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Slavery, Geography, and Empire in Nineteenth-Century Marine Landscapes of Montreal and Jamaica


Nineteenth century Montreal and Jamaica were British island settlements, seized from other empires, inhabited by indigenous peoples, and strategically cultivated by enslaved Africans. With the rise of abolitionism, both settlements were also in crisis as the first quarter of the century drew to a close. But why are such sites never analyzed in tandem? In Slavery, Geography, and Empire Nelson delivers one of the first Slavery Studies books to juxtapose temperate and tropical slavery and the first such comparative work in Art History. While research in the visual culture of slavery has focused upon human-centered representations (ie. portraiture, genre, nudes), far less attention has been given to the role of landscape art in Trans Atlantic Slavery. Exploring a vast range of primary sources including travel narratives, plantation ledgers, merchant cash books, and planters’ journals, Nelson juxtaposes the British island settlements of Montreal and Jamaica to question how the representation of land became central to the possession of territory, the control of resources, and the othering of African and indigenous populations. Drawing from postcolonial theory, critical geography, and black feminist thought, the book examines eighteenth and nineteenth-century genre studies and portraits alongside landscape representations – mainly maps and topographical prints – to explore the centrality of landscape art to the British re-imagination of both islands and the indigenous and enslaved inhabitants as their rightful possessions.

The book delivers a careful postcolonial re-examination of the picturesque as a tool of objectification which rendered both indigenous and African bodies as abject, idle, and anti-modern; staffage extraneous to the capitalist work of empire, strictly coded as European and Euro-American. Drawing from renown authors on Jamaica like Hans Sloane, Edward Long, William Beckford, and Maria Nugent and lesser known works by John Seller, Gilbert Mathison, Matthew Lewis, Thomas Cooper, and R. Bickell, Nelson illuminates this moment of deep political crisis ““ between the end of the slave trade (1807) and complete abolition (1833) – for British slave owners who used visual culture to imagine spaces free of conflict and to alleviate their pervasive anxiety about slave resistance.

Nelson delivers the first detailed analysis of James Hakewill’s A Picturesque Tour of the Island of Jamaica (1825) and William Clark’s Ten Views in the Island of Antigua (1823), arguing that the absenting of the labour of enslaved Africans from Jamaican landscapes was a picturesque aesthetic strategy with far-reaching political implications. Equally as important, Slavery, Geography, and Empire insists on Montreal as a site of Black Diaspora, critically reiterating Canada’s much-suppressed slaving histories and re-examining Canadian icons like James McGill for his role as art patron, slave owner, and colonial merchant. In the end, the deep transoceanic connections between Montreal and Jamaica are exposed since the Atlantic Ocean, slavery, colonial trade, and the British exploitation of enslaved Africans indelibly joined the two sites.

Charmaine A. Nelson’s compelling and innovative reading of British Caribbean marine landscapes in Montreal and Jamaica (1760-1820) expands slavery studies and the visual culture of slavery to consider for the first time a second Middle Passage between the Caribbean and Canada. She thus expands the traditional slave trade triangle to now include Great Britain, the West Indies, and Canada. Her erudite and rich analysis of visual culture combined with postcolonial feminist theory is a major contribution to readers in a myriad of fields.
– Vivien Green Fryd, Professor, American and Contemporary Art, Vanderbilt University, USA

Charmaine Nelson’s keen analysis reveals her sharp intellect as she addresses the realities of racism in Canada and the Caribbean: the absences, the distortions and the erasures that stifled black voices suffering the opprobrium of slavery. Canada somehow, willfully, disappeared from Atlantic slavery, from the shameful, painful collective history that encompassed all of us. This is a “big book”, and though its focus is visual arts, it is multidisciplinary and universal in its scope.
– Patrick Bellegarde-Smith, Professor emeritus, University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, USA

This book project is set to make critical contributions to a wide range of scholarly disciplines – from Slavery Studies, to Art History, Visual Culture and Postcoloniality, Canadian History, studies of Empire, and Native Studies. The author’s rigorous mining of a vast archive – be it maps, prints, paintings or texts – serves to distinguish this study from many others in its thoroughness and depth.” It poses a challenge to, “existing scholarship on slavery studies, the history of the Atlantic slave trade, histories of print and painting production and the manner in which the disciplines of art history and visual studies have addressed race and vision.
– Anonymous Peer-Reviewer

At the heart of Nelson’s book is a critique of the disciplines of slavery studies and art history. She argues that slavery studies has not engaged with visual art in meaningful ways outside the human body, and that art history has failed to raise significant and consistent questions related to race, colonialism, and imperialism because of the unsuitability of [its] dominant methodologies and practices (2) to such discourses…Chapter Six exemplifies her project: she offers a close reading of Hakewill’s ‘A Picturesque Tour of the Island of Jamaica’ and his erasure of the enslaved body from the land. At the same time in this chapter, she writes poignantly about white male sexual exploitation of black women in Jamaica and the astoundingly brutal nature of Jamaican slavery. She does this in order to challenge Hakewill’s vision of Jamaican sugar plantations as scenes of picturesque tranquility (235). Her comparative project signals her position as scholarly activist and practitioner of a hybrid art history that incorporates a close attending to the visuals, a concern for what is seen and not seen, and a self-reflexivity concerning how the author positions herself. Throughout the book, one senses her outrage and indictment of the slavery complex as well as her commitment to telling a new story about the visualization and imaginings of slavery, geography, and empire in the nineteenth-century colonial world of Montreal and Jamaica.
– Renee Ater, Independent Scholar of nineteenth- and twentieth-century art of the United States

RACAR Reviews

Nelson’s meditation on the (in)visibility of slavery in Canadian life and culture extends from the late eighteenth century to the present day. Her Montreal chapters are especially valuable for their incisive discussion of how the establishment of prominent city institutions like McGill University was sustained through the expropriation of Indigenous territories and material wealth from the slave trade. By highlighting university founder James McGill’s ownership of black and native slaves and his consistent trade (86) in plantation crops in chapter 2, for example, Nelson advances an ongoing call for institutions of higher education to confront their ties to slavery and settler colonialism. In so doing she extends and complicates an issue explored by Craig Steven Wilder in Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2013) to a wider North American context that includes Canada alongside the United States. Slavery, Geography and Empire in Marine Landscapes of Montreal and Jamaica is, as Nelson writes in the introduction, a work of redress…a key strength of the book’s comparative and transoceanic focus is that it prioritizes Canada as a site crucial to understanding histories of the African diaspora configured through and under slavery. Nelson’s study works to interrupt dominant narratives of place and nationhood, and its address to an expansive range of geographies, images, texts, and histories should provide myriad openings for future studies on slavery and empire across disciplines.
– Caitlin Beach, PhD candidate, Department of Art History and Archaeology, Columbia University

Cite this book: Charmaine A. Nelson, Slavery, Geography, and Empire in Nineteenth-Century Marine Landscapes of Montreal and Jamaica (London, UK: Routledge/Taylor Francis, June 2016)


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