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  • Representing Race in the Eighteenth-Century Caribbean:Brunias in Dominica and St Vincent

This essay looks at the complexity of the representation of racial otherness in the eighteenth-century Caribbean, focusing on the work of the painter Agostino Brunias, who worked mainly in Dominica, which was an island recently taken over by the British from the French. The essay argues that such representation cannot be reduced to colonial propaganda or anthropology, but depends on a wide range of factors involving geography, the different forms of slavery, and sharp conficts of attitude among the dominant colonial settlers towards the racial mixture endemic in the Caribbean colonies.

If one lives in London the British West Indies can seem to be a single place, a kind of archipelago in the Caribbean with all the islands clustered together.1 Everyone reading this essay will know how completely wrong that is. Jamaica is the most populous formerly British island but it is over one thousand miles from Trinidad and Barbados, and from the Lesser Antilles islands of Dominica, St Vincent, Antigua, and St Kitts. The nearest big island to Jamaica is Cuba, which in turn is close to Haiti and Saint-Domingue. The Guyanas are actually on the South American mainland, and Trinidad is less than seven miles from the coast of South America.

The Caribbean is, in Edward Sullivan's words, an "aqueous continent,"2 with islands of all sizes ruled and exploited seemingly randomly in the eighteenth century by European powers: British, French, Spanish, Danish, and Dutch. Modern writers like Aimé Césaire, Édouard Glissant, and Derek Walcott have emphasized the cultural unity of the Caribbean, its African roots, its hybridity and variety, or its distinctive climate and vegetation. But there is another story, of the Caribbean islands in the eighteenth century as subsumed within a vast network of slave colonies extending across South America and the southern states of North America, interconnected through maritime trading networks and through ports in both North and South America on the rim of the Caribbean. If there is one thing that unites the Caribbean it is movement, through the sea roads, between the islands themselves but also between the islands and the neighboring continents, and the more distant ones of Africa and Europe. The interconnections between Africa and the Caribbean are [End Page 1] familiar through detailed studies of the slave trade by David Eltis and others, and between Europe and the Caribbean, but there was also a great deal of movement within the larger empires. For example, colonists traded between Boston and the British Caribbean, and populations shifted between British, French, and Spanish islands, a number of which were passed by invasion or treaty between Britain, France, and Spain without necessarily changing the makeup of their populations.

These observations are prompted by work on the editing, with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Alejandro de la Fuente, of The Image of the Black in Latin America and the Caribbean, due for publication in 2019, which is to be a companion to the series The Image of the Black in Western Art, completed in 2014 in ten books.3 The volume will have introductory essays on the idea of Latin America and the idea of the Caribbean, but we are proposing to emphasize not the differences but the interconnections between the two by choosing, where possible, themes that apply to both. One of the themes is the visual culture of racial mixture. For art historians of the eighteenth century like myself, this field is dominated by two major bodies of work. The first surrounds the phenomenon of Casta painting in Mexico and also Peru, in which the varieties of racial mixture were expressed schematically in series of paintings in which parents and offspring are depicted and identified according to their racial identity.4 The other, in the Caribbean, explores the influential work of the Italian-born painter Agostino Brunias (c. 1730–1796), who painted scenes from daily life in Dominica and St Vincent. He will be the focus of the following essay, in which will be raised questions about new identities being developed in slave societies, and their basis in sexual politics.

Though Casta painting and the work of Brunias are very different cases from each other, there is much that unites Latin America and the Caribbean in the century, apart from traffic between the two: occupation by European powers, sometimes the same ones; the preponderance of economies based on slave labor, especially sugar economies; the growth of mixed race populations between European, African, and native peoples; attempts to impose Christianity, either Catholic or Protestant, on native and slave populations; and the persistence of slave and native resistance and rebellion.

It was vitally important politically and culturally in each case which European country was the occupying power. Spain was the dominant power in Latin America with the great exception of Brazil, which was Portuguese, but it also had large islands in the Caribbean like Cuba and Puerto Rico. Many Caribbean islands passed from one power to another in the eighteenth century. Cuba was briefly British in 1762–63 until it was exchanged for Florida. Trinidad was Spanish until 1797, when it became British, but it had been occupied before then largely by French settlers from Martinique. Guadeloupe and Martinique had periods under British rule. Dominica, St Vincent, and Granada had been French (though from 1660 to 1727 the first two had been reserved by agreement between Britain and France for the Caribs), and were ceded to Britain in 1763 as part of the treaty ending the Seven Years' War. They briefly reverted back to France from 1778 to 1783, during the tense period when French support of the American War of Independence made the whole Caribbean a battleground. Though the British government tried to exploit the Ceded Islands economically, the settler population remained largely French, often coming from or still connected to the populous nearby French islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique, which were each about twenty-five miles from Dominica.5 [End Page 2]

Cuba has been and continues to be in the most anomalous position. It is connected to Latin America by Spanish rule, religion, and language, yet it was like Jamaica and Saint-Domingue in being a large Caribbean island sugar economy. Sugar economies, whether in Latin America or the Caribbean, had much in common, for the production of sugar had a powerful effect on the societies in which it was dominant.6 It could make owners of sugar plantations very rich, and its profitability was (or was believed to be) based on employing large numbers of imported African slaves to work under extreme coercion. If the climate across Latin America and the Caribbean was suitable for sugar production, the terrain in some places could make it difficult or even impossible. Lesser Antilles islands, like Dominica and St Vincent, were volcanic and hilly, which meant that sugar plantations could only flourish on the coast and consequently were often not big enough to be as profitable as the largest West Indian estates. The economy of these islands was, at least before the British took over in 1764, largely in the hands of French smallholders. They made their living mainly from coffee, cocoa, and tobacco, and supplying provisions to other islands, none of which were as profitable as sugar. They still employed African slaves but in much smaller numbers and often in less stringent conditions than on the sugar plantations. The bigger Caribbean islands like Jamaica, Cuba, and Saint-Domingue supported large sugar estates under wealthy planters, as did smaller, more northerly British islands like Antigua and St Kitts.


