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Six photos that illustrate life in the Caribbean 100 years ago

By Allison Baker| Photography by Art Gallery of Ontario

A year and half ago, Julie Crooks, assistant curator of photography at the AGO, travelled to New York for one of the world’s largest photography fairs. A colleague mentioned that a collector would be showing the world’s largest exhibit of historical Caribbean photography: a trove of over 3,500 prints, postcards, albums, and stereographs (an early form of three-dimensional images) from the Wider Caribbean Region.

The collector, a former stock-photo dealer named Patrick Montgomery, had been tracking down historical images from the Caribbean since the early-aughts. His interest was piqued after noticing the lack—or, at times, total absence of—photographs in museums he visited while in the tropics. He wanted to know where those photos were, and if they even existed. Finding the answer took him to France and the U.K. (countries that had begun Caribbean islands in the 17th century), where he found images dating as far back as the 1840s. Today, his collection—which was purchased by the AGO for $300,000—contains photos from approximately 34 countries that were taken between 1840 and 1940.

Right now, little is known about the stories behind the photos, but researchers will spend the next two years trying to uncover them, with the goal to put the exhibit on display in 2021. Until then, here’s a sneak peek at the collection.

Six photos that illustrate life in the Caribbean 100 years ago
Felix Morin, Bananas, Trinidad, 1890

This studio portrait of a bunch of bananas—captured by the French photographer Felix Morin in Trinidad in 1980—is thought to have been an advertisement for the fruit industry.

Six photos that illustrate life in the Caribbean 100 years ago
J.W. Cleary, Coconut Palms, Kingston Harbour, 1895

Historically, the most photographed areas of the Caribbean were Jamaica, Barbados and Trinidad. This image shows the shores of Kingston Harbour in 1895.

Six photos that illustrate life in the Caribbean 100 years ago
Felix Morin, Fakirs, Trinidad, 1890

Many of Morin’s photographs are of the Indo-Caribbean population, who came (or were taken) to the Caribbean to replace former slaves that had been emancipated in 1833 and 1834. This image was taken in Trinidad in 1890.

Six photos that illustrate life in the Caribbean 100 years ago
Unknown, Glendairy Prison Officials, Barbados, 1909

This was taken outside Glendairy Prison (a.k.a.Her Majesty’s Prison), which was built in 1855 and housed up to 1,000 male and female inmates.

Six photos that illustrate life in the Caribbean 100 years ago
Unknown, Jamaican Women, 1900

The fashion depicted in this photo is reflective of the Victorian era, which ended in 1901.

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Six photos that illustrate life in the Caribbean 100 years ago
Unknown, Martinique Woman, 1890

Images like this studio portrait of a Martinique woman in her local attire, taken in 1890, document the changing landscape of the islands post-emancipation.

Six photos that illustrate life in the Caribbean 100 years ago
Felix Morin, Two Women, Trinidad, 1890

Photographs like this one, of two women in Trinidad in the late 1800s, were produced en masse to promote a particular image of Indo-Caribbean women to the West.

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