed, lost in the cropping, giving the centrally grouped figures an almost harlequin-like symmetry. It is as if Lewis Carrol's "Alice in Wonderland" were transferable to this colonial hinterland.

Mysteriously, the painter's captioned title, "Planting the Sugar Cane", is substituted, and invented, for "Slave workers toil while Bombas supervise". (As early as 1727, Africans killed a Bomba at Fort Christiansborg, in Accra, allowing an undisclosed number of their comrades to escape. The name may well have become a derisive term for the black overseer, since Assante informants cited "Bombra" peoples, (a Creole dialect term for Bambara peoples from Senegambia, and Mali), for their roles in the slaving operation, and [a people] with whom they were always at war. (see Oldendorp 1777:281)

Superfluously enough, the author, renders the courtesy credit line as: Mapes Monde Co., Ltd., Rome. (On the other hand, permission in The Smithsonian exhibit 1993 "Seeds of Change"for Clark's "Cutting the Sugar Cane", was granted by the British Library.)

The folklorian legacy of this lot in Clark's "Planting the Sugar Cane", and now transferred to the village descendants of Liberta Village, includes my grandmother, and great-grandmother who worked this identical estate. Antiguan families who own "lots" (called "plots" by villagers) there, still leave them uncultivated. In part, this is due to a folk mythology "Table Top Garden" (creolized as "Tip Top God/Ja"), which our predecessors invoked on this site.

J.B. Moreton's book "West Indian Customs & Manners" (1793), chronicled this mythology of call-and-response songs as "agricultural tasks in agricultural time", as follows:

"Tink dere is a God in a top

No use we ill Obisha!

Me no horse, me no mare, me no mule

No use me ill, Obisha"

Dahomeans, called Watyi or Watje in St. Thomas, told a similar myth to Oldendorp. They related that there had been a time when their ancestors were on a high mountain, where "they heard a delightful music from the heavens."

Then a chain was lowered from the sky to the top of the mountain. On the chain were some heavenly persons, who stepped down and related "...many wonderful things of the delightful place of their stay. And at the same time told of the intent to stay with them if peace and unity were among them; but the contrary would be unacceptable to them because they were children of peace. The ancestors told them, they could not find such a rare thing. Upon such news these heavenly persons bid them farewell and returned by the chain to the heavens. But the ancestors watched them disappear with grief. And up until now, one has been waiting for their return in vain..(Oldendorp 1777:310)

Believing celestial deliverance was inevitable, in Antigua, they eked out a living on this mountain-top site then named Bodkins Estate. From these "lots", so carefully divided into rectangular squares in Clark's painting, my predecessors cultivated cash garden crops, developed communal banking schemes which were (perhaps like Clark's rectangular lots) called "boxes", bought and maintained these "free villages" like Liberta, Freetown, and Freemansville after Emancipation in 1834.

Predictably, the Moravians built Grace Hill Mission in the hill slopes, so evident in Clark's painting, "Planting the Sugar Cane".

(My grandmother, Ellen Peters, learned to "read" the printed word in the family pew, # 13, of the small chapel, at this mission; largely by memorizing the plots of New Testament narratives at weekly Bible lessons. Evidently, she understood that her mastery of one plot, would afford her the mastery of another lot.)

Perhaps it is Jamaica Kincaid, the Antigua writer and iconoclast, who gives Clark's images a modernist twist on post-colonial appropriations. In her latest book, "A Small Place", a critical essay about local political stranglehold and tourism impacted public spaces, Kincaid deftly instructs us how to use the colonial image to better regenerate ourselves.

On the cover of her book, she uses Cynthia Krupat's tint of J. Johnson's 1820 painting, "Grace Hill". Halving the painting's composition with the spine of the book, on which the title ("A Small Place") is written, Kincaid thereby underscores the irony of its meaning. She further separates her forbears from the colonial "gentleman" promenading against the sweeping countryside. Traveling precariously along the road, two women and two children move cautiously on the boundaries of the plantation they traverse: double-plotters by intent, and in content.

As a frontispiece inside the book, the identical quartet moves in the opposite direction, perhaps indicating a shift in the plot. But it may also be a gesture of wandering exile so inherent in their act of escape.

This act of flip-flopping the colonial image extends itself in myriad and masterful ways, as in an epic Caribbean play; and is both commentary and coda of traditional and modernist narratives.

Even colonial coinage history reveals counter-stamping, as a Caribbean particularist aspect of reversal acquisitions. This involved a simple process of punching a design into an already circulating coin. For Puerto Rico, in the 1880's, mutilated U.S. silver dollars as well as Spanish pieces of eight were stamped with a fleur-de-lis design, circulating long after Puerto Rico became a U.S. possession in 1898.

The Danish West Indies used an artfully different technique. Denmark was the first colonial power to mint coins specifically for a Caribbean colony. In 1840 the first coins were struck, but a decade later severe shortages still plagued the colony. Denmark simply bought up the coins of various nations from bullion dealers and stamped the monogram of King Frederick VII on them. Thus branded, each coin was "free" to circulate through the colony, and survived long after the U.S. purchase of 1917.

In 1792, to celebrate the first abolition of the slave trade, and specifically to the Danish West Indies with effect from 1803, several "plots" were created.

The Danish mint struck a medal to celebrate the first European victory for abolition, bearing the head of a black man, opposite a figure of Nemesis. MI MISERUM ("unhappy me") was substituted for the designer's MISERIS SUCCURRERE DISCE (learn to succour unhappiness). Nemesis' inscription was also exchanged: "I champion human law", changed to "behold, I am here".

Nemesis, long the antiquarian icon of distributive goddess, has before her a vase with the head of a Black, and her ash wand for punishing the great of the world now substituted with a whip; the unjust chastisement of slaves.

