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Life, Labor, and a Coolie Picturesque in Jamaica

By Jenny Sharpe

Although the signs of Indo-Jamaican and Afro-Jamaican cohabitation are present in a late-nineteenth-century photographic archive, the visual power of an imperial picturesque obscures the evidence that exists in plain view. The illusion of self-contained villages of imported Indian workers that photographs create is informed by even as it reinforces a colonial order of racial segregation. By identifying the photographic traces of Indians’ indentureship, this essay introduces time and motion into still photography that reduces Indian lives to single ethnographic instances. It also deploys dougla—the name for people of mixed Indian and African descent who exist as a “flaw” in the British colonial hierarchy of race—as a critical lens for exposing photographic flaws that rupture the smooth surface of the picturesque in ethnographic tableaux of “coolies” and Orientalizing portraits of “coolie belles.”

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