Guadeloupe women [1911]

Standing apart from his other work, Sherman's collection of four "Guadeloupe Women" photos capture people not quite at the end of their transnational migration. The subjects in these photos were not typical Ellis Island arrivals going to join friends or family, nor people simply striking out on their own in the United States. Instead, what we see are the faces of people classified as "non-immigrant aliens" contracted for work in Canada—not in factories, mines, or mills—but rather as domestic servants in dozens of wealthy French-Canadian households scattered throughout Québec and Nova Scotia. As with a number of his other "exotic" arrivals, Sherman paid extra attention to these subjects and made multiple photos that employed different compositional elements. By exploring the fuller context of their migration, each portrait reveals a great deal more about its subjects and the unusual path they traveled to reach North America, as well as the blunt racism that shadowed their journey at every stop.

Not all Ellis Island arrivals intended on staying in the U.S. on a permanent or even temporary basis; some were simply in transit to other destinations. Even though such "non-immigrant aliens" had no intention of staying in the United States, as steerage passengers they would undergo the same inspection regime that other immigrants at Ellis Island were subject to. Upon arrival in the New York harbor, they had to disembark from their steamship, then take a transfer ferry to Ellis Island, disembark again, then join the long, multitrack inspection process which could result in unpredictable outcomes. This time-consuming procedure gave arrivals more exposure to Ellis Island inspectors, some of whom kept an eye out for "unusually attractive or different immigrants" and, before they disappeared into the flood of arrivals, quickly brought them to the attention of Sherman. From there, it is assumed, Sherman would grab his equipment in haste and rush over to meet the individual(s), then direct them to a suitable location for a photo portrait.  It remains unclear what he told his sitters the photos would be use for, or sought their permission to distribute prints of them to the press and other groups.

Unlike many of Sherman's other subjects, none of the individuals in his "Guadeloupe" photos appear to have been detained or held for special inquiry, but simply had time to spare before re-embarking following the conclusion of the inspection process. There were nearly 40 more "Guadeloupe women" traveling with the group but not photographed by Sherman.

Sherman gave precise details about both their date of entry and the ship they arrived on in a typed caption, but no names or mention of the fact that the group was simply in transit and not actual immigrants to the U.S. Although in this case it's not possible to match faces to names, locating the ship's manifest creates a flip side to Sherman's "Guadeloupe women" portraits.  Clustered together on a couple of sheets, we see the group of 58 non-immigrant aliens from Guadeloupe—most unmarried women under the age of 30—who arrived at Ellis Island on 6 April 1911.

None carried any money and all had their passage paid by their future employers in Canada. Prior to leaving Guadeloupe, group members signed two-year contracts—with a monthly salary of $5—to work as domestic servants in the homes of wealthy French-Canadian families, mostly in the province of Québec. Following inspection and processing at Ellis Island, the group then re-boarded the S.S. Korona and traveled on to Le Port de Montréal. They were essentially contract laborers and this was clearly spelled out only after the ship reached its final destination.  Canadian immigration inspectors at the port recorded additional details about the group on their own passenger lists:Besides the ship's crew, this group of 58 appear to have been the only passengers remaining aboard the S.S. Korona as it arrived in Québec. Shortly after their arrival, however, 12 of the 58 arrivals (20%) were recommended for deportation by immigration officials for unspecified reasons. Some of those deported could have been among the individuals photographed by Sherman just a day earlier.

It wasn't by chance that this large group was traveling such a great distance, with no additional funds to their names. The group's appearance at Ellis Island was the result of a coordinated and well-funded project that required a great deal of cooperation—and the relaxing of otherwise strictly enforced immigration regulations regarding the importation of contract laborers—among three governments: French-controlled Guadeloupe, the United States, and Canada. Cooperation with the steamship line that brought the group to port would also have been been necessary for these travelers to bypass the checks made before embarkation.

