Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 3, 2018
Charmaine A. Nelson Slavery, Geography and Empire in Nineteenth-Century Marine Landscapes of Montreal and Jamaica New York: Routledge, 2016. 416 pp.; 16 color ills.; 26 b/w ills. Hardcover $128.00 (9781409468912)

In the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts appears a portrait of an Afro-Caribbean woman bearing a platter of tropical fruit and seated in front of a mountainous landscape. She is likely Marie-Thérèse Zémire, enslaved in Haiti and then in Montreal by the Québec-born François Malépart de Beaucourt. Beaucourt, an artist by trade, painted Zémire in 1786. The painting was originally titled Portrait of a Negro Slave and was renamed Portrait of a Haitian Woman by museum curators in the twentieth century. Yet little in the painting or its present title, as Charmaine Nelson points out, alludes to the historical fact of the sitter’s enslavement by the artist or her life north of the Caribbean. Zémire numbered among the thousands of enslaved people in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Canada, a British colony where slavery was not abolished until 1833.

What do works of art like Portrait of a Haitian Woman reveal and obscure about slavery and its geographies? In Slavery, Geography and Empire in Nineteenth-Century Marine Landscapes of Montreal and Jamaica, Nelson reveals intertwined histories of enslavement and visual representation across Caribbean and Canadian spaces. In this prolific and compelling study, Nelson draws from an impressive body of visual and textual sources to argue for a deeply entrenched set of geopolitical, commercial, and social connectivities between two key colonial ports of the British Atlantic. Deploying a “colony-to-colony approach,” she shows how the project of representing land and its inhabitants in both places was one conditioned by forces of empire, race, and gender (8). Slavery—an institution that, Nelson stresses, was critical not only to the plantation colony of Jamaica but also the commercial hub of Montreal—entered into regimes of the visual in vexed and subtle ways. As produced by white male elites who, like the slave owner Beaucourt, were often themselves implicated in slavery’s commerce in one way or another, visions of land and sea in both places were inevitably “documents of denial” (22) that traded in the “selective erasure and emplacement of racialized subjects” (11).

Nelson uses the book’s introduction and first chapter to set up a theoretical framework for her comparative study, which draws from the methods of critical geography and postcolonial analysis to consider the central premise of “art-making as empire-making” (43). To be certain, many art historians have reflected upon the Janus-faced production of art and empire; W. J. T. Mitchell’s oft-cited formulation of landscape as the “‘dreamwork’ of imperialism” comes to mind (Landscape and Power, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994, 10). Yet Nelson’s hemispheric focus does initiate new questions about the relationships within and between the geographically disparate British imperial territories of Canada and Jamaica. Canada’s participation in slavery and the slave trade in particular, she notes, has been long suppressed in “official” national narratives and is just beginning to resurface.

Chapters 2 through 4, which focus on the history of slavery and its legacies in Montreal, work toward redressing this lacuna. Analyzing prints, paintings, period statistics and documents, and myriad secondary sources, Nelson provides a comprehensive account of the city as an active trading port that profited from the wealth of slave economies in points south and as a place where Indigenous, black, and mixed-race slaves labored at docks, businesses, farms, and homes. On one hand, busy wharf scenes by the painter Robert Sproule and topographic city views by the British military officers Thomas Davies and Thomas Patten do not visually divulge the presence of enslaved people in Montreal, a significant number of whom were forcibly brought from the Caribbean to Canada in what Nelson conceptualizes as a “Second Middle Passage” (85). On the other, as scenes of imperial order and landed wealth they were always already images about slavery and race, ones that were “born of the Black Atlantic and with, or without the representation of black bodies, speak to the constitution of the Black Diaspora in Montreal” (85).

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. This section, coupled with the third chapter’s analysis of the contemporary museum installation of Beaucourt’s Portrait of a Haitian Woman by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and the McCord Museum (the latter owns the painting and has loaned it to the former for display), effectively demonstrates methods by which scholarship on historical art can participate in forms of institutional critique today. In particular, Nelson’s discussion of her own efforts to urge curators to change the title and wall text of Beaucourt’s portrait to more clearly communicate the realities of the sitter’s enslavement in Montreal opens onto broader questions about the limits of the visual at the core of her study: What do images show and what do they refuse to show? What kinds of information and narratives must supplement the visual? In what ways does narrative work and not work as a reparative act?

Nelson shifts her gaze south to the Caribbean in the second half of the book. Chapter 5 discusses the imperialist aims of early modern British atlases and accounts of the island by John Sellers, Hans Sloane, and William Beckford and in so doing establishes a historical and contextual framework for her subsequent discussion of William Clark’s Ten Views in the Island of Antigua (1823) and James Hakewill’s A Picturesque Tour of the Island of Jamaica (1825). The sixth chapter juxtaposes the two illustrated publications: while the plantation overseer and engraver Clark so consistently foregrounded enslaved labor that his aquatints approximated a “‘how-to manual’ on Caribbean sugar cultivation” (222), the architect Hakewill eschewed the depiction of work altogether in favor of sweeping and idyllic views of the Jamaican landscape rendered in the paradigm that Krista Thompson has theorized as the “Caribbean picturesque” (An Eye for the Tropics: Tourism, Photography, and Framing the Caribbean Picturesque, Durham: Duke University Press, 2007). Hakewill’s Picturesque Tour, produced at a time when the threat of slave rebellions and maroonage loomed increasingly large to the British colonial regime in Jamaica, “required that all the unpleasantness be vanquished, including the laboring bodies of the unruly and potentially insurrectionary slaves” (235). Chapters 7 and 8 further reveal the ways in which the proslavery sympathizer Hakewill sublimated the representation of race and gender in his art to further promote an image of white prosperity and tranquillity in the island colony on the eve of abolition. Readers acquainted with existing literature on the visual culture of landscape and empire in the British Atlantic by scholars including Kay Dian Kriz, Geoff Quilley, and Jill H. Casid will be well primed to follow Nelson’s conceptualization of Hakewill’s landscapes as manipulated images of colonial power. In the larger scope of the book, however, this argument does work to support Nelson’s central claim for a set of ideological and aesthetic commonalities between practices of landscape representation in the Caribbean and in Canada.

Slavery, Geography and Empire in Marine Landscapes of Montreal and Jamaica is, as Nelson writes in the introduction, a work of redress. Although it traverses some familiar scholarly ground in its discussion of the nineteenth-century Caribbean, 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. As Katherine McKittrick has observed in her important theorization of black Canadian geographies, Canada remains in many ways a place “that has and is still defining its history as Euro-white, or nonblack” (Demonic Grounds: Black Women and the Cartographies of Struggle, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006, 92). 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
Assistant Professor of Art History