Colonizing Paradise: Landscape and Empire in the British West Indies, written by Jefferson Dillman

in New West Indian Guide / Nieuwe West-Indische Gids

Jefferson Dillman, Colonizing Paradise: Landscape and Empire in the British West Indies. Tuscaloosa: University Alabama Press, 2015. x + 249 pp. (Cloth US$ 54.95)

In this concise volume, Jefferson Dillman argues that the European perception of the Caribbean landscape evolved in stages, beginning with the didactic perspective of early Iberian explorers, and culminating in an English view of the Caribbean as pastoral and picturesque. The study runs from Columbus’s first letters to the abolition of slavery in the British West Indies.

Chapter 1 focuses on fifteenth- to sixteenth-century Iberian perceptions, as reconstructed from letters and published writings. Dillman concludes that these initial views were shaped by the juxtaposition of what explorers, colonists, and critics saw as Edenic and Satanic qualities. Pulling out references to the biblical Eden from this literature, he argues that many of them felt that they had come close to finding the actual location of the Garden of Eden. Given their Catholic background, they saw in the temperate climate, abundant fresh water, verdure of the forests, and fertility of the soil a paradise identical to the Garden before the Fall and expulsion of humanity. By the middle of the sixteenth century the literal interpretation of the New World as the location of the Garden of Eden was tempered somewhat. Dillman’s analysis of texts by Bartolomé de Las Casas, José de Acosta, and others suggests that by this time the Edenic trope was used rhetorically rather than literally. Simultaneously, the Iberians interpreted such things as dangerous animals, treacherous waters, and the prevalence of disease as manifestations of Satan. Although Dillon belabors this point somewhat, he convincingly argues that this juxtaposition of the Edenic with the Satanic significantly influenced perceptions of the Caribbean.

The remaining four chapters focus on English/British perceptions of the Caribbean landscape from the earliest published accounts to the end of slavery in the British West Indies. Dillman’s reading of the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century accounts suggests that English perceptions, influenced by the sixteenth-century Iberians, saw the New World, not as The Paradise, but rather a paradise, full of social and commercial potential, and “a place through which man’s story of the fall from grace and eventual redemption might be enacted” (p. 39). If the Spanish had failed to realize the full potential of this paradise it was because they fell into the grasp of Satan, devolving into debauchery and indolence. Dillman argues that the early English explorers built on the Edenic trope to promote stable, prosperous settlements.

By the seventeenth century, Dillman argues, the hard realities of the English experiences in Virginia and the West Indies promoted a view of the Caribbean as an abyss of immorality; by the late seventeenth century, it was seen as a fallen place in need of redemption. Seventeenth-century English colonists abused the abundance of their paradisiacal garden, descending into sin and sloth. Privateering, prostitution, drunkenness, and idleness reigned in a lawless landscape where pirates and maroons alike could thrive outside of the bounds of civilized society.

By the early eighteenth century, there was a third phase, one dominated by the Enlightenment impulse to control the natural environment. Chapter 4 examines both natural history treatises and descriptions of botanical gardens established throughout the West Indies to show that during the eighteenth century the West Indian landscape was seen as redeemed and mastered—a place where great fortunes could at last be realized.

The beauty of that landscape, of course, masked the ugly reality of enslaved labor. In the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth, enslaved people were incorporated into the landscape as picturesque and pastoral. At the height of the sugar boom, the West Indian landscape was viewed similarly to English rural landscapes, the natural beauty of swaying canes hiding the violence inherent in the social landscape. In a brief epilogue, Dillman ruminates on the nineteenth-century landscape as it emerged after abolition, focusing on the scientific and touristic landscape tropes, which he defines as the Tropical.

The initial and final stages of the process are less well developed than the middle centuries. The analysis of the Iberian writers is occasionally labored and redundant, and Dillman’s brief treatment of the postemancipation landscape in the epilogue lacks development. Nevertheless, Colonizing Paradise presents an important review of the landscape history of the (primarily) British West Indies, framed by an interesting thesis and boasting a first-rate bibliography. This is a book that any serious student of the Caribbean should read.

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Colonizing Paradise: Landscape and Empire in the British West Indies, written by Jefferson Dillman

in New West Indian Guide / Nieuwe West-Indische Gids

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