February 10, 2017
The Bahamas has been a tourist location far longer than we have been independent - not hard, of course, with less than half a century of self-rule under our belt. So it makes sense that understanding ourselves and our national and cultural identity is quite difficult. The anxieties with trudging our way out of the muddled mix of British and African influence, the power of tourism in shaping our image as a tropical locale 200 years ago, all of this led to some very difficult territory to navigate.
Consumption is arguably the nature of our existence as a place - as far as the West knows it anyway. We have always been a product to consume, to indulge in - an exotic luxury and experience to be had. Not much has changed since then. From the time of the first wave of colonial activity, we were seen as this unreachable Eden, and now the Eden is paradise and paradise is easily accessible for anyone with deep pockets.
The postcard 'Eating Oranges' (estimated c. 1890-1930), featuring the photography of James Osborne "Doc" Sands, a Bahamian of European descent, gives us a literal snapshot into what was being thought of The Bahamas at this time - albeit from the position and gaze of a privileged man. Smiling faces- mouths open wide all lined in a row, ready to take in every juicy drop of the citrus goodness - look to the camera, dangling the fruit to tease us amidst their spread of other delights. It is taunting, enticing, edging you to come and experience this other world, this 'paradise'.
In 'An Eye for the Tropics: Tourism, Photography, and Framing the Caribbean Picturesque' (2007), Dr. Krista Thompson, who has previously curated exhibitions at the NAGB, gives us insight into how our colonial history with Britain not only shaped our cultural landscape, but also the actual physicality of our landscape. We don't have all these majestic old silk-cotton beauties in our older settlements for no reason! Thompson looked to archives of photographs, postcards, booklets, and just about any resource available that dealt with tourism paraphernalia from the early British colonial era to help us better put our image from this time into focus, to add in strokes of color where things seem too black, too white, too gray.
Thompson shares a snippet from Stark's History and Guide to the Bahama Islands (1891) "The view of Nassau from the sea is very striking, but whether it is the beauty of the situation that impresses the visitor so much, or the fact that everything tropical is so strangely fascinating to the unaccustomed beholder, I know not; perhaps it is both. To a person coming from a northern climate, it is realizing for the first time a picture one has been in the habit of seeing for years in their imagination".
The concept of the 'tropical' and of 'paradise' and its history are by and large the reason that the rest of the world views us as this mecca of warmth and light and lushness, and why we as Bahamians and Caribbean people view the region as such and hold such esteem to our landscape. Expectations and meeting them for the western public are key in these parts. This golden chain of islands in the Caribbean basin, once seen as a purgatory of disease, sweltering heat and unbearable humidity, were rebranded to the British and American public as a safe-haven for rehabilitation of those with pulmonary or respiratory disease - the physical beauty and relaxed life were seen as therapeutic, restorative, and not in fact a breeding ground for mosquitoes and peculiar foreign ailments.
However, as The Bahamas is an entirely different geography to much of the rest of the Caribbean - being limestone-based hunks of coral, floating above the Tropic of Cancer - we had to re-frame the islands to fit with this ideal of lushness. The view that tourists sought after couldn't quite be had in the islands - we simply didn't have the same elevation required for the rolling mountains snapshots of untouched oasis that they were expecting.
The disillusionment some tourists deal when visiting the islands today is concurrent with accounts that Thompson brought to light in her text. Edgar Watson Howe, in his travel memoirs 'The Trip to the West Indies' states his dissatisfaction quite plainly. "Go ashore and get some dinner? There isn't anything to eat there. - Fruit? None to speak of; sour oranges and green bananas" (Howe, 1860). Being of the constitution that we are, our land simply could not support the large-scale farming of produce like the volcanic islands dotted through the rest of the Caribbean - hence the lack of lasting success in farming sisal, tomatoes, oranges, pineapple. Our thin, rocky soils could sustain farming for only a short while before the nutrients in these pockets of soil were exhausted.
And yet, images like this, with visitors happily munching on oranges amongst an arrangement of distinctly non-western produce of the most unfamiliar sort, display the islands as a sort of cornucopia and wealth of fresh and exotic delights. The tourism machine was carefully framed and arranged from even these days, and it is apparent that some were left with a bad taste in their mouths.
The swashes of bright color helped to bring the images to life, and the placement of hand-painted color itself was key to setting the scene and enticing those outside the islands to find their way in, and to do so as soon as possible - the fear of missing out was real even then. The framing of the image itself in this style of The Last Supper seems almost tongue-in-cheek given the reality, but our friend to the far left looking into the distance looks to know more than he might be able to say, as if he even might have known what was to come.
"Culminating in the 1920s, these initiatives unevenly and adversely affected the island's black communities.... efforts to make white business and residential areas picturesque - orderly, manicured, and clean - would lead to the imposition of social controls on the island's black inhabitants, contributing further to racial stratification and segregation. Thus, making Nassau like "a picture in the imagination" or "strangely tropical" prescribed not only a way of seeing and a program of landscaping but a way of governing. These aesthetic concepts became central components of political practices that informed the production and use of social space, especially along the lines of race." (Thompson, 2007)
Knowing the conditions through which so much of what we know today, these relics of our colonial past, while difficult, are also key to helping us to look forward. To actualize Eden in more real terms, more limestone-rock solid terms. As a region that once provided Britain with so much wealth, it is a reminder to us that we can serve ourselves, sustain ourselves, and most importantly - that we don't have to fit ourselves to a mould that doesn't suit us in accordance with an image that was generated centuries ago. An image that no longer holds relevance to our live realities. Holding truth in how we represent ourselves means that not only do we meet and manage our expectations for ourselves, but that we also set them straight for others.
Click here to read more at The Nassau Guardian