William Young (from 1769 Sir William Young, 1st Baronet, and from 1768 Governor of Dominica) was sent by the British government in 1764 to sort out land ownership and produce an economic plan for the Ceded Islands of Dominica, St Vincent, and Grenada. Despite the physical nature and economic conditions of the islands under French rule, William Young's principal task as the president of the Commission for the Sale of Lands in the Ceded Islands was to convert as much of the islands as he could to sugar production. He set out his expectations in a 1764 London pamphlet entitled Some Observations, which May Contribute to Afford a Just Idea of the Nature and Importance, and Settlement, of Our New West-India Colonies. He is clear from the start that the Ceded Islands would not easily attract potential settlers, at least from Britain. His expectation was that they would be attractive mainly to more adventurous fortune seekers. He argued that, within the limits of the mountainous terrain of the islands, it was possible to set up sugar plantations successfully in some parts, but only if the price were kept low, for they would require time-consuming and laborious clearing of wooded lands.

Young's pamphlet emphasizes the difficulty of creating a profitable sugar economy in the islands, no doubt to protect himself from government wrath if he failed: "[The islands] will be principally settled by persons already in the West Indies, or others connected with it."7 They cannot compete, for example, with the continent of North America, which is "wholesome, the comforts and profits great… the heats are not so excessive, but that the poor may work for themselves, without the assistance of slaves, and reap a comfortable support from moderate labour." By contrast, "These islands are not the promised land, flowing with milk and honey. As in the garden of the Hesperides, the fruits cannot be gathered without Herculean labour."8 [End Page 3]

Young was aware that not all settlers were plutocrats with large estates and numbers of slaves. This point is worth making because scholars have sometimes talked about a "planter ideology" that supposedly bound together all Caribbean settlers, even though there were wide differences among them in wealth and social position, and between those who thought slavery was justified by the natural order of things and those to whom it was an unfortunate necessity that one day would come to an end.9 The former position was promoted strongly by the loudest and most influential voice in the eighteenth-century Caribbean, Edward Long, the author of The History of Jamaica (1774), in which every aspect of the plantation economy is dealt with exhaustively. He accepted the economic and moral logic of plantation slavery without equivocation, which led him to speculate that Africans might be of a different species from Europeans, biologically destined to be slaves.10 His claim might have been partly a response on behalf of the big slave owners to the first signs of abolitionist sentiment in the wake of the Somerset case of 1772 and perhaps also to the first signs in Europe of the development of racial categories deriving from Linnaeus.

Long adopted a high moral tone toward his fellow settlers, excoriating those who had black or mulatto mistresses and especially those who had children by them: "It might be much better for Britain, and Jamaica too, if the white men in that colony would abate of their infatuated attachments to black women … [instead] raising in honourable wedlock a race of unadulterated beings." The tendency of white settlers to have sexual relations with black women and mulâtresses, avoiding conventional marriage or neglecting their wives, had, so Long believed, immeasurable social consequences that would lead to the decline of the colonial project: "Many are the men, of every rank, quality, and degree here, who would much rather riot in these goatish embraces, than share the pure and lawful bliss derived from matrimonial, mutual love; not one in twenty can be persuaded, that there is either sin; or shame in cohabiting with his slave." Such fleshly weakness, he claimed, created "a vast addition of spurious offspring of different complexions… if little restraint is laid on the passions."11

Racial mixture could be seen as a threat to the stability of the social order, for those of mixed race could demand privileges that threatened the hegemony of the planters and those in authority from the mother country. This was perceived as a particular problem in the larger French colonies like Saint-Domingue, where the agitation of the increasingly large mulatto community brought demands by some French government officials to clarify the divisions between whites, free people of color, and slaves, and to impose restrictions on the free people of color.12 Out of the heated debates over such issues there came the racial taxonomy of Moreau de Saint-Méry, which was intended to impose a clear social hierarchy, and ultimately the Haitian Revolution.13

It is significant that moves toward the exclusion of people of mixed blood from power and privilege should originate in Saint-Domingue and other sugar economies like Martinique and Guadeloupe, because such economies tended to thrive on absolute distinctions between owners and slaves. Restrictions increased in the French sugar islands as the eighteenth century progressed, so increasing numbers of sang-mêlés from Martinique and Guadeloupe moved over to nearby Dominica, where they could flourish more readily in the mixed economy and achieve nearer [End Page 4] equality with white settlers.14 In Patrick Baker's words, "The centering strategy of free coloureds, therefore, was to migrate from Martinique and Guadeloupe and attempt to establish themselves in Dominica on a par with their white and free-coloured neighbours back home. Their attempt to centre their world in a peripheral situation created a second 'indigenous' group on the island. As they increased in numbers, the groundwork was laid for a distinct mulatto identity and collective action to further their interests."15

There were undoubtedly many in both British and French colonies who agreed with Long and sought in the name of civic virtue to raise racial barriers to protect white settlers, especially among clergymen and those who looked at the Caribbean from the perspective of European hegemony. But there were also many in the Caribbean and in Europe who took a different view, if not in theory then certainly in practice. Sexual relations between white men and black women had been an integral part of the exploitation of slaves wherever slavery was established, and its effect on relations between the races was and remains fundamental. For many young European men coming as soldiers or sailors, government officials or workers on plantations, the Caribbean was a liberation from the limiting sexual conventions of European life.

