An Impact of Colonial Era Imaginative Geographies on the Caribbean


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What exactly are “imaginative geographies”? They are ideas or knowledge about a place, knowledges that ascribe meanings to places (qualities or feelings). Imaginative geographies correspond to qualities or feelings, rather than to reality. They are distinct from empirical (or positive) knowledge. Mimi Sheller’s work on the Caribbean highlights a lot of imaginative geographies, going back to the early days of colonialism in the region to modern imaginative geographies. “The Caribbean has been repeatedly imagined and narrated as a tropical paradise in which the land, plants, resources, bodies and cultures of its inhabitants are open to be invaded, occupied, bought, moved, viewed and consumed in various ways. It represented as a perpetual Garden of Eden in which visitors can indulge all their desires and find a haven for relaxation, rejuvenation and sensuous abandon.” – Mimi Sheller. The imaginative geography you might ascribe to the Caribbean is exotic, tropical, somewhere to escape the reality of the Western World.

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Europeans constructed so many imaginative geographies about the Caribbean. The history of these imaginative geographies Europeans have constructed goes back from the “discovery” of the region by Christopher Columbus. One of the earliest imaginative geographies was the meaning of the Carib (indigenous tribe) as savages. These perceptions of the region changed over time, while some continue until this day. One of the main Western views of the Caribbean, since “discovery” has been that the region is tropical. The Drake Manuscript (named after Francis Drake) or Histoire Naturelle de Indes had around 200 watercolor images of WestJoshua Powe GEA 3320 Indian plants and animals, along with scenes of the indigenous, European and African inhabitants of the New World. One of the more images in this book was that of the Palm tree. Over time, the Palm tree would become one of the key symbols that represent the Caribbean. The colonizers were also amazed at the fact that the plants flowered and fruited all year around. The plants and fruits, along with other things ended up being exported back to Europe and consumed by those in the metropole and other European countries. These tropical products being used for many things such as food, medicine, carpentry and manufacturing, especially during the 17th and 18th centuries. The Europeans valued the tropical hardwoods, especially West Indian Cedar, the locust, ironwood, the dyewoods fustic and lignum vitae.The consumption of the Caribbean began with the “discovery” of the region. Europeans came across the Caribbean as a “faster route” to the East Indies to participate in the spice trade.

Hans Sloane was important in shaping early colonial era consumption of the Caribbean. He was important in the flows of natural substances, scientific knowledge, bio-power, real estate and cultural capital. Sloane’s work was said to have provide many benefits to science. However, he wasn’t only a scientist. While in Jamaica, he came across a mixture of processed cocoa, milk and sugar which was fed to ill children, which were most likely slaves. Sloane took this mixture and marketed it back in Great Britain,

The literature of travel and exploration was a major segment in the circulation of information and representations of the Caribbean. As mentioned earlier, The Drake Manuscript/Histoire Naturelle de Indes was a major part in that. The West Indies offered an early field for collection of both plants and human “meterre”. Many of the early texts on tropical islands were instrumental and practical catalogues of useful plants, animals, and “natural products”, a secondary major trope in European writing on the region was the envision oflandscape as scenery.

Throughout the 18th century, the predominant theme in the descriptions of the Caribbean remained the beauty of cultivated areas set within the tropical landscape. Equally important as the literature of travel and exploration was the printing of geographical information such as maps. The printing of maps was linked to the new expansion of the Atlantic. At first Portugal and Spain had a monopoly on the printing of maps. However, as both countries lost their monopoly on transatlantic trade, geographical information began to be printed in larger quantities.

During the 17th century, consciousness began arising on the fragility of the ecological environment which was caused by human impact on the environment of the Caribbean. This was crucial in looking at the full impact of the new urban market, demeaning sugar, coffee and tobacco was imposed on the fragile environments of the smaller tropical islands. This awareness of European ecological impact on the environment, combined with a growing appreciation of the value of indigenous and local medico-botanical knowledge, produced a conservationist-attitude among some colonial authorities, but also led to new attitudes towards nature. Depictions of the Caribbean were often a celebratory overview of a plantation, showing not only its main crops, but also the “negro huts”, provision grounds on one side and the mountains or hills in the background. Many of these depictions also contained labelled areas with a list of the various features, buildings, planted areas and highly romantic imagery of happy peasant-like workers.Changing possibilities for consumption and social struggles over mobility and immobility have been shaped four phases.

Phase 1: The 16th and 17th centuries were a period of “discovery”, piracy, and “bachelor” plantations.

Phase 2: The 18th through the mid-19th centuries were a period of exponential growth of the system of slavery in which Europeans consumed human bodies in the coerced production of both plantation commodities and domestic and sexualservices.

Phase 3: The mid-19th through the mid-20th century was a period of colonial/industrial systems of “free labor” and capitalist plantation commodity consumption in which workers were beginning to migrate in search of better wages.

Phase 4: from the late 20th century until present day, “postindustrial” and “postcolonial” service consumption in which fragments of industrial processes occur in the Caribbean, alongside new forms of service (high-tech, financial services and tourism).

These colonial era imaginative geographies still have an impact on how we view the Caribbean. The region is still viewed as a tropical paradise, which is viewed for consumption. This tropical paradise has been marketed to Westerners for centuries. Colonialism had an effect on the Caribbean in numerous ways, including how it’s viewed and consumption even in the modern day. Mimi Sheller’s work shows this in detail.

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