Exploring the natural history of Jamaica

Warriror Womain portrait by Charmaine Watkiss
Portrait of a Warrior Woman by Charmain Watkiss - displayed at the British Museum

As part of my project work on Animating the Caribbean Collections, I visited the British Museum with Dr. Amara Thornton – historian of archaeology and research fellow, Michelle Keeley-Adamson (historian & illustrator) and Danny Zborover, Curator & Head of Americas Section at the museum.  He showed us the work of artist Charmaine Watkiss who had been commissioned by the British Museum and invited to respond to Sir Hans Sloane’s collection of Botanical prints (one of the founding collections for the British Museum) and his book ‘The Natural History of Jamaica’ published in 1707 and 1725. Sloane was a collector, a naturalist, a physician and a slave owner, with significant ties to the transatlantic trade in enslaved people.  Sloane interacted with the enslaved people on the island of Jamaica to gather knowledge on his behalf for his book. It’s important to note that the African people brought their superior knowledge of plants with them from Africa and of course, the native Taíno people had immense botanical knowledge too. Sloane has been credited with the advancement of botanical science (including bringing chocolate to Europe and creating hot cocoa) and yet it was:

“An inherently violent process of knowledge production at that time.” unquote. Alicia Hughes, Curator: The Sloane Lab.

In his book Sloane mentions when he was treated by a Black healer for an insect bite that became infected, noting that the healer was an African Queen in her country before being enslaved.

Warrior Women and healing plants

In response to his work, Watkiss created a mesmerising painting of a warrior woman as an aloe plant, entitled: The Warrior’s Way, safeguarding the natural history of Jamaica. In it, she is carrying a boat with the Castor Plant (the seed is toxic which is where the poison ricin comes from) and the plant has healing properties. Also in the boat is the cocoa plant. In her hand is a scroll of the lagetto tree (lacebark). Enslaved women used the fibres from this tree to make clothing. This is a very skilled reference to a painting of Sloane where he is shown holding a scroll of this very same tree – portraying an image of him as a master of natural history. Watkiss’ painting is an opportunity to present another point of view from the traditional white, male, middle-class perspective. By holding the scroll of the tree and the boat with the plants, her warrior woman is reclaiming it all, the botanical knowledge and her history. This image is remarkable for me as a Storyteller who often tells African and Caribbean folktales of healing elders who were respected in the villages for their wisdom, spiritual leadership and connection to their ancestors.

Changing the narrative

This commissioned painting is displayed in a glass case alongside a huge bust of Sir Hans Sloane. For me, it is a missed opportunity to have this remarkable work displayed at the back of the case facing the wall. The case is one of the first things you may see when you enter the cavernous Enlightenment room at the British Museum. The front of the display case features the huge bust of Sloane and his book. However, there is an acknowledgement in the summary description of how Sloane profited from acquiring objects connected to the enslavement of African peoples and atomical specimens relating to skin colour and theories of racial difference. In his Will, he offered his entire collection to the public in return for a payment of £20,000 to his heirs. The collection was purchased through an Act of Parliament in 1753 which founded the British Museum.

How else can we continue to change the narrative and share the untold stories and buried histories of the African and Caribbean diaspora? This project is partly a knowledge exchange which could lead to having more Caribbean collections/artefacts on display at the British Museum. This would have such a positive and powerful impact on Caribbean communities if we give prominence and accreditation to the native and enslaved people who created, used, and in many cases unearthed these artefacts and shared their botanical knowledge which in turn, contributed to the generational wealth of collectors. It would also help to build bridges between the museum and Caribbean diaspora community in the UK who often do not feel that such institutions are for them or represent their true history.

Watch Watkiss talking about her commission