For some English writers and artists, the views of Long and other high-minded slave owners would have seemed hypocritical and puritanical. Henry Fielding's novels and William Hogarth's engravings presented a view of life that found mocking humor in pomposity and the display of rank. Though not necessarily opposed to slavery—it was only in the 1770s and 1780s that antislavery became a public cause—they tended to have a view of sex as a natural appetite and a force that captivated young and old, though they were opposed to excessive indulgence as well as moralistic denial. A peeping Tom observes from the rafters the half-dressed actresses in Hogarth's Actresses Dressing in the Barn engraving.16 In Noon from The Times of Day series, a young black man grabs the breast of a serving maid who shows some consternation but offers no resistance.17 Old men ogling young girls in life and in paintings and sculpture are a familiar presence in Thomas Rowlandson's drawings and engravings.18

William Young, like Long, accepted the economic need for slavery, but he was also familiar with the intellectual, artistic, and theatrical scene in London. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1748, and in his citation he is described as "A Gentleman well versed in Natural and Experimental knowledge, and alwaies ready to promote whatever may tend to the Improvement of Arts and Sciences." He was on friendly terms with the great actor David Garrick, who was also a friend of Hogarth. He enjoyed putting on amateur theatricals, and he seems to have had a particular mission to bring the arts to the Caribbean.19 His sophisticated artistic interests are clear from the large and carefully composed painting of him and his family commissioned from Johann Zoffany, probably painted in the early 1760s [figure 1].20 Young and his sons are unusual in being dressed in seventeenth-century "Van Dyck" costume, and the fact that the main group of Young, his wife, and most of their children are engaged in singing to the parents' instrumental accompaniment, making the scene both realistic and allegorical, suggests the harmony of the family in group performance. Though its setting in the grounds of an English country house expresses the absentee planter's devotion to [End Page 5]

Figure 1. Johann Zoffany, Sir William Young and his family, oil painting Liverpool, Walker Art Gallery
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Figure 1.

Johann Zoffany, Sir William Young and his family, oil painting Liverpool, Walker Art Gallery

his homeland, a black slave boy assisting the boys on the horse to the left connects the painting to the tradition of including an exotically dressed young black slave in aristocratic portraits, and perhaps also to the Caribbean plantations that were to make Young a wealthy man. The painting's emphasis on family life implicitly detaches Young from the world of "unrespectable" planters who avoided marriage or neglected their wives to pursue mulâtresses, though his association with actors and artists might suggest a more relaxed attitude to those who had sexual relations with native Caribbeans, as indeed does his very patronage of Brunias.


Apart from his administrative role and his ownership of plantations, Young's chief claim to fame was that he brought the young artist Agostino Brunias with him to the Lesser Antilles probably in the later 1760s. Brunias had made decorative paintings for the architect Robert Adam in Kedleston Hall and elsewhere,21 but after being in the Lesser Antilles for a few years, and a period back in London that largely coincided with the renewed French occupation of Dominica, he returned to the island where he settled until his death in 1796.22 He produced over the years a richly compelling group of paintings and engravings that provide an attractive view of life in Dominica and St Vincent, and raise important questions about the racial, cultural, and sexual dynamics of the islands.

It is unlikely from the broad content of the paintings that they were intended to be a direct means of advertising the islands to future immigrants, nor do they appear to be anthropological studies of the islanders, even within the terms of such studies in that period.23 It is not even clear how many of the paintings were [End Page 6] actually purchased by Young, though it is probable that the first paintings were made under his aegis. It is also likely that a painting of the treaty signed in 1773 by Joseph Chatoyer, the rebellious Black Carib leader, was made for Young, who may appear in it.24 That Young and the painter remained on good terms is made clear by the fact that Young left in his will to the painter £50 and a mourning ring.

Brunias at some point seems to have decided to settle in Dominica. He sought actively to sell his paintings and prints in London during the years from c. 1775 to 1784, broadly during the period of renewed French rule, trying where possible to reach wealthy British people with Caribbean interests. Of the six dedicatees of Brunias's engravings after scenes in Dominica, St. Vincent, and Barbados, three were large plantation owners in the Lesser Antilles: William Young himself, Sir Ralph Payne, born in St Kitts and the recently retired governor of the Leeward Islands, based in Antigua (he commissioned a long series of watercolors of Antigua from Thomas Hearne),25 and Sir Patrick Blake, also born in St Kitts and resident in England.26 The other three are harder to identify or connect with the Ceded Islands: Sir John Frederick, either the 3rd or 4th Baronet, might have owned property in St Vincent.27 John George Felton has not so far been identified. Brigadier General Charles O'Hara had little connection with the Caribbean, except that he took his troops to Jamaica after he personally surrendered to George Washington at Yorktown, but he was, as the caption to Brunias's print notes, a British general in the American War of Independence; in his long and distinguished career he had the doubtful distinction of also surrendering to Napoleon at Toulon.28

All this makes clear that Brunias, from at least the mid-1770s onward, was seeking buyers wherever he could. With the lack then of an open market in paintings, Brunias took one of the only steps available to a British artist without a steady patron to sell his paintings: he exhibited at the Royal Academy in London. By producing engravings after his paintings and dedicating them to men of wealth and influence, he was targeting particular groups, on the assumption that dedicatees would buy the paintings or the engravings or show them to their rich friends. The fact that he returned to the Caribbean suggests either that he was not particularly successful in London, or that he valued personal ties in Dominica, and his privileges as a white man on the island, or a combination of the three. It seems clear that, despite his Italian birth and relatively successful career in Britain, he came to see Dominica as his home.


