Natural Histories: A Note on Cotton Trees and Jamaican Art

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TOM CRINGLE’S COTTON TREE: This Ceiba, or Silk Cotton, tree is of a type common to many parts of Jamaica. Its majestic spread of branches provides shade and shelter, and you will notice, a host of many types of parasitic plans. This particular tree was mentioned in ‘Tom Cringle’s Log” a 19th century novel by Michael Scott. Cotton trees are believed by the superstitious to be the haunt of “duppies” (ghosts)

Jamaica Tourist Board, Kingston, Jamaica

The Silk Cotton tree or Ceiba Pentandra is indigenous to the tropical Americas, Jamaica included, and a variety is also found in West Africa. One of the largest and most visually spectacular indigenous trees, the Silk Cotton tree takes more than a century to reach its typical size – up to 40 metres high and with the diameter of its trunk up to 3 metres – and to develop its dramatic buttress roots. The tree blooms annually and produces fruits that burst open to reveal a ball of silky white fibres inside.

Silk Cotton trees can survive for centuries and, as Olive Senior points out, often harbour “on its branches a great variety of wild life – orchids, wild pines, parasites, birds’ nests, creepers – which contribute to its almost supernatural appearance.” (134) The Silk Cotton tree also has a number of practical applications: its light wood and large size made it the material of choice for the Taíno dugout canoes; it is a source of kapok and was used to make cloth by the Taíno; and various parts of the tree are used for medicinal purposes.

Not surprisingly, the Silk Cotton Tree has considerable cultural significance, as is evident throughout the Caribbean. The trees were considered sacred by the Taíno, as the dwelling place of spirits and hold similar significance in African-derived popular religion, which may have incorporated some Taíno beliefs. In Jamaican culture, the Silk Cotton tree is associated with duppies and serves as a site for gatherings, rituals and revelations in Revival and Kumina. Because of their size and longevity, Silk Cotton trees stand as silent, giant witnesses to centuries of history and serve as landmarks that provide shelter and shade.

The symbolic potential of Silk Cotton trees has been used in various ways. The tree serves as a national symbol of Puerto Rico, Guatemala and Sierra Leone and, in Jamaica, several locations are named after such trees, including Cotton-Tree Hill in St Elizabeth and most notably, Half-Way-Tree. John Pringle’s Cotton Tree, near Ferry along the road to Spanish Town, was another such landmark and reached the national news when the then more than 300 year old tree collapsed and blocked the road in 1971.

As Krista Thompson argues, the Silk Cotton tree also played an important role in the colonial imaginary of a picturesque and monstrously bountiful “tropicality”, to be tamed by the ordering and “civilizing” effects of colonialism – an ideology that may have been questioned by John Dunkley, as we saw a few weeks ago. In a further extension of this colonial “tropicality”, the tree was also foregrounded in early tourism, as can be seen in several late 19th century and early 20th century scenic photographs and postcards of Jamaica and the Bahamas, and “fulfilled even the most discriminating traveller’s quotient for wondrous and bizarre natural forms” (98). As was illustrated by this post’s epigraph – a Jamaica Tourist Board sign from the late 1950s or early 60s at Tom Cringle’s Cotton Tree, Silk Cotton Trees continued to serve as attractions in modern tourism and were, at least in this case, also used to speak about local history and folklore (albeit in a somewhat dismissive manner that labels the spiritual beliefs associated with the tree as superstitious.)

The Silk Cotton Tree also appears in Jamaican art, where it takes on various meanings, and for instance features in three major paintings from the NGJ Collection: Henry Daley’s Cotton Tree (1944); Mallica “Kapo” Reynolds’ Peaceful Quietness (1967); and Everald Brown’s Cotton Duppy Tree (1994). The latter two are currently featured in Natural Histories and the former can be seen in our permanent exhibition of modern Jamaican art.