The fuller story behind the migration of the group has received some attention in scholarly literature, but Sherman's photos have never been directly connected to what's come to be known as the "Caribbean Domestic Scheme."

In a recent interdisciplinary study, Sherwood and de B'béri write:

The Guadeloupe immigration scheme was organized by J.M. Authier, and while it was initially conducted on an experimental basis, it would have consequences for the movement of black West Indian women for decades to follow.  The first two groups of girls arriving in September 1910 and April 1911 were regarded to be of good class, but...sentiments towards the Guadeloupe girls would quickly change. The Guadeloupe girls were paid $5 per month compared with the $12-15 paid to their white counterparts.1

Sherman photographed one woman from the group at least four times.  Unfortunately, there is not enough information to identify her by name among the large group of arrivals, but her sharp features and distinct clothing makes it easy to trace her appearance among the portraits; she is included in the group photos above.  Sherman appears to have slowly singled her out, going from group portraits of 22 to 19, then 3 to 1.  A portrait of three arrivals, less seen but already publicly available, includes the same individual.  Each of the four photos successively moves from a slightly awkward spontaneity to something more posed, but besides offering better framing and composition, in the smaller portraits we also see a more evocative and perhaps even more sympathetic portrayal.

Claire Tancons zooms in on some of the hidden details this trio brought with them to Ellis Island, giving insights into their backgrounds and setting up the take from the photographer's point of view:

How he [Sherman] convinced immigrants to pose is unclear, for these women were certainly on their guard, the tallest of the group evincing a gesture of impatience with her left hand, the one in the middle holding her hands tensely below her belt, and the one farthest to the right averting her eyes from the camera altogether. She wears a douillette (a long dress) with a floral print and a variation of the plombiere headtie. These two elements, along with her undershirt, commonly worn by women in the cane fields to protect their arms, is an indication of a low social class, lower than that of the other two women, who are also fairer-skinned, an indication of status, as is their attire of greater make: a combination of a grande robe and a douillette, cinched at the waist, and a téte ronde headtie.2

Sherman's final portrait of a solitary "Guadeloupe woman" has been widely reproduced in contemporary articles concerning turn-of-the-century immigration at Ellis Island.  It is indeed a stunning portrait, perhaps one of Sherman's most gentle and evocative, but the photo achieves its tranquility and nuanced tonality in part by softly highlighting the individual's exoticism and otherness.

The individuals that Sherman photographed weren't the first of such groups from the Caribbean, nor the last. In fact, less than a week after the first group's arrival another group of about 50 more Guadeloupean domestics would arrive at Ellis Island before heading to Montreal, each providing a separate, predetermined household address as their final destination to immigration officials. The scheme began in September 1910 and lasted until at least September 1911; it's hard to imagine that it was an easy trip for some or all. Among the different groups of arrivals, several individuals from each were detained and deported even before going on to Canada, and, once they got there, nearly two dozen more were immediately denied entry and deported back to Guadeloupe.3

Among the passengers on the S.S. Korona were a handful of Guadeloupean women, also listed as domestics, who were heading to relatives in New York. Annotations on the ship's manifest made years after their arrival by customs and immigration officials needing to verify arrival data indicate that a few went on to become naturalized U.S. citizens. It remains unclear whether these immigrants were likewise under contract with employers before making their journey. If that was the case, they would be violating federal laws forbidding the importation of contract labor and should have been refused entry by Ellis Island officials. But this is precisely what was going on with the Guadeloupean women in Canada, so who knows if those bound for the U.S. were similarly allowed entry. Regardless, thousands of Afro Caribbeans permanently settled in the U.S. during the early 20th century. Successfully navigating Ellis Island was key to the establishment of a thriving black immigrant presence, particularly in New York, just as it was for white Europeans.