As has often been observed, in Brunias's paintings the central space is often occupied by a beautifully dressed mulâtresse, who radiates erotic authority [figure 2].29 Such women were themselves the consequence of the sexual attraction felt by white settlers for black or mulatto women, and they were in turn exploited sexually by the former. The mulâtresses' dominant physical presence and intermediate position between higher and lower social classes and different skin colors were issues for both French and British settlers, and for those who administered the colonies. For the latter and for planters like Long, the mulâtresse was an active temptress, a product of and supplier of illicit sex to those who put private pleasure over civic duty. [End Page 7]

Figure 2. Agostino Brunias, Free West Indian Creoles in Elegant Dress, oil painting New Haven, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection
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Figure 2.

Agostino Brunias, Free West Indian Creoles in Elegant Dress, oil painting New Haven, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

The emphasis on sang-mêlés and mulâtresses in Brunias's paintings presents a problem of interpretation. The emphasis on family harmony and his English estate in Zoffany's portrait group of the Young family suggests an adherence to a traditional planter's idea of respectability that is hard to reconcile with an appreciation of the color stratification of Dominican society that is such a notable feature of Brunias's paintings. Could it be that Young was won over to an appreciation of the mixed nature of Dominican society by the time he spent there and by Brunias's influence? Or was he simply living in a world where slavery was taken for granted and "respectability" was left behind when faced with the sexual temptations of the colonies? [End Page 8]

That Brunias was fully aware of the satirical stream in British art represented by Hogarth and Rowlandson is clear from the painting Mulâtresse and Negro Woman Bathing [figure 3]. It shows mulâtresses of varied skin color, including one dark skinned, bathing in a stream, observed by a concealed white face in a nearby tree. The women's signs of agitation suggest that some of them have suddenly become aware of him. The whole scene with the statuesque figure seated in the middle is suggestive of Actaeon's intrusion into a gathering of Venus and her companions, a familiar subject in European painting. The barely concealed face is a surrogate for the observer and reveals the voyeurism behind some of Brunias's paintings. A similar scene that was engraved entitled The West India Washer Women also shows a group of provocatively undressed young women by a stream. The engraving does not show an observer, but the dedication to Sir John Frederick suggests that Brunias did not expect a negative reaction to such subjects from his potential planter patrons. The painting Caribbean Women Indoors, St. Vincent (Madrid, Thyssen collection) is equally voyeuristic in showing young dark-skinned house cleaners, wearing nothing but a piece of cloth around their waists, but otherwise fully exposed to the putative male viewer. What is striking in Brunias's images of Caribbean daily life is the complete lack of moralizing counterweight to the paintings' overt sexuality; this is a land in which young females of color were available for the delectation of white males, while also providing domestic services.

Brunias presents a view of life in the Ceded Islands that does not dwell on the coercive nature of slavery, but it is arguable that, though slavery is to an extent indivisible, there is not such a stark difference between image and observable reality in daily life as in, say, the picturesque views of Jamaica by George Robertson, where small black figures act as staffage in pastoral settings while the slave plantations are simply not shown at all.30 Though obviously Brunias was selective in his representations of the island and emphasized sociability and pleasure, Thomas Atwood described daily life in Dominica in terms comparable to Brunias's paintings. In a book published in 1791 he describes the "free people of colour" as "remarkably fond of dress and dancing … Dancing is the chief part of their amusements, their preparations for which are commonly very expensive; their ladies being usually dressed in silks, silk stockings and shoes; buckles, bracelets, and rings of gold and silver, to a considerable value."31

Far from being empty display as Atwood saw it, dress became an assertion of a sense of self in the face of coercion, for many of these women had emigrated from the nearby French islands in response to sumptuary laws passed there in 1766, forbidding women of color from dressing in finery "after the fashion of white people." What appears as a certain Frenchness of presentation might ironically only have been possible in a British colony, despite the frequently voiced disapproval of such display.32 The representation of the costume and leisure pursuits of mulattos and slaves could also be another way of providing reassurance to white settlers that slavery was relatively benign in its effects.

Brunias focuses on beautiful people of all skin colors, but he does give occasional glimpses of slaves and slavery as he might have seen it in towns and the countryside. In the background of the painting and engraving The West India Flower Girl [figure 4], a young half naked black man rolls a large barrel along the street apparently under the eyes of his watchful master. Domestic slaves in the [End Page 9]

Figure 3. Agostino Brunias, Mulâtresse and Negro Woman Bathing, oil painting Gift of Harvard College Library, Courtesy of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, PM# 975-5-30/9416d
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Figure 3.

Agostino Brunias, Mulâtresse and Negro Woman Bathing, oil painting Gift of Harvard College Library, Courtesy of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, PM# 975-5-30/9416d

form of scantily dressed young women wash the floor of a big house in Caribbean Women Indoors, St Vincent (Madrid, Thyssen Museum). The "English and French Negroes" involved in a cudgeling match, in an engraving he published in London in 1779, are surely slaves at leisure [figure 8]. [End Page 10]

Figure 4. Agostino Brunias, The West India Flower Girl, engraving New Haven, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection
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Figure 4.

Agostino Brunias, The West India Flower Girl, engraving New Haven, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection


A simple answer to the question would be: almost entirely people of mixed color, with a particular emphasis on beautiful mulâtresses. There are few obviously white settlers or fully African-looking people, and there are also paintings of the Carib population of the islands. One disputed example of the first is the well-dressed [End Page 11] couple buying cloth from a mulatto woman in Roseau in Linen Market, Dominica [figure 5]. Dian Kriz claims that the woman might in fact be a light skinned mulatto.33 Her male companion is, however, certainly a white settler or visitor. If she is indeed white, then the painting might, among other things, have been intended to offer reassurance to potential investors that the islands were safe and picturesque, but also offered pleasurable opportunities for shopping. Another painting known as A Planter and his Wife (New Haven, Yale Center for British Art) shows a couple walking with a black slave behind them. He is clearly white, and she is light skinned, but the large hat placed at an angle over her headdress suggests the exotic bearing of a mulâtresse. She is therefore more likely to be a mistress than a wife, for in British colonies interracial marriage was not encouraged.

