The most recent release of Royal Commonwealth Society photographs on Cambridge Digital Library takes us to the Caribbean. We’re delighted that virtually all Commonwealth members from the region are represented. The subject of the earliest image dates from 1795, while the latest culminates in the 1970s, a period of fundamental change and development, marked by the abolition of slavery and the movement towards independence for many former British overseas territories.
The extent of development is emphasised by the oldest item, which is a map of the Hillsborough Estate on the island of Dominica as it appeared in 1795. The plantation was acquired by John Greg (1715-1795) of Belfast, who became the first British Government Commissioner for the sale of land on the island in 1765. Historians of slavery and of the economy of the Caribbean will be very interested in the map and its parent collection of estate archives. This is a particularly significant collection because it is accompanied by an album of photographs created by Hillsborough’s final owner, John Tylston Greg. He purchased it in 1894 and supervised it personally until its final sale in 1928. Greg documented Hillsborough’s accommodation, buildings, workers and crops with his camera in May 1896, and it is fascinating to compare and contrast the 1795 map with photographs of the estate taken a century later.
Agriculture and forestry feature prominently, notably in two albums compiled by Sir Daniel Morris, who served as Director of Jamaica’s Botanic Department from 1879 to 1886. Morris later worked as Imperial Commissioner, West Indian Agricultural Department, and as Scientific Advisor in Tropical Agriculture to the Colonial Office. His photographs illustrate native flora and fauna, botanical gardens and shows, and the cultivation of a wide range of trees and crops throughout the British West Indies, including sugar cane, cotton, banana, pineapple, orange, mahogany, logwood, sisal, coconut, jalap and lime.
The contribution of fishing to the islands’ economy is also evident in images showing the Bahamas’s sponge collecting boats and the exchange where the sponges were sold. The expansion of ports and shipping for the import and export of commodities is also represented.
The great natural beauty of the Caribbean islands is another striking theme, exemplified by images of lush gardens and forests, wide beaches and dramatic coastlines and mountains. The beginnings of the tourist industry is suggested by photographs of luxury hotels built to tempt visitors, such as Jamaica’s Myrtle Bank, which by 1909 had ‘become a synonym for everything associated with elegance and comfort in accommodation [and] the superlative in food and wine’.
The danger inherent in the island’s geology, however, is powerfully emphasised by photographs of the eruption of St. Vincent’s volcano La Soufrière in May 1902. The event devastated much of the northern part of the island and killed approximately 1,600 people. It coincided with the terrible eruption of Martinique’s Mont Pelée, which is well documented in the RCS photograph collection.
The diverse population of the Caribbean, including the indigenous peoples of modern Honduras and Belize, are portrayed in the photographs too, captured going about their daily lives. There are also images of archaeological sites and sketches of pottery associated with the Caribs.
We are thrilled to finish with a large collection of more modern colour slides, taken by the diplomat John Marnham, who from 1970 served as British Government Representative to the West Indian Associated States. Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, Grenada, St Christopher and Nevis, St Lucia and St Vincent enjoyed this status en route to their independence between 1973 and 1983. Marnham was based in St Lucia and had a house at Ciceron, just outside the capital Castries, and travelled widely among the states, often photographing from the air.
The featured image is Crossing Bamboo Pond, near Morant Bay, Jamaica, 1904, Y3073B_5