Clean, docile, attentive to their work

The scheme that brought the Guadeloupean immigrants to Canada was met mostly with satisfaction on the part of their employers but with both support and derision from the Canadian government. One employer who wrote to Canadian officials in support of the scheme is quite telling and highlights the exploitative mechanisms in play as well as the open racism of the time:

I am happy to reply that the two servants whom I had brought over from Guadeloupe, give me entire satisfaction in every respect; they are clean, docile, attentive to their work, and their moral conduct leaves nothing to be desired. There is a great difference between the service that they give us and that we have from the greater number of the whites who have been in our employ during the last 30 years. The fact is that housework has become almost impossible with regard to the whites, the intelligent girls work in the shops and factories and there remain for us a small number, at exorbitant prices, of prostitutes and imbeciles who spoil everything...The importation of the creoles is a benefit and the Government should favour their importation.4

Despite Canada's restrictive and discriminatory (read racist) immigration laws, which disallowed the entry of "undesirable immigrants", and people of color from any part of the world had the deck stacked against them in this regard, some exceptions were being made due to a demand for labor "native" Canadians and white European immigrants couldn't fulfill. This extended to professions other than domestic work, but the periodic importation and extended presence of black domestics in Canada (particularly in Montreal and Nova Scotia) would quickly cause debates in the Parliament of Canada as well as incur sensationalist reportage in newspapers and periodicals of the day, much as the "immigration issue" would in the U.S. press. The political friction eventually resulted in the Canadian government's decision to deport hundreds of Guadeloupean immigrants like the ones Sherman photographed.

Historicizing Sherman's work

By August 1911, the Cabinet of Canada had passed Order-in-Council P.C. 1324, in an attempt to legally end all black immigration to Canada using patently absurd grounds. The order claimed that "[Blacks were] unsuitable to the climate and requirements of Canada," and therefore should not even be allowed to enter Canada, let alone settle anywhere in its territory. Despite the government's continued open hostility towards black migration, the "Caribbean Domestic Scheme" persisted, at least for a couple of months longer. The Guadeloupe women were not immigrants, after all, but rather workers under contract who were never meant to settle in Canada. A 26 August 1911 arrival brought another twenty young women from Guadeloupe, then eleven more on 11 September 1911; among the arrivals were girls aged just 16 and 17, some of whom would be immediately recommended for deportation after landing in Canada. Less than a month later, Order-in-Council P.C. 1324 was deemed unsuitable, after never being invoked or entering into the (Canadian) Immigration Act; it was repealed on 5 October 1911. Following its repeal, the Canadian government would utilize less direct means to prevent black migration.

For those that stayed, what kind of life could they make for themselves in Canada?  To the Canadian government, they were officially unwanted and unwelcome; to their wealthy employers, they were the perfect servants. 1911 Canadian Census returns for Québec show many dozens of the women from these migrations listed as "servant girls" in wealthy homes, some as young as 14 or 15 when they arrived with their mothers to work together for the daily support of their patrons.  Most lived in the homes of their employers, meaning the days began early and ended late, behind closed doors. Those that could stay past the full two-year contracts would quickly find out just how much of their freedoms had been forfeited, and how difficult it would be to avoid a life of servitude in their adoptive country.

Sherwood and de B'béri point out the extraordinary challenges they faced:

They were less wanted as citizens than as cheap labour. Even the domestic workers who were given Canadian citizenship continued to live with the families that employed them and were so poorly paid they could rarely find opportunity to leave the family and seek alternative employment. Living with a white family meant they were generally at a considerable distance from any existing local black community. The girls lived as human capital in almost total isolation from one another.5

It's clear these young women from Guadeloupe would have endured an extremely constrained existence in Canada, that is, if they weren't immediately or subsequently deported. Against this backdrop, how were Sherman's images and the narrative of the wider "Caribbean Domestic Scheme" presented during the 1910s?

