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Reviewed by:
  • Victorian Jamaica ed. by Tim Barringer and Wayne Modest
  • Natalie Zacek (bio)
Victorian Jamaica, edited by Tim Barringer and Wayne Modest; pp. ix + 722. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2018, $139.95, $38.95 paper.

On August 1, 1838, just five weeks after Queen Victoria’s coronation, Jamaicans celebrated the end of the emancipation process, and for more than a century afterward many Black Jamaicans attributed their freedom to the intervention of “Missis Queen,” a belief based on imperial propaganda rather than historical fact (2). Victoria’s sixty-four-year reign was not only “a period of unresolved transition and crisis” (3) that exposed the “ambiguities of hard-won freedom” for Afro-Jamaicans; it was also marked by constant dialogue and conflict between colony and metropole in the spheres of politics, economics, and culture (2). In Victorian Jamaica, a huge and beautifully produced volume, art historian Tim Barringer and scholar of material culture Wayne Modest, in conjunction with several dozen contributors, provide readers with an encyclopedic history of the political, visual, and material culture of Jamaica from the eve of Emancipation to the beginning of the twentieth century. They also expand on the work of, among others, Thomas Holt and Catherine Hall by placing the Caribbean at the center of historical understanding of this era of British history. [End Page 695]

Although the latter half of the nineteenth century saw the formation of both Black and brown middle classes in Jamaica, the majority of non-whites remained impoverished and disenfranchised. They were also subject to ongoing attempts, by this emergent bourgeoisie as well as the remaining white inhabitants, to “civilize” them by eradicating their creolized culture and replacing it with one based on English Protestant values. Nonetheless, many aspects of Afro-Jamaican culture survived, and ideas and practices imported from the metropole underwent sometimes surprising metamorphoses in the Jamaican context. While some of these cultural formations have been studied in recent years from a textual perspective, Barringer and Modest focus on the visual and material culture of this period, which is often ignored in favor of that of the pre-Emancipation or post-Independence eras of Jamaican history. In so doing, their goal is to locate the Caribbean in general and Jamaica in particular within the “material turn in the humanities” of the past few decades, and specifically to foreground the experiences of non-white Jamaicans, traces of whose material and expressive cultures can help to compensate for the paucity of archival representations of their lives (23).

Following the editors’ substantive context-setting introduction are twenty-two “object lessons,” brief essays by historians and scholars of visual culture that center on a single image or object and evaluate “the complex entanglements that characterized colonial relations in Jamaica during the Victorian period and the broader implications of these relations for the history of empire” (51). Many examine symbols of the “civilizing mission” (5), such as Joseph Bartholomew Kidd’s 1854 map of the city of Kingston (explored in a chapter by Rivke Jaffe) which emphasizes the central square known as the Parade, created as a “stage for displays of military might and social status” (73). Similarly, Anthony Bogues’s essay considers a turn-of-the-century image of an Afro-Jamaican wedding party in which the bride’s lavish white gown, the groom’s morning coat, and the couple’s white-gloved hands symbolize these newlyweds’ “markings of black respectability,” which might allow ex-slaves and their descendants “to be seen as human and as her majesty’s subject[s]” (95). But other contributions depict covert or overt evidence of resistance, such as (in Diana Paton’s essay) an Obeah figure which supposedly had such power that both Black and white viewers expressed fear of it, or (in Modest’s) a British military officer’s photograph of the gravesite of eighty Afro-Jamaicans who had been executed on the orders of colonial governor Edward Eyre for their involvement in the Morant Bay uprising of 1865.

Beyond this series of brief but illuminating “lessons,” the bulk of this immense volume is made up of twenty-three chapters, separated under the rubrics of “Making Victorian Subjects,” “Visual and Material Cultures...


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