By Michael Connors,
By Michael Connors, Ph.D.
Photography by Bruce Buck
Cane sugar, often called “white gold,” along with tropical woods and crops of tobacco and cotton, were the basis of many a settler’s fortune. After Spanish explorers discovered the West Indies in the late fifteenth century, a continual battle waged between European nations fo control of the resource-rich islands. Over succeeding centuries, the thirty main islands of the West Indies were variously controlled by Spain, England, France, Holland, and Denmark, and each colonizing nation contributed its own decorative influences.
Plantation inventories from the 1640s and 1650s show that the early Creole-West Indian lifestyle was relatively comfortable. Planters lived in two-to-three story houses and slept in mahogany four-poster beds. Their rooms contained luxury items, walls were hung with framed pictures, and cupboards were filled with linen and silver. Records show that one home possessed a library, another boasted a railed balcony and a polished marble floor.
By the 1680s, the islands’ sugar industry had begun to yield significant profits, and the nouveau riche began to build and fournish elegant homes modeled on a lavish European lifestyle. In 1700, a missionary priest who visited Barbados, commanted on the plantation houses, “One notices the opulence and good taste in their magnificent furniture…”
The first great houses and urban mansions were adorned with furniture from Europe. However, tropical heat, humidity, termites, and woodworm soon decimated most of these softwood furnishings. Planters charged local craftsmen, most of whom were enslaved West Africans or their descendants, with the task of creating furniture using the islands’ indigenous hardwoods. Virgin forests in Cuba, Hispaniola (Now Haiti and the Dominican Republic), and Jamaica offered up a moderately hard and heavy mahogany (Swietenia mahogani) and other exotic woods such as cashew, grapefruit, coconut, and speckled bamboo. Roots and stumps of large trees were especially prized for their wavy grain.
Few records exist for cabinetmaking shops in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries since most of the craftsmen were enslaved, anonymous, or illiterate. With rare exception, there is no tradition of signing, labeling, or dating island pieces until the twentieth century. While the heritage of these cabinetmakers in most cases was African, there are a few cases of immigrant European furniture makers. Apart from those living on the Danish-controlled islands, Africans were discouraged or forbidden from seeking formal education or training. Yet the need for a skilled labor force to maintain plantation great houses and island infrastructure provided opportunities in the wood-working trade. By the mid-eighteenth century, evidence shows that there were a large number of enslaved Africans, many of whom later became free tradesmen, skilled in woodturning, carving, joining, and carpentry.
Throughout the development of island furniture design, African-West Indian craftsmen’s copies of imported pieces became progressively less exact and increasingly more interpretive. They altered imported styles by adding decorative elements derived from African motifs and from the flora and fauna of their island surroundings, adding twist-and-ring turnings, stylized carved palm fronds, pineapples, banana leaves, sandbox and nutmeg fruits, and zoomorphic forms. They carved and turned these elements using copious amounts of wood for the bold, grand proportions evident in even the most graceful pieces.
West Indian craftsmen also reinterpreted furniture forms to adapt them to the tropical climate. Four-poster beds were constructed with high bases to catch window drafts. To faciltate airflow, a lightweight, flat-reed open woven caning was used for seating. Planter’s chairs were a specialized Caribbean form made with very long arms so that the tired planter could elevate his swollen feet and more easily remove his boots.
On the Danish West Indian islands, colonial furniture was a blend of the quintessence of imported North American and European styles with vernacular African-West Indian decorative motifs and designs. The result is a distinctive West Indian furniture style whose vigorous lines bespeak a subtle opulence and casual elegance.