- Landscape and Material Culture in British Plantation America
A generation of scholarship on the Atlantic world has made it possible to see Barbados, the Leeward Islands, Jamaica, and the Ceded Islands as part of a unified colonial history. The traditional regional geography of colonial British America drew firm distinctions between the Chesapeake, Carolina Lowcountry, and British Caribbean. Instead of cordoning off the islands from the mainland, however, recent histories have revealed networks of exchange and communication spanning tropical and subtropical America and suggested new geographic categories. Matthew Mulcahy, for example, has described a space united by the common threat of destructive hurricanes as a “British Greater Caribbean,” while Trevor Burnard’s comparative history of British slave societies has linked them together into a larger “plantation America.”1 Such reconsidered geographies allow new assessments of cultural linkages [End Page 722] across these spaces. Each of the four books under review here grapples with manifestations of the tension between the volatility distinct to specific societies and the interactions that bound them to the Atlantic world. By tracing connections spanning Britain, North America, and the West Indies, they reveal how those who settled abroad reconfigured inherited cultural forms to suit new environments, demonstrating a flexibility more frequently associated with the North American colonies. As these books show, taking material culture, the built environment, and visual representations of landscapes and cityscapes seriously reveals that colonial societies in the greater British Caribbean were highly adaptive as well as deeply entrenched.
In Colonizing Paradise, Jefferson Dillman draws on Richard S. Dunn’s foundational interpretation of the West Indies as a place so volatile that, though closely connected to Britain, it should be distinguished from the rest of colonial British America—an exceptionalist view that Dunn has revised in his recent comparative study of slavery in Virginia and Jamaica.2 Dillman describes a substantial body of texts and images that depict British Caribbean landscapes in terms of extraordinary beauty as well as unpredictable violence, and he argues that these nourished two opposing portraits of place: one affirmed the prospective development of plantation societies in the Americas, the other was steeped in disillusionment about the perils of European life in the archipelagic tropics. This unstable mixture undermined colonists’ quest to achieve an untroubled feeling of belonging—that sense of congruence between place and identity—by which they could feel culturally secure as Britons abroad.
Dillman’s close readings of scores of texts and images offer a collective portrait of European desires and anxieties about the Caribbean imperial project. Because scholars have long mined a few key texts by writers such as Pietro Martire d’Anghiera (Peter Martyr), Richard Ligon, Edward Long, and Thomas Thistlewood to illustrate West Indian life, the sheer profusion of voices Dillman presents here attests to the region’s hold on the European imagination. Dillman argues that the first accounts of the New World produced by Spanish writers established an enduring conceptual baseline around the question of the Caribbean’s habitability by mobilizing ideas of a bountiful Eden and a dangerous hell. As Protestant colonizers ventured to the West Indies in the early seventeenth century, translations of Spanish texts into English disseminated this Manichaean understanding, but English writers secularized such images of super-abundance. The Caribbean, in their depictions, could be an uncivil social nightmare or a lush garden capable of generating pleasure through [End Page 723] pastoral description or, once dissected through the lens...