 

 

 

 

 

III

Paiewonsky's "Eyewitness Accounts..." provides one other mythic "plot" in the colonial narrative.

In his account, Johan Lorentz Carstens' 1739 re-patriation to Copenhagen provided an archway for multiple narratives in the colonial texts. Firstly there was Carstens' "Farumgaard", and later his castle "Knabstrup" where waves of African tradesmen from St. Thomas resided. Residence quarters were built, known as the "St. Thomas houses", which survive to this day.

However the history of those lots was otherwise transformed, they extend deep into the critical plots of the colonial narrative in equally dynamic ways. While fastidious shipments of coconut cakes were sent to Denmark to Mrs. Carstens, it is the carefully crafted miniature boxes that have survived, and are among the National Museum's holdings. As metatrope, the coconut cakes ("sugar cakes") subverted the European indulgences in the "sweets" of distant plantation life: dedicated laborers, stable profits, acquired aristocratic privileges. In fact, these "docile" Africans exploited the conceits of those "masters" of the lot by sending the quintessential Creole chevron of industriousness - coconut cakes - while masking the stereotypical projections of dedicated field-hands, becoming themselves "masters of the plot".

The confirmation of this conceit invades Hans Neilsen, Knabstup farmhand (and plotter of his own fable), when master Carstens dies. The core of Nielsen's Black Tale is that the farmhand Blacks come to escort Carstens "home": a black carriage drawn by four black horses, a black-from-head-to-toe coachman, a footman at rear, also black.

[The "two black horsemen" theme dates back to medieval epics with Afro-Islamic connections, to include the text "Carajimedia", an anonymous parodic work of the High Middle Ages citing "dos negros cavallerizos". "There is, at least, among the Hispano-Arabic middle ages, a rich sampling of literary texts that sports the rampant surprise and moralizing of Arabic and Spanish people toward the intervention of blacks in question of knowledge..." (See: Jose Pieda, Kallaloo 16:4)]

Then, what follows is a most propitious structure. Nielsen in his 1747 recitative accounts, emblazons Carsten's immortality, and thereby extends the colonial narrative: "There was extreme silence for a short time and then there was movement Then, the coachman...lifted the reins turned horses and carriage around, urged the horses into a gallop and disappeared into the night."

Keeper of the plot, Hans Nielsen, further living in close contact with Africans re-settled in Denmark, from St. Thomas, often repeated segments of the Ewe and Lucumi peoples' belief system of returning home to Africa, after death.

Lastly, there are two ships in another William Clark's painting "Carting and Putting Sugar Hogsheads on Board", set in Willoughby Bay, Antigua. One is a one-mast vessel; the other is, symbolically, a two-master. More work needs to be done to better appraise how the horrific [1789] two-master slaver "Polly", captained by James De Wolfe, with its incessant cargo of our Ewe-speaking ancestors, was so seamlessly bestowed as spiritual namesake on Rothschild Francis, beginning during his lifetime. Forever emblazoned in the minds of the simple folk, it offers no small resonance that the traditional auction block, now marketplace, is named after him.

It may be that profound mythological properties were embraced by the humble people: "Polly"--two master word craft--served both masteries.

In this critical analysis of attempts to fuse colonial images and contemporary excursions, culture is ballast and cargo.

"Polly" is both winged recitative nemesis -cautioning us all of the piratical incline; and the ancestral ghost "about the land": lots as plots in the colonial narrative.

 

CONTEXTS FOR DISCUSSION: The above article emerged from a session of the Institute program targeting the theme "Life of a Lot." The fundamental question before the group related to empowerment through property or ownership. As such, "lot" was discussed in its many dimensions, from concrete and physical parcel of land to abstract and existential destiny as bequeathed or seized. Early in this critical article the author points out the pitfalls of juxtaposing current and synchronic-- especially postcolonial sociocultural--realities on adulterated putative historical documentary scenarios. Ultimately, it might be the case that our best hope in unravelling the historical perspective of the oppressed in matters of identity and entitlement is to study closer certain contemporary phenomena and dynamics usually characterized as "folkloric" even in urban settings. Consider the following observations [my translation] from folklorist B.Kirshenblatt-Gimblett in an article entitled "L'etude du folklore en milieu urbain:"

The study of folklore is basically an investigation of how people

in their daily lives forge values that are fully significant in their view. In an urban milieu, where the bureaucracy in large measure increasingly controls the each person's life, folklorists are especially alert to notions of mastery, and autonomy and efficiency at a local level: the individual, the family, small scale commerce, housing . . . the street, the parish, the neighborhood . . ., collective reasoning. They also try to discover the relationship that pertains between the special traits characterizing an urban setting and the expressive forms that are transmitted there. In what way the urban environment personalized and humanized. How does one integrate into the larger power structures . . .?

We would suggest then that the cultural-historical approach to the study of the 'Life of Lots" in the Virgin Islands is rendered more challenging by limitations and inadequacies in the instruments currently and conventionally available for the task.

DISCUSSION: Identify in the above essay three instances of appropriation of cultural trusts viewed by the author as being the property of the folk of the islands. Identify two of the individuals whose documentary methods are brought into question. Relate the basic theme of this essay to the editorial note accompanying the Danet article on French heritage. Do you believe that any of the author's concerns relative to the content of the presentation in question could be addressed through a reading of the Felix Pitterson interview? Explain! Read the section of the article in this manual in the chapter on "Resistance" relative to the life of the publisher of The Emancipator, then explain this author's discussion of a two-master ship at the end of his essay. Comment on whether or not continuity and coherence can be established from the contents of the 1829 Clark paintings to "Polly" the transporter of Ewe-speaking slaves and "Polly", publisher of The Emancipator. If so, which theme would drive the narrative, emancipation or alienation. Explain your choice.

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