Historical Photos of West Indies Challenge Racial Stereotypes

Taken by friend of Teddy Roosevelt, they portray 'an independent people'

When Joanna Scadden opened a dusty drawer in the vaults of London's Royal Geographical Society, she could not have imagined that four years later she would take the photographic plates she found inside to the Caribbean. Nor did she guess she had uncovered a collection of great cultural and historical importance to the countries of that region.

The fragile glass negatives discovered by the society's picture library manager are the work of Sir Harry Johnston, a British government official who 90 years ago made a photographic record of the life led by the black inhabitants of Haiti, Barbados, Trinidad, and Jamaica.

His pictures - in amazingly good condition for their age - portray a life-style far removed from the stereotypical images many harbor when they imagine how people of those islands lived nearly a century ago.

Those images tend to be colored by the assumption, fostered by writers of the time, that in the days of the British Empire West Indians were unfit for self-government. If Johnston's photographs are anything to go by, the images are wide of the mark.

"These photographs defy post-independence political ideas that represent the region as polyglot, multiracial, and hybrid," says Jamaica-born art historian Petrine Archer-Straw, who has curated a touring exhibition of the pictures. Until now, she says, "the perception of the Caribbean past has been reliant on literary stereotypes, where the 'native' is either a savage or a merry, mischievous child.... [Johnston's photographs] demolish that view."

The pictures, commissioned by Johnston's friend, the United States President Theodore Roosevelt, depict members of black communities who, despite a background of grinding rural poverty, show every sign of being intelligent, independent-looking people.

"Johnston believed that blacks had experienced an accelerated development and had proved themselves capable of governing their own affairs," Dr. Archer-Straw says.

The pictures were exhibited briefly in London in March. Currently, under what Ms. Scadden calls a "repatriation program," they are on show in Jamaica's National Gallery (March 29-May 2). Later they will be exhibited in Port of Spain, Trinidad (May 12-30); Bridgetown, Barbados (June 7-30); Havana (July 12-Aug. 6); and Port-au-Prince, Haiti (Sept. 16-Oct. 17).

Later, duplicate sets of the pictures are to be given to each of the islands, and will form part of their historical archives.

Scadden says that, despite the fresh light Johnson's images shed on life in the Caribbean at the turn of the century, they are still capable of touching raw nerves. She discovered as much on a visit to Kingston, Jamaica, where memories of the trade in black slaves are still alive.

"The fact that Dr. Archer-Straw is herself a Jamaican helped to "smooth out sensitivities," she says, "but our approach has had to be diplomatic."

As well as taking arresting photographs, Johnston was a product of the colonial era and was in the habit of referring to "the inferior races of the world." Like his mentor, Roosevelt, he was interested in imperial expansion and the new science of anthropology.

But for his time, Archer-Straw believes, he was a progressive, and his photographs are evidence of this.

At the turn of the century, photography in the Caribbean was the preserve of the wealthy. Commercial photographers concentrated on depicting what Archer-Straw calls "upwardly mobile bourgeoisie."

She cites the work of Adolphe Duperley in Jamaica and Juan Baptista Valdez in Cuba. Both tended to portray the local people as "hatted and suited colonial subjects" in "artificial studio settings." Johnston, by contrast, went out into the countryside and produced "bold, assertive images that speak about post-emancipation settlement, industry, camaraderie, resistance, and independence."

Johnston's pictures, Archer-Straw says, "demonstrate a self-reliance that would prove prophetic as their nations moved toward self-government and independence."

One of the most striking photographs in the collection portrays a barefoot black artisan astride a balcony. The man is holding a fan, which, Johnston suggests, he made himself. The fan is decorated with the portrait of a white woman.

Until now there has been little evidence of black artistry or craftsmanship among Afro-Caribbean people at the time. The finely-worked fan in the man's hand suggests otherwise - that such skills did exist but were later largely lost.

"This juxtaposition of black man to white female image and all its connotations of prejudice, self-hate, and self-perception," Archer-Straw says, "make this an ironic, informative, and powerful image."

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