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  • Colonizing Paradise: Landscape and Empire in the British West Indies by Jefferson Dillman
  • Linda L. Sturtz
Colonizing Paradise: Landscape and Empire in the British West Indies. Jefferson Dillman. Tuscaloosa, Alabama: University of Alabama Press, 2015. 264 pp. Maps, illustrations, notes, references, index. $54.95 cloth (ISBN 978-0-8173-1858-1); $54.95 electronic (ISBN 978-0-8173-8804-1).

Europeans and European Americans perceived the Caribbean landscape as a locus both of seductive splendor and of horrific lawlessness. Even in Columbus's first letters depicting the "New World," the Admiral depicted the American landscape as embodying both lush beauty and monstrous wilderness, often simultaneously (p. 11). By the end of the sixteenth century, according to Jefferson Dillman, Europeans saw the New World as a location where the struggle between the virtues present in an Edenic paradise battled against the kingdom of the Devil, and their representations of its geography depicted these conflicting views. Dillman argues that the earliest Spanish descriptions of the land provided the foundation for later English perspectives. His analysis of two maps of Jamaica published in the 1670s (pp. 91-4) is particularly effective in showing how cartographic images of pirate-controlled spaces publicized the lawless Caribbean, even before the adoption of large-scale enslavement of Africans. Diverging images, of paradise and hellishness, shaped subsequent European views of the Caribbean landscape.

Over time, according to Dillman, English depictions of the landscape and its significance shifted. Characteristics of bifurcated Edenic paradise and locus of horror persisted, and the latter grew during the era when English settlers turned to brutal enslavement of Africans to cultivate their fertile sugar fields in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Added to these characterizations were new views of the landscape that encompassed a more "scientific" outlook: the cataloguing of once-unfamiliar plants in the published work of Sir Hans Sloane, the "bioprospecting" efforts of Europeans searching for exotic flora for commercially viable export crops (including medicines), and the establishment of public and private botanical gardens "that sought to create knowledge of and thus control over, a wilderness landscape" (p. 107). In Dillman's account, the Edenic landscape, once fallen, could be "recovered" through a cultivation of a "rational landscape vision" merged with "a Christian recovery narrative that placed the restoration of the West Indian wilderness to its God-given potential" (p. 107). In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, a shift toward picturesque artistic sensibilities among British visitors and colonists introduced a vision of the landscape that made the horrors of slavery as miniscule as the depictions of the enslaved in vast panoramas that highlighted soaring mountains, lush fields, and roaring rivers. In some accounts, the enslaved became [End Page 195] part of the landscape, as when William Beckford reported that "There is something particularly picturesque and striking in a gang of negroes when employed in cutting canes upon the swelling projections of a hill" (p. 165).

Dillman presents a coherent narrative of how landscapes changed in the European imagination between 1492 and the 1830s before concluding with a short "epilogue" examining the images of the Caribbean represented in late twentieth-century tourist board marketing. Sometimes the narrative seems too straightforward. Fears about the natural world persisted for longer in the minds of Europeans and Africans alike, and hurricanes shape the narratives and demarcate time among modern residents of the Caribbean.

The structure of the book is a bit funnel-like, starting with a broad geography of the Caribbean that includes all of the islands and even the mainland – with Columbus's encounter with the Orinoco River as emblematic of the first encounter – and a multinational European encounter with the Americas that highlighted the Spanish in the first generation of explorers. The book's focus quickly and deliberately narrows to the Anglophone Caribbean in the second chapter and maintains this concentration throughout the rest of the book. Dillman justifies this approach by pointing out that seventeenth-century Spaniards and English Puritans "shared discourses on the New World that included the aforementioned satanic epic and the theme of spiritual gardening" and claims that "the spiritual world of the sixteenth-century English traveler to the Indies differed little from his...


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