Michael Connors - When Sugarcane was King
A veteran decorative arts’ scholar and authority on West Indian furniture, Connors’ latest lavishly illustrated tome, examines the venerable houses of the West Indies that remain as the rich history and vibrant lifestyle of a bygone era that some may wish to forget. A ‘story-to-the-eye’, Connors traces the tumultuous four-hundred-and-fifty year history of plantocracy in the Caribbean, finally allowing the walls of grand palazzos, great houses and mansions throughout the ‘sugar islands’ to talk, revealing tales of affluence, turmoil and enslavement. Fastidiously composed, the photographic epic weaves a tale of unprecedented luxury, when the Caribbean was, “the centre of the world,” and five key European powers vied for outposts and for their part of the “white gold.”
The ‘Go-to’ Guy: The son of an architect, interior designer and antiques’ collector, Connors’ passion for all Caribbean is bred in the bone. Charming, erudite and profoundly passionate about what he does, especially in the face of the disappearing historic and domestic architecture of the Caribbean, he sees the built world as playing an essential role in providing “trace evidence” of the region’s material culture and the “centuries-long epic of empire expansion” by the European powers.
With over thirty years’ writing, consulting and teaching in the fields of fine and decorative arts, Connors received his Ph.D. from New York University. Not surprisingly, his services as lecturer, consultant and writer are in great demand with appraisals sought by the likes of Sotheby’s and Christie’s. Listening to him expound on gabled Jacobean arches, Danish neo-classical window eyebrows or the time he discovered an original Reginald McFarlane four-poster mahogany bed sticking out of a dumpster in St. Croix, is spellbinding – like an injection of intellectual adrenaline. He fires off dates with alacrity, painting a picture of a time when “sugarcane was king” and “white gold” was the currency of power.
Subtle Opulence and Casual Elegance: Connors pays homage to unique vernacular forms and decorative motifs that were borne thanks, in part, to the reticence of European colonialists to forsake the fashionable styles of their motherlands but, moreover, to the influence of enslaved workers – the West African silversmiths, carpenters, masons, weavers and ironworkers, upon whose backs the “subtle opulence and casual elegance” of the Caribbean was built.
Colonisers, eager to display their newly acquired wealth, built grand replicas of houses from their homelands like Jamaica’s notorious Rose Hall or St. Nicholas Abbey in Barbados with fireplaces in every room. However, with some islands like St Lucia changing hands innumerable times between European powers, anomalies were inevitable, such as the table sited byConnors bearing French cabriole legs and English ball-and-claw feet.
Uncommonly, form followedfunction, as adaptations slowly emerged in response to environmental factors. Beds were elevated in height to take advantage of natural ventilation while porches, loggias and patios becoming integral elements of design.
With necessity as the mother of invention, craftsmen emulated these European styles using indigenous materials such as mahogany, satinwood and coral limestone, inadvertently assimilating them with their own signatures in the form of special construction techniques or distinctive motifs. Over time, pieces became less exact and more interpretive but always with a degree of luxury rarely seen before or since.
The End of an Era: Somewhat ironically, the ensuing depletion ofhardwood forests and plundering of natural resources, coupled with the malignant spread of ‘cookie-cutter’ architecture throughout the region, meant an end to such extravagance and scale.
With the emancipation of slaves and the development of new technologies, the mid-nineteenth-century saw the decline of plantocracy with many of its finest houses falling into disrepair. The history of shame meant that the walls were silenced – seen merely as ostentatious emblems; remnants of an enslaved past. Paradoxically, Connors points out, this desire to elude the past, coupled with the ensuing economic decline, allowed for “preservation by neglect,” indirectly protecting many sites and artefacts.
Giving voice to these relatively closed chapters in time, he brings the melting pot that is the Caribbean literally and metaphorically onto one page. “Historically significant architecture is all that more important by virtue of the fact that it is part of the patrimony and material culture of the islands,” states Connors. Thanks to him, this history has finally been written and the walls of historic mansions throughout the Caribbean are, at last, being given free reign to talk.
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