But the very difficulty we have in differentiating white and mulatto in Brunias's paintings makes an important point in itself, which, when taken with the wide variety of skin colors represented in the paintings, suggests a desire, contrary to Long and French officials, to blur rather than clarify the barriers between the populations of the islands, and to show racial mixture as natural and positive. Though differences in dress are made visible, it would be very difficult for someone not familiar with the islands to make discriminations in many cases based on class divisions. I would not suggest for a moment that Brunias or Young had read recent theoretical writings on race of the kind that were appearing in the 1770s, but there are parallels with the emerging debate between Buffon, who believed in the unity of humanity, and a continuum from the white to the darker skinned races based on the inevitable mixture of contingent peoples, and those like Immanuel Kant who were beginning to see race as a category equivalent to separate species.34

Brunias nonetheless was fully aware of social discriminations based on color. In what is in some ways his masterpiece, Free Women of Colour with their Children and Servants in a Landscape [figure 6],35 the three women who lead the procession are clearly distinguished from their darker skinned servants, who are also well dressed. The three boys on the right at the front are intriguing. The smallest boy in yellow striped garments has blond hair and appears to be completely white. The two black boys are dressed in what appears to be military dress, but tellingly they have bare feet. The three adult male servants are equally well dressed also in military garments, which may suggest they are in the militia like many mulatto men in French colonies, or it could just be the kind of dressing up observed by Atwood. On the far left a small blond-haired boy is carried on the shoulders of a black nurse. There also seem to be distinctions within the group of the three leading women. The two to the right are conspicuously more elegant than the third woman, who appears older and wears an apron on her lower body and wears striped clothing like the black servants behind her. The other two women seem more subtly distinguished from one another. The woman in the middle wears a white dress and points imperiously toward the little white boy to the right. Could she be the wife of a plantation owner? The woman immediately to her left has a colored upper garment, holds a red cloth and looks possibly deferentially toward her companion. We can only guess as to what the group represents, but one possibility is that they depict the household of a wealthy planter, including the mistress of the house and two of his children. [End Page 12]

Figure 5. Agostino Brunias, Linen Market, Dominica, oil painting New Haven, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection
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Figure 5.

Agostino Brunias, Linen Market, Dominica, oil painting New Haven, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

Figure 6. Agostino Brunias (Italian, ca. 1730-1796). Free Women of Color with Their Children and Servants in a Landscape, ca. 1770-1796. Oil on canvas, 20 × 26 1/8 in. (50.8 × 66.4 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Gift of Mrs. Carll H. de Silver in memory of her husband, by exchange and gift of George S. Hellman, by exchange, 2010.59
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Figure 6.

Agostino Brunias (Italian, ca. 1730-1796). Free Women of Color with Their Children and Servants in a Landscape, ca. 1770-1796. Oil on canvas, 20 × 26 1/8 in. (50.8 × 66.4 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Gift of Mrs. Carll H. de Silver in memory of her husband, by exchange and gift of George S. Hellman, by exchange, 2010.59

[End Page 13]


Though the islands had been ceded by France in the settlement of the Seven Years' War, strictly speaking they were not French colonies.36 Because of their relatively poor economic prospects and Carib resistance, the islands had been given by joint British-French agreement in 1686 to the native Caribs, who were a conspicuous presence in both islands, and indeed remain so to this day. Nonetheless French settlers had taken over the islands before the British arrived in 1763. The British view of the Caribs, which Young shared, was that there were two types: Black and the Yellow or Red Caribs, though in reality this might have been too categorical a distinction.37 The people called Black Caribs were supposedly partly of African descent, who lived like Maroons in impenetrable mountainous regions, and were seen as dangerous marauders, who needed to be suppressed militarily. The other Caribs were, as William Young put it, by contrast "a quiet people, and, I imagine, with gentle treatment and immediate good policy, together with his majesty's assurances to them of favour, freedom, and protection, they may be gained over to our cause, and even rendered useful."38

There are a number of paintings by Brunias of Caribs in which he makes a clear distinction in skin color and general attitude between the Black and the other Caribs. The lighter skinned Caribs are shown as an almost naked family conversing peaceably outside their hut [figure 7], or in a largely female group, while Black Caribs are shown as more hierarchical and oppressive to their women. In one case a man, sometimes identified as Chatoyer the famous rebel, is shown with his two wives carrying heavy burdens while he looks on complacently.39 Two heavily burdened dark-skinned women with a child, directed by a clothed and equally dark-skinned person, might be Caribs under the direction of an African slave or a male Carib. All of this suggests an adherence on Brunias's part to Young's distinction between the Yellow or Red Caribs as "good" savages, and the Black Caribs as part descendants of runaway slaves, who swooped from the mountains to plunder peaceable settlements below.


What can we learn from this case study of Brunias's paintings made in the Lesser Antilles? Dian Kriz in her outstanding book, Slavery, Sugar, and the Culture of Refinement of 2008, organizes her account of the picturing of the British West Indies according to the idea of refinement, conflating the refining of sugar with the idea of social refinement that Europeans sought to bring to Caribbean life.40 I would suggest another word to encompass the experience of colonial interventions in the eighteenth-century Caribbean: fluidity, a word that first of all conjures up the importance of water as a means of transport. Far from being barriers, oceans were thoroughfares that created connections between continents, linking together the Caribbean with America North and South, Africa, and Europe. Oceans were also battlegrounds between the European powers and, by the end of the century, the newly formed United States. Fluidity can also be applied to the Caribbean islands themselves, coping with changes of rule of different European powers, often several times over a few years. Of course, populations did not shift overnight, though new settlers might be added to the mix. There is also constant fluidity in the relationship [End Page 14]

Figure 7. Agostino Brunias, A Leeward Islands Carib family outside a Hut, oil painting New Haven, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection
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Figure 7.

