Paradise and plantation: Exhibit at Bath museum looks back at Maine’s historic ties to Caribbean

New exhibit asks Mainers to rethink Maine’s relationship with the Caribbean. A report by NATHAN STROUT for the Times Record.

In Maine, mention of the Caribbean brings visions of a tropical respite from Maine’s long, cold winters. But the next plate of baked beans you eat should also bring the region to mind, as you’ve to the Caribbean islands to thank for a key part of that recipe.

A new exhibit at the Maine Maritime Museum is hoping to change Mainers’ understanding of the Caribbean by reminding them of the state’s long and vibrant history with the region. “The Tropics Next Door: A Look at Maine and the Caribbean” traces Maine’s relationship with the islands all the way back to the colonial era.

In the 1700s and 1800s, Maine, and the port of Bath, engaged in a huge amount of trade with the Caribbean.

An interactive display shows a number of New England culinary staples with Caribbean origins and ingredients. (Nathan Strout/The Times Record)

“It was a completely busy port, with captains going regularly to these islands. We think of globalization as kind of a 20th or 21st century idea. Absolutely not,” said Curator of Exhibits Chris Timm. “People were going there regularly for trade.”

While Maine may seem somewhat isolated from much of the world today, back then it was a center for trade in the new world. Interacting with the Caribbean was a part of regular life for many Mainers.

“These economies were incredibly interwoven,” said Timm.

“We’ve gone through a lot of records, diaries and personal accounts. It’s kind of amazing how Americans, and specifically Mainers, when they went to the Caribbean, they were running into other people and other families they knew from Bath. They were wandering the streets of Havana, and they were like, ‘Oh, it’s the Hendersons! It’s wonderful to see you.’”

Traces of that cultural exchange exist to this day, even if it’s not obvious. Molasses, produced from massive sugarcane plantations that dominated the Caribbean economy, was the major export to New England. While much of that product was distilled into rum, it also had major impact on New England culinary traditions.

“A lot of our food items that we think of as quintessential New England, like baked beans,” said Timm. “It was actually made with the molasses brought from the Caribbean, so it’s completely dependent on the Caribbean as this global fusion food item.”Advertisement

The Caribbean trade was a source of great prosperity for many, but it had a dark side that cannot be ignored — slavery. Those sugarcane plantations that provided the molasses New Englanders craved depended on forced human labor, and the Caribbean’s trade with Maine helped sustain that system for generations.

In a small viewing room, visitors can watch a series of clips showing pop culture images of the Caribbean. (Nathan Strout/The Times Record)

Maine formed part of a triangle of trade with the Caribbean and Africa. While Maine imported massive amounts of molasses from the islands, it distilled that molasses to rum. The rum and other goods were shipped to Africa, and from there, slaves were shipped to the Caribbean, where they were forced to work on plantations.

“Even if the vast majority of Mainers were not directly involved in the slave trade, the economic actions that they had perpetuated it and promoted it,” said Timm.

That oppressive system isn’t the focus of the exhibit, but Timm said: “We wanted to tell both the exotic, the exiting, all these associations we have of the Caribbean as this getaway, but then also some of the grim realities of the plantations and the impact that Maine’s trade with the Caribbean had in terms of slavery. It’s this odd contradiction of the paradise and the plantation.”Advertisement

Filling out the final third of the exhibit and occupying a space somewhere in between paradise and plantation are the paintings of Maine artist Stephen Etnier. Etnier spent time in the Caribbean and produced several paintings depicting the islands, but he avoided depicting the region as a tropical resort.

“He painted things that you often don’t see in the picture perfect, idealized paintings of the times,” said Timm.

The paintings are on loan from Etnier’s sons, David and John.

“Dad was very sensitive and attuned to the fact that paintings and visions should not just be pure beauty, but he wanted a touch of realism as well that included industrial aspects, commercial signage,” said David Etnier. “He never painted just crashing surf on the beach.”

In addition to Stephen Etnier’s paintings, the exhibit hosts a variety of artifacts from the Caribbean. (Nathan Strout/The Times Record)

Beyond Etnier’s paintings, the exhibit features souvenirs that merchants brought back from the Caribbean to a collection of materials related to the USS Maine, which sank in Havana Harbor. Contrasted with that is a small theater room, where clips showing the pop culture version of the Caribbean — think Sandals resorts, Pirates of the Caribbean and Coronas on the beach — play in a loop on a small screen.

The exhibit opened Nov. 3, and will remain open through May 5, 2019.

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