While it doesn't appear that any of Sherman's Guadeloupe photos were used in contemporaneous publications, the April 1911 group's departure and arrival was reported in internationally syndicated news articles. The day the group arrived at Ellis Island, The (Montreal) Gazette gave the headline "Negro girls coming", going on to blithely mention that "...a Canadian employment agent had obtained these girls with a promise of five dollars a month as wages." In the U.S., The New York Times noted the hypocrisy of the Canadian government's endorsement of the importation scheme, but refusal to accept African American migrants who recently had attempted to resettle in Canada, only to be turned away at the border.6 7

A group of over 30 mostly young women from Guadeloupe (also Dominican Republic, Haiti, Martinique & Venezuela) arrived in June 1911, all heading to Canada to work as domestic servants. This arrival also drew attention in the Canadian press, revealing how the explicitly racist nature of Canadian exclusion was publicly communicated. The Globe made it clear what was to come if the scheme continued: "The laud that welcomed the fugitive slave and gave him asylum to which the man-hunter could not follow has a proud tradition to maintain. But if the negro comes to Canada it must be under conditions that will not lend themselves to miscegenation or worse evils. The introduction of colored women who in the nature of things can have no male companions of their own race with whom to mate must bring a train of attendant evils that the good women promoting the movement do not foresee."8

Another photo, taken around 1911 by an anonymous photographer, depicts six "Negroes from the West Indies" at Ellis Island and overlaps thematically with Sherman's portraits. Perhaps the group was also part of a voyage from Guadeloupe headed for Canada, or from another tightly-controlled migration of Afro Caribbean laborers to North America. Either way, they would have faced incredible scrutiny at Ellis Island simply because they were of African descent and, if even possible, an uphill battle to naturalize as U.S. or Canadian Citizens. The photo was featured in a 1912 article by Alfred C. Reed (Assistant Surgeon, U.S. Public Health Service, 1911-1913) for The Popular Science Monthly, although there is no mention of black migration (internal or transnational) in the text. Reed worked in Ellis Island's medical division, and his article is noteworthy for its unmistakable eugenics-influenced conclusions on the undesirability of most immigrants from non-western European countries. Reed concludes that "in general, immigrants from the Mediterranean countries should be excluded, especially those from Greece, South Italy and Syria, as well as most Hebrews, Magyars, Armenians and Turks" on the basis of their biological inferiority. Migrants of African descent weren't given a mention because their "desirability" would have been even lower than that of those singled out for exclusion.9

Since 2015, Sherman's work has seen a resurgence of use by artists and remixers not seen since his photos were first distributed in the 1900s. A number of contemporary artists and illustrators, such as Julia Soboleva, have recently transformed Sherman's Guadeloupe portraits into stylized but extremely sensitive works of art. There are dozens of reasons why this is a good idea, but while it's clear that Sherman's portraits are often beguiling, they're equally misleading without the backstory. By accurately decoding and historicizing Sherman's work, we can begin a reconciliation with the 100+ years of disconnect between the photos as object/artifact and the individual, human lives peering out from the surface of the gelatin silver prints. Sherman's work endures, so it's long overdue for the subjects of his photos to get proper contextualization.

Sherman's work is often lauded because of the ethnic diversity of his sitters. The range is indeed broad and appears to neatly correspond to the America-as-melting-pot myth and reflect the multiethnic, multiracial, multi-religious nature of its citizenry. Unfortunately, some of the melting pot diversity apparent in Sherman's work begins to get more complicated after matching identity to the anonymous "immigrant types" he assigned. While thousands of Afro Caribbeans successfully passed through Ellis Island during the early 1900s—many from English-speaking Jamaica, Barbados, and the Bahamas—and went on to settle permanently in the U.S., Sherman's "Guadeloupe Women" were not part of this extraordinary but still underexplored facet of black migration.

Sherman clearly differentiated between different "types", but not as to whether his sitters were actual immigrants, non-immigrant aliens, or deportees. He was most interested in capturing ethnic and social diversity; it doesn't seem to have mattered much whether his sitters would be going on to becoming U.S. or Canadian Citizens, or neither. The diversity remains regardless, but at times we see the faces of exclusion and not inclusion.