The oldest example, Henry Daley’s Cotton Tree, appears to represent Tom Cringle’s Tree and may in actuality be based on a well-known A. Duperly and Sons postcard on the subject, since the viewing angle seems almost identical. While the work no doubt alludes to the Silk Cotton tree’s significance in Jamaican culture and history, it seems to do so through eyes that were trained by the expressionist imaginary of the Dutch Post-Impressionist painter Vincent Van Gogh, whose life and work were a clear inspiration to the young Jamaican painter whose work and short life were equally dramatic. In southern Europe, the Cypress tree is frequently seen around cemeteries and its frequent presence in Van Gogh’s work was not only based on observed reality but invoked its associations with death and the expressive manner in which he typically depicted the Cypress tree, as if it were a dark flame, only reinforces these allusions. Given the symbolic compatibilities, it thus made perfect sense for Daley to “Jamaicanize” his inspiration by substituting the Cypress tree with the Silk Cotton tree.

The other two examples – Kapo’s Peaceful Quietness and Everald Brown’s Cotton Duppy Tree – locate the tree in the context of African-derived religion, Revival in the case of Kapo and religious Rastafari in the case of Brown. Brown’s painting and its spiritual significance was the subject of a previous post but it is useful to compare the two paintings, which provide very different perspectives. Everald Brown’s tree, which seems to be bursting at the seams with spirit forms, illustrates Olive Senior’s point that a Silk Cotton tree is in some ways a self-contained universe, but the ghostly humanoid form of the tree itself gives the image a menacing quality which is totally absent from Kapo’s depiction, in which the majestic tree seems to rule over a still, peaceful landscape populated with smaller trees – as the “king of trees”, so to speak. Given Kapo’s propensity for symbolic self-portraiture, it is not impossible that his Cotton tree alludes to his own role as the spiritual leader of his Revival band. Kapo also claimed to have received the spirit, thus being called to become a Revival leader, under a Cotton tree.

There are other plants associated with folklore and the spiritual to which Jamaican artists have made reference – the example of Eugene Hyde’s Croton series that is featured in Natural Histories comes to mind but there are other examples that could be explored – and all of this illustrates the rich potential for critical, cultural and historical explorations arising from natural history as a theme in Caribbean art.

Veerle Poupeye

Sources:

Atkinson, Leslie-Gail. Taíno Influence on Jamaican Folk Traditions. Kingston: Jamaica National Heritage Trust, 2010.

Senior, Olive. Encyclopedia of Jamaican Heritage. St Andrew, Jamaica: Twin Guinep, 2003.

“Silk Cotton Tree: Home to the Spirits of the Forest.” Florida Museum of Natural History, http://www.flmnh.ufl.edu/caribarch/ceiba.htm.

Thompson, Krista. An Eye for the Tropics: Tourism, Photography, and Framing the Caribbean Picturesque. Durham: Duke University Press, 2006.

Tortello, Rebecca. “The Fall of a Gentle Giant: The Collapse of Tom Cringle’s Cotton Tree.” Gleaner, 2002, http://jamaica-gleaner.com/pages/history/story0020.html

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4 thoughts on “Natural Histories: A Note on Cotton Trees and Jamaican Art

    • Interesting article on the ceiba/cottonwood or World Tree as the ancient Amerindians of nearby Central America called this tree, also sacred to the Yamaye Taino. The ancient Maya of Central America believed that a great Ceiba tree stood at the center of the earth, connecting the terrestrial world to the spirit-world above. The long thick vines hanging down from its spreading limbs provided a connection to the heavens for the souls that ascended them. Since the World Tree has an ancient and complex belief system associated with it (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mesoamerican_world_tree) it would be interesting to know if the tree, although found outside of the Americas, is also endemic to Southeast Asia and West Africa or, like the cacao (coco/chocolate) thee, was transported there for commercial reasons.

  1. Pingback: Introducing Countryman (Dir: Dickie Jobson, 1982) | National Gallery of Jamaica Blog

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