Agostino Brunias, A Leeward Islands Carib family outside a Hut, oil painting New Haven, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

between geography and power. If Latin America was largely Spanish, and had been for some centuries before the eighteenth century, the Caribbean islands were always vulnerable to being taken over by different European powers or reduced to counters in a treaty negotiation.

The Caribbean islands also need to be seen in the context of the larger empires of which they are part. Cuba could be transferred back to Spain by the British in exchange for Florida. At the same Treaty of Paris in 1763 the British exchanged Guadeloupe, which they had recently captured from the French, for their right to retain French Canada. But sovereignty always had its limits, for populations did not necessarily move with the change of rule. [End Page 15]

Brunias's paintings illuminate in a particularly telling way the complexities of human interaction in the fluid Caribbean of the eighteenth century. Though brought over by a British planter who had the specific task of exploiting the recently acquired islands of Dominica and St Vincent for the British government, Brunias represented a dominant culture on the islands of Dominica and St Vincent that was still predominantly French. African slaves and native Caribs were treated in ways inflected by distinctively French attitudes, just as slaves in Cuba were treated according to Spanish ways. Yet attitudes toward slavery were, regardless of the occupying power, fundamentally affected by the nature of the work for which slaves were required, which in turn was affected by the crops they cultivated.

The complexities of these processes hardly compare with attitudes towards racial mixture. There could be infinite gradations of skin color, which interacted with social class in ways that can be unfathomable. One might think that a higher degree of "whiteness" would signify higher rank, but that could be challenged by the mixed-race children of settlers who were themselves of high status. Further confusion was caused by the sexual appeal of "dusky beauties," beautifully dressed and depicted as thoroughly conscious of their power over European men. While puritanical figures like Edward Long showed distaste for those of mixed race, the latter could also assert their rights to power and respect on the grounds of their own patrician ancestry, and in some cases an education equal to their white parent.

One assumption that, following Mia Bagneris, I have already challenged is that Brunias's art can simply be seen as propagating "planter ideology." It is true that the paintings suggest that the Ceded Islands had formed a harmonious society under European rule, in which different people, masters/mistresses and slaves, lived happily and beautifully together. This can be seen as compatible with pro-slavery ideas that people of African descent were better off under an orderly regime based on slavery than they were in barbaric Africa. Brunias has an eye for social distinctions, but in his paintings the differences in skin color are often hard for us to fathom, as are the social distinctions, particularly those between white and light skinned mulattos. It is possible, as Beth Fowkes Tobin has suggested, that clothing could be an effective signifier of social class, despite the ambivalence of settlers toward well-dressed people of color. They could be seen as either a sign of the benevolence of colonial rule or a threat to white superiority.41 She notes the belief of some white settlers that slaves would work naked to preserve their clothes for public display. William Young, the 2nd baronet, remarked that "the negro women seemed to me the proudest mortals I had ever seen."42

All of this suggests a quite different purpose and approach from Casta painting, which was in essence taxonomic, seeking to classify and name differences of color and appearance according to specific racial categories. Such paintings give visual form to racial hierarchies, with the white Spaniard on the top, and mixtures of African and native peoples further down. It is interesting that Long was completely aware and approving of such classification in his 1774 publication.43 Brunias shows differences of skin color, appearance, and clothing, but the visual confusion between white and mulatto suggests that his paintings were not meant to provide a taxonomic picture of the racial and social gradations of the islands.

It seems to be highly significant that Brunias settled in Dominica and remained there for the rest of his life, and that there is strong evidence that he had [End Page 16] a mulatto partner and two children. He may also have believed that he had found a clientele for his paintings in the relatively small but affluent plantocracy of the Lesser Antilles, though we lack information about sales. We know nothing of his political views, whether or not he supported slavery, but there are no signs that he had a strong attachment to England. He was Italian by birth and, apart from exhibiting at the Royal Academy, there is no evidence that he sought a position in the London art world, like some other Italian artists. He is most likely to have been one of the many settlers who found a kind of freedom, certainly partly sexual, in the fluidity of a slave society that would not have been possible in Europe.

Brunias's career and oeuvre are significantly different from those of other artists who had come from Europe to the Caribbean, as is the genre of painting he practiced. George Robertson was patronized by the urbane planter William Beckford and applied the principles of picturesque landscape to Jamaica.44 Thomas Hearne's series of twenty watercolors of Antigua for Sir Ralph Payne, governor of the Leeward Islands, in 1774–75 were in a landscape genre with relatively small figures, often emphasizing the architecture and urban life of the island.45 In the case of both artists it is easier to tie their subject matter to their patrons than it is in the case of Brunias, who nonetheless sought to attract Payne's attention by dedicating a print to him. Nor is Brunias close to Philip Wickstead, also brought over by Beckford, who was a professional portrait painter, specializing in conversation pieces of Jamaican planter families.46

Brunias was trained as a narrative or history painter in a continental tradition and not as either a landscape or a portrait painter. His concern with real-life figure painting has parallels with the career of the painter who might have been his mentor: Johann Zoffany. There is more to be done in locating Brunias's art in the continental and London art scenes of his own day and in providing a more considered account of his relationship to realist traditions in the first three-quarters of the eighteenth century. His art also needs to be seen against the Frenchness of the Ceded Islands in terms of the racial attitudes, manners, morals, signs of status, and clothing of the inhabitants. This further opens up the question of the texture of daily life in the Caribbean; how different was the personal display of slaves or free people of color under British, Dutch, French, or Spanish rule? Is the assertive mulâtresse so prominent in Brunias's paintings a consequence of French attitudes that are not replicated under the rule of other nations? It is clear from the work of Anne Lafont that Brunias had a strong influence on French colonial art in the period, and on decorative arts.47 There is also more detail on the population of the Ceded Islands that can be brought into play that would shed light on the choices that Brunias made, and the actual nature of the population at different times in his residence in Dominica.48

