Representing Punishments for Dirt-Eating and Intoxication in Richard Bridgens’s West India Scenery, with Illustrations of Negro Character (1836)

Julia Skelly

Abstract


This article examines two plates from Richard Bridgens’s West India Scenery that represent the punishment of slaves or newly freed slaves for dirt-eating and intoxication. Bridgens identifies dirt-eating as both an addiction and a disease, and he does not adequately account for why slaves drank to the point of intoxication, nor does he explain why drunkenness was deemed punishable in the context of transatlantic slavery. It is argued here that both dirt-eating and intoxication were acts of resistance for slaves who had limited control over their own bodies. Bridgens is not the only nineteenth-century slave owner who identified slaves’ acts of resistance as diseases and addictions. It is proposed that white Americans and Europeans employed this representational strategy in order to explicate dirt-eating and slaves’ attempts to escape bondage, because the concepts of disease and addiction positioned acts of resistance as irrational, rather than as behaviours that indicated cognition and slaves’ power over their own bodies. By illuminating the gaps, inconsistencies, doubts, and admitted ignorance in Bridgens’s text, a space is opened for scholars to question what his aesthetic choices may reveal about his skewed vision of slavery. Reading both the images and the text critically also points up the problems associated with viewing representations of slavery as accurate historical records. The question is, then: If Bridgens’s textual accounts in West India Scenery are incorrect or inaccurate, what might be incorrect or inaccurate in his visual representations?

Keywords


Richard Bridgens; colonialism and art; slavery; emancipation; British West Indies; punishment

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