Just as it’s often said that the interior of a home can tell you much about the individual that lives there, so too many of the greathouses that you can still visit around the Caribbean also often tell even more about the wider culture, history and people of an island. The book that provides a fascinating insight on the island greathouse style – whether you’ve been inside one before or are curious about what you will find on a first visit – is in the recently published Caribbean Houses, by Michael Connors (Rizzoli, 2009). Dr. Connors is a lifelong specialist in both the interior spaces and interior furnishings of outstanding Caribbean island homes, and this most recent book of his illustrates with both gorgeous photography and carefully documented narrative, the background and legacy of the many notable great houses he has explored first-hand across the region from Jamaica to Barbados and many points in between.
Among the most significant points that Michael Connors makes in his descriptions of the differences and common elements between Spanish, British, French, Danish and Dutch colonial architecture and design is the wider influence these homes had on the rest of an island’s lifestyle. Speaking of the French islands such as Martinique, for example, he notes: “During the latter part of the seventeenth century and first part of the eighteenth century when most of these homes were being built, it was the French plantocracy just basically influencing one another. But, these were working plantations — they weren’t set up to impress much, they were glamorous farm houses really but working plantations. The English were the ones that spared no expense and imported – as were the Danes, the Spanish. The French were more frugal, and really had a better understanding of the climate, of the tropics, but now that we have this paradigm of architecture, you’ll go around the island now, and houses that have been built in the last hundred years you’ll see how they’ve tried to copy that two-story belvedere, and the galleries around, so there is that influence. But during the era, it was really slave traders, sugar barons, and it was all about making money. One of the distinctions between the French and the English again was that the French basically stayed on the island: they brought their French taste to the island, whereas the English did the same but they were absentee owners — they thought about making their fortune and then going back to England, they always felt like at least in the wills and inventories and the research I’ve seen, the letters talk about sending their children back to England to school, sending their wives back or coming over without the families and wanting to go back and retiring in the mother country. Whereas the French, when they came over, they pretty much stayed where they were — they made it their home. So there are great differences there.” Caribbean Houses is a lavish and informative journey into the homes that are an enduring landmark of this region’s complex past and present.