This leads on to the larger question of the constant and complex interactions in the Caribbean between Africans, Europeans, and native Caribs including those of mixed descent, but also between Europeans of different nations and the slaves brought up under their rule. As we have seen this difference is hinted at in Brunias's print A Cudgelling Match between English and French Negroes in the Island of Dominica [figure 8], which might suggest that the slaves were seen as possessing a distinct identity as English or French slaves. This might have been imposed on them by their owners or by Brunias himself, if, as seems likely, he was [End Page 17]

Figure 8. Agostino Brunias, A Cudgelling Match between English and French Negroes in the Island of Dominica, engraving New Haven, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection
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Figure 8.

Agostino Brunias, A Cudgelling Match between English and French Negroes in the Island of Dominica, engraving New Haven, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

the author of the caption to the engraving. In any case it is not immediately clear from their appearance which are English or French slaves. There is clearly some significance in the use of words in the captions to his engravings; the word "Negro" is applied to the dark skinned and obviously laboring class, while the lighter skinned are described as "West India," as in the engravings of washerwomen and flower girl, or "Free Natives," or "Barbados Mulatto Girl."

Alongside claims of Brunias's anthropological approach have come attempts to relate his work to emerging theories of race. This is a problematic subject because, although there have been studies of racial theory in the eighteenth century, including my own,49 less attention has been paid to its dissemination and to how, why, and where it entered into common discourse. Of those discussed in this essay the one person who might have been aware of the advanced racial theory of his time was Edward Long, but his knowledge would have been highly selective. He might have known of Linnaeus and Buffon but it is almost inconceivable that he would have read Kant's writings on race of the 1770s. The dissemination of racial theory from the 1770s onward is a subject well worth exploring.

Finally there is the question of the interpretation of images of the West Indian colonies. It is well known that the "truth effect" of paintings is not to be relied on; images are always mediated through the sensibility of the artist and her/his desire to sell work, and through the patron or purchaser, though how this [End Page 18] manifests itself is not always easy to see. In Brunias's case we can confirm that the picture he paints of daily life in the Ceded Islands does broadly correspond to verbal descriptions of the time, but then he would have had a strong motive to create a benign vision of daily life, either from his patron's influence or his desire to sell paintings to white settlers. I have argued that the latter motive was uppermost in his mind, but in the case of picturesque landscape the attitudes implicit in the genre would have been in harmony with settlers' desire to see the Caribbean in an idyllic light. The artist's selective vision is always likely to prevail, but there are also degrees and kinds of selectivity; slavery can be condemned or avoided, or it can be depicted as a natural and humane part of society. So much depends on the place depicted and the time. Events were shifting dramatically in the last quarter of the eighteenth century; the shadow of abolition hung increasingly over the slave economies of the Caribbean, and the restiveness of the slave and mixed race population was to catch fire before the end of the century, most notably on the island of Saint-Domingue.

David Bindman

David Bindman is Emeritus Professor of the History of Art, University College London, and is a fellow of the Hutchins Center, Harvard University. He has worked mainly on British art of the 18th century and the Romantic period, and is presently the editor (with Henry Louis Gates, Jr.) of the series The Image of the Black in Western Art, published by Harvard Univ. Press.


1. I owe much of this essay to conversations with Petrina Dacres, who also read the final text, as did Sarah Thomas. I am extremely grateful to them, as I am also to Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Alejandro de la Fuente.

2. Edward J. Sullivan, From San Juan to Paris and Back: Francisco Oller and Caribbean Art in the Era of Impressionism (New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press, 2014), 10.

3. David Bindman and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., gen. eds., The Image of the Black in Western Art, 5 vols. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 2010–14).

4. See Ilona Katzew, Casta Painting: Images of Race in Eighteenth-Century Mexico (New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press, 2004) and also an essay by Thomas Cummins in Bindman and Gates, Image of the Black, vol. 3, part 3, 246–58.

5. Arthur L. Stinchcombe, Sugar Island Slavery in the Age of Enlightenment (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 1995), 47.

6. Ibid., 89–124.

7. William Young, Some Observations, which May Contribute to Afford a Just Idea of the Nature and Importance, and Settlement, of Our New West-India Colonies (London, 1764), 10.

8. Ibid., 12.

9. This is discussed in Amanda Michaela Bagneris, "Coloring the Caribbean: Agostino Brunias and the Painting of Race in the British West Indies, c. 1765–1800" (PhD diss., Harvard Univ., 2009), 8, 113; see also Sarah Thomas, "'On the Spot': Travelling Artists and Abolitionism, 1770–1830," Atlantic Studies 8, no. 2 (2011): 216.

