Slave Festival, St. Vincent, West Indies, 1770s


Bryan Edwards, The History . . . of the British Colonies in the West Indies (London, 1801), vol. 2, facing p. 184. (Copy in the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University)


Caption, A Negro festival, shows group of men and women dancing and their clothing styles. The caption notes that this engraving was drawn from nature in the island of St. Vincent, from an original picture by Augustino Brunyas, in the possession of Sir William Young; first published in London in 1791 (b/w and colored versions of this print are held by the Barbados Museum). The same print, but titled Negro Dance in the island of Dominica and dedicated to General Charles O'Hara, was published in the 1794-1800 edition of Bryan Edwards (see, for example, reproduction in Andrew J. O'Shaughnessy, An Empire Divided [Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 2000], p. 35). According to Lennox Honychurch (see below) this illustration perhaps more accurately represents a party of 'free people of colour' than the slave festival that the term 'Negro' or 'Negre' (synonymous with 'slave') indicated in the 18th century. But this is splitting hairs, for whatever the source, it has conveyed its misleading message of merriness and contentment of the enslaved for over two hundred years. Honychurch observes that Although it is described as taking place in St Vincent, this engraving combines scenes produced elsewhere on the islands. In the left hand corner of the picture a drummer and female tambourine player reappear from similar scenes painted in Dominica and St Kitts. A dancing couple performs what may be ... called 'Belaire' in Trinidad. They too can be observed in at least three of his other paintings of the period. A white sailor or overseer asks a decorous Mulatress to dance or at least gestures towards the dancers. Agostino Brunias (sometimes incorrectly spelled Brunyas, Brunais), a painter born in Italy in 1730, came to England in 1758 where he became acquainted with William Young. Young had been appointed to a high governmental post in West Indian territories acquired by Britain from France, and in late 1764 Brunias accompanied Young to the Caribbean as his personal artist. Arriving in early 1765, Brunias stayed in the islands until around 1775, when he returned to England (exhibiting some of his paintings in the late 1770s) and visited the continent. He returned to the West Indies in 1784 and remained there until his death on the island of Dominica in 1796. Although Brunias primarily resided in Dominica he also spent time in St. Vincent, and visited other islands, including Barbados, Grenada, St. Kitts, and Tobago. See Lennox Honychurch, Chatoyer's Artist: Agostino Brunias and the Depiction of St Vincent, for what is presently the most informative and balanced discussion of Brunias and his romanticized and idyllic paintings of West Indian scenes and slave life (Jl of the Barbados Museum and Historical Society, vol. 50 [2004], pp.104-128); see also Hans Huth, Agostino Brunias, Romano (The Connoisseur, vol. 51 [Dec. 1962], pp. 265-269).


Brunias, Agostino

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