Most of the individuals in Sherman's Guadeloupe photos appear to have successfully made their way to Canada and then on to the homes of their new employers. Given the massive deportations that took place years later, it remains unclear just how many were able to make a permanent home in Canada.10 So when we look upon these photos today, in whatever form, the facts that make up the backstory of the subjects' lives should enter the viewer's mind alongside the visual information. Having both simultaneously is the only way to begin to start an understanding of what we're actually looking at, and to do some justice to the subjects themselves.

Notes/Works cited

1 Dana Whitney Sherwood and Boulou Ébanda de B'béri, “Unsuitable to Become Canadian: Change and Continuity in Racial Discourse in Canadian Political Consciousness, A Mari Usque Ad Mare, 1850-1965,” in Reid-Maroney, N., Bernard, W. T., & Ébanda B'béri, . B. B. Women in the "Promised Land": Essays in African Canadian history (Toronto : Women's Press, 2018), 187.

2 Tancons, Claire "Women in the Whirlwind: Withholding Guadeloupe's Archipelagic History," Small Axe 1 November 2012; 16 (3 39): 143–165.

3 Besides the deportations, some managed to settle permanently in North America. I traced the path of a woman from the second group of April 1911 arrivals named (Sarah) Valine Pierrot who worked as a domestic in Montreal. She stayed in Canada for nearly 10 years and eventually married a Jamaican-born steel mill worker named Thomas Samuel Weathers, then emigrated to the U.S. in 1921. Sarah and Thomas eventually naturalized as U.S. Citizens, raised a family and remained in the New York City for the rest of their lives.

4 PAC, RG 76, File 731832, M.D. to Fortier, 22 May 1911. Quoted in Calliste, Agnes "Race, Gender and Canadian Immigration Policy: Blacks from the Caribbean, 1900–1932", Journal of Canadian Studies/Revue d'études canadiennes, Volume 28, Number 4, Winter 1993-1994, pp. 141-142.

5 Sherwood and de B'béri, 194.

6 NEGRO GIRLS COMING. (1911, Apr 06). The Gazette.

7 CANADA'S RACE SENTIMENT. (1911, Apr 02). New York Times.  Available via Internet Archive.

8 DOMESTICS FROM THE WEST INDIES. (1911, Jun 8). The Globe, 6

9 In order to see how government officials "read" immigrants who passed through immigration stations—and how scientific racism was woven into immigrant classification—see the entries for "West Indian" and "Negro" in the Dictionary of Races or Peoples, first published by the Immigration Commission in 1911. Here, "Negro" is in part defined as "belonging to the lowest division of mankind from an evolutionary standpoint." While the Dictionary wasn't used as a diagnostic classification tool by immigration inspectors, it's inclusion in the Immigration Commission's massive 41-volume study on early 20th century immigration to the U.S. in large part would bolster the nativist, "anti-new immigration" bias that underpinned the entire series, paving the way for the hyper-restrictive immigration policies to come.

10 More than 40 years after the "Caribbean Domestic Scheme" ended, the Canadian government would again start a program to recruit Black Caribbean women for contracted work as domestic servants, mainly in Montréal and Toronto. Lasting from 1955–1967, the "West Indian Domestic Scheme", brought some 3000 single, young Black women primarily from Jamaica, Trinidad, Barbados, and Guyana to work for one year as domestic servants, after which time they could be granted permanent residency in Canada, seek other employment, and then had the right to allow family members to join them in their newfound home. Canadian immigration officials would make their selection from applicants in their country of origin and adhere to a strict quota system. The scheme was started on a trial basis in secret, then became public and again attracted considerable attention from the press. See: RG2, Privy Council Office, Series A-5-a, Volume 2658 Access Code: 12, available via Library and Archives Canada.

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