10. Edward Long, The History of Jamaica (London, 1774), 335.

11. Ibid., 327.

12. Gene E. Ogle, "'The Eternal Power of Reason' and 'The Superiority of Whites': Hilliard d'Auberteuil's Colonial Enlightenment," French Colonial History 3 (2003): 41; William Max Nelson, "Making Men: Enlightenment Ideas of Racial Engineering," The American Historical Review 115, no. 5 (2010): 1364–94; Guillaume Aubert, "'The Blood of France': Race and Purity of Blood in the French Atlantic World," William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd ser., 61, no. 3 (2004): 439–78; Sue Peabody and Tyler Stovall, eds., The Color of Liberty: Histories of Race in France (Durham, NC: Duke Univ. Press, 2003); Saliha Belmessous, "Assimilation and Racialism in Seventeenth and Eighteenth-Century French Colonial Policy," American Historical Review 110, no. 2, (2005): 322–49; Sue Peabody, "There Are [End Page 19] No Slaves in France": Cultures of Race and Slavery in the Ancien Régime (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1996); Pierre H. Boulle, Race et esclavage dans la France de l'Ancien Régime (Paris: Perrin, 2007); Yvan Debbasch, Couleur et liberté: Le jeu du critère ethnique dans un ordre juridique esclavagiste (Paris: Dalloz, 1967); Elsa Dorlin, La Matrice de la race: Généalogie sexuelle et coloniale de la nation française (Paris: Découverte, 2006); John D. Garrigus, Before Haiti: Race and Citizenship in French Saint-Domingue (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006).

13. Doris Garraway, "Race, Reproduction and Family Romance in Moreau de Saint-Méry's Description … de la partie française de l'isle Saint-Domingue," Eighteenth-Century Studies 38 (2005): 227–46.

14. Patrick L. Baker, Centring the Periphery: Chaos, Order, and the Ethnohistory of Dominica (Montreal: McGill-Queen's Univ. Press, 1994), 53.

15. Ibid., 53.

16. Ronald Paulson, Hogarth's Graphic Works, 3rd rev. ed. (London: Print Room, 1989), no. 159, p. 332.

17. Ibid., no. 147, p. 328.

18. They are too numerous to list but for examples from one collection, see John Baskett and Dudley Snelgrove, The Drawings of Thomas Rowlandson in the Paul Mellon Collection (New York: Brandywine, 1978), nos. 115, 162, 202, 194, 196, 209, 211, 213, 214, 231, 244, 314, 320, and 329. This collection is housed at the Yale Center for British Art.

19. Lennox Honeychurch, "Chatoyer's Artist: Agostino Brunias and the Depiction of St Vincent," Journal of the Barbados Museum and Historical Society 50 (2004): 109.

20. Reproduced in Bindman and Gates, Image of the Black, vol. 3, part 3, plate 160, pp. 164–67.

21. Honeychurch, "Chatoyer's Artist," 105–6.

22. For what is known about Brunias's life in Dominica, see ibid., 122–23.

23. In this I take a different view from that of Beth Fowkes Tobin in Picturing Imperial Power: Colonial Subjects in Eighteenth-Century British Painting (Durham, NC: Duke Univ. Press, 1999), 139–73.

24. Ibid., 121.

25. See David Morris, Thomas Hearne, 1744–1817, Exhib. cat., Bolton Museum and Art Gallery, 1985, pp. 12–14 and figs. 5 and 6; and Rosalie Smith-Macrae in Bindman and Gates, Image of the Black, vol. 3, part 3, pp. 266–67 and fig. 256.

26. Andrew J. O'Shaughnessy, "The Formation of a Commercial Lobby by the West India interest, British Colonial Policy and the American Revolution," Historical Journal 40, no. 1 (1997): 75.

27. A George O. Frederick claimed recompense for three slaves from the Slave Compensation Commission in the 1830s, and three other Fredericks claimed for slaves in St Vincent, Barbados, and Trinidad. Legacies of British Slave-Ownership, University College London, (accessed 15 June 2017).

28. "O'Hara, Charles (c. 1740–1802)," Stephen Conway in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, ed. H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2004); online ed., ed. David Cannadine, January 2008, (accessed 22 June 2017).

29. See especially Kay Dian Kriz, Slavery, Sugar, and the Culture of Refinement: Picturing the British West Indies, 1700–1840 (New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press, 2008), 37–70, and Bagneris, "Coloring the Caribbean," 160–220.

30. Rosalie Smith-McCrae in Bindman and Gates, Image of the Black, vol. 3, part 3, p. 265.

31. Thomas Atwood, The History of the Island of Dominica (London, 1791), 220–21.

32. Kriz, Slavery, Sugar, 58.

33. Ibid., 44. [End Page 20]

34. See David Bindman, Ape to Apollo: Aesthetics and the Idea of Race in the Eighteenth Century (Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ. Press, 2002), 62–70.

35. Reproduced in Mia L. Bagneris, Agostino Brunias: Capturing the Caribbean (c. 1770–1800) (London: Robilant & Voena, 2010), fig. 10.

36. Lennox Honychurch, The Dominica Story: A History of the Island (Roseau: Honychurch, 1975), 32.

37. Young, Some Observations, 8.

38. Ibid., 9.

39. Engraving after Brunias in Bryan Edwards, History, Civil and Commercial, of the British Colonies in the West Indies, 3rd ed. (London, 1801), 3:262–63, reproduced in Kriz, Slavery, Sugar, 48.

40. Kriz, Slavery, Sugar, 1–9.

41. Tobin, Picturing Imperial Power, 151–60.

42. Ibid., 162.

43. "The intermixture of Whites, Blacks, and Indians, has generated several different casts, which have all their proper denominations, invented by the Spaniards, who make this a kind of science among them." Long, History of Jamaica, 2:260.

44. Rosalie Smith-McCrae in Bindman and Gates, Image of the Black, vol. 3, part 3, p. 265.

45. Ibid., 266–67 and fig. 256.

46. Ibid., 269–70.

47. Anne Lafont, "Fabric, Skin, Color: Picturing Antilles' Markets as an Inventory of Human Diversity," Anuario Colombiano de Historia Social y de la Cultura 43, no. 2 (2016): 121–54.

48. See Joseph A. Boromé, "Dominica during French Occupation, 1778–1784," The English Historical Review 84, no. 330 (1969): 41.

49. See Bindman, Ape to Apollo. [End Page 21]

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