Dale W. Tomich, Rafael de Bivar Marquese, Reinaldo Funes Monzote, and Carlos Venegas Fornias

Reconstructing the Landscapes of Slavery: A Visual History of the Plantation in the Nineteenth-Century Atlantic World

University of North Carolina Press, 2021

161 pages


Reviewed by I. B. Hopkins

“We do not question that images are representations and that there is a politics of representation,” the co-authors of Reconstructing the Landscapes of Slavery: A Visual History of the Plantation in the Nineteenth-Century Atlantic World accede, but they also insist “that it is necessary to explore the relation between the visual image and the neglected space beyond the representation.” In their striking visual history of plantation aesthetics in the nineteenth-century Americas, Dale W. Tomich, Rafael de Bivar Marquese, Reindaldo Funes Monzote, and Carlos Venegas Fornias interrogate received understandings of such a politics while breaking ground in those neglected spaces between the picture and what it hopes to capture. Their study marks the culmination of a multi-year, transnational collaboration that attempts to “understand the relation of global political-economic processes and local history, the differentiation and interrelation of zones of slave production, and the diverse ways that slave labor was reconstituted within the specific historical conjuncture of the nineteenth-century world-economy.” By channeling these wide-ranging concerns through the visual legacies—both material and those intact in cultural memory—of plantation aesthetics, the authors draw connections between the growth of capitalist modernity and the physical ecologies that informed and were transformed by it.

This volume brings together more than eighty full-color landscape images (including artworks, lithographs, stereoscopes, blueprints, maps, murals, photographs, etc.) from the era of the ‘second slavery’ in the Americas, a period roughly corresponding with the end of legal transatlantic trade of enslaved people as well as the industrialization of agriculture and manufacturing that intensified those economies. Its methods are consciously modeled on John Berger’s 1972 book Ways of Seeing, and as such its authors (historians and sociologists) offer fastidious cultural, economic, and historical readings of each art object rather than comprehensive theoretical approaches. “The material ordering of landscape cannot be conceptualized independent of the personal judgement of an observer,” they caution, and so for each object the authors guide the reader through two inseparable questions: “How does visual documentation help us understand these landscapes? And what can such landscapes tell us about the history of the new commodity frontiers of the second slavery?”

Plantation life’s geographic obscurity presents a familiar paradox in relation to its deep ties to the emerging global economy of the nineteenth century. In addition to detailing the physical reconstruction of the terrain in these plantation zones as spurred by external demand—expressed through agriculture, roads, hydrology, deforestation, and built structures—this study also carefully compares three distinct regions in which related but distinct plantation cultures emerged. Cotton production in the United States’ lower Mississippi valley, sugar ingenios in the broad prairie of western Cuba, and coffee growers of Brazil’s center-south Paraíba valley present analogous loci in which “[land] and labor were subject to increasing rates of exploitation during the period” and “[spatial] ordering facilitated production and social control.”

Following an introduction that productively positions this project as a departure from earlier studies of Euro-American landscape painting and the Western cultural imagination, Tomich, Marquese, Funes Monzote, and Venegas Fornias organize their visual history in six chapters. The first three seek to explain how global market forces and the rise of industrial capitalism conditioned the formation of economies based on a single nonnative crop, focusing one chapter each on cotton, sugar, and coffee commodity frontiers. In the second half, they revisit each region with more localized examinations of dynamic responses to how “the natural environment shaped the social and material relations of plantation production” across time. “Quantification and calculation,” recurrent preoccupations in each of these visual artifacts, they argue, “served as a means of regulating the relation between nature and labor and between time and space in ways that conformed to the characteristics of each crop.”

One of the most visually arresting examples of this urge to represent the landscapes (and the labor, wealth, and ecologies from which they are inextricable) becomes a touchstone more broadly for this book. A grand portal trompe l’oeil landscape painting at Fazenda Resgate in Bananal, São Paulo illustrates the tension between the image as a document of the landscape as it existed and that which a coffee plantation owner might see (or hope to or fear to see) while looking through a false window from a decadent dining room. Alongside the discrete, quantifiable rows of coffee plants, seemingly endless hills of uncountable rows recede into the horizon while a box of cash imposes stark realism in the foreground. At the top of the mural, as if hanging from a window casing that is not there, a caged songbird stares at two nearby butterflies and suspends a “metaphoric reference to slavery, freedom, and the labor of enslaved Africans.” Fixed in place by nature of its medium, this work becomes the authors’ point of departure for this study which is bound by the specifics of geography even as it is concerned with disrupting narratives of plantations as scenes of unchangeable uniformity or relegation to an antique past. While the temporal scope of Reconstructing the Landscapes of Slavery ends with the legal emancipation of enslaved peoples in these locales (1860-1880s), its investment in the representation of land, labor, and the built environment reminds us that the legacies of such systems remain active in the cultural memory and broader aesthetics of the Americas.

Theories of space, critical ecologies, racial formations in the Americas, and transatlantic studies will all find purchase in this volume. These fields attend most compellingly to the aesthetic qualities that link the lower Mississippi valley, western Cuba, and center-south Brazil, and special interests in any of these regions will be enriched by its findings. Impressive though the scale of primary materials collected and reproduced here is, it should be noted that the types of artifacts under consideration primarily provide insights into the aesthetic values of plantation owners and management. The fact of African people laboring and being transported in brutal, coerced conditions marks a key strand of the book; however, the authors “refrain from treating slave agency or resistance” and instead read the visual objects of their archive as “instruments of pacification.” Given the breadth of evidence gathered here and the high quality of their photographic reproductions, the most enduring contribution of Reconstructing the Landscapes of Slavery may come as other scholars with interests in cultural history access the collection and located parallel- or counter-narratives within its scenes of domination.