Decorative Colonialism: Coconut Cups and the Crafting of the Early Modern Atlantic

This guest lecture by Professor Benjamin Schmidt spotlights the coconut—"the Swiss Army knife of the plant world," so called for its manifold uses and utility—as a quintessential form of colonial art-cum-material-culture.

The tropical coconut simultaneously materialized the early modern Atlantic and represented it in the form of pictorial carvings that adorned the sides of decorated coconut cups. The latter were made from the fruit's endocarp, sculpted and mounted to produce ornamental goblets. These were widely coveted among early modern collectors, especially in the mid-to-late seventeenth century (cups very likely entered the Danish collections around this time), a period of intensifying imperial expansion in the Atlantic world. This talk will investigate carved coconut cups as an overlooked genre of material art, which offered Europeans a way to represent and to materialize regimes of forced labor in the tropical Atlantic. It invokes coconut cups also to probe the theoretical possibilities of "decorative colonialism," a means by which Europeans propagated their empires. Decorative coconuts functioned as objects of colonial persuasion; they also offer scholars object lessons for understanding how material arts fashioned colonial worlds.

Benjamin Schmidt is the Bridgman Professor of History at the University of Washington in Seattle. His work sits at the disciplinary crossroads of cultural history, visual and material studies, and the history of science; and concerns itself chiefly with Europe's engagement with the world in the so-called first age of globalism. He has published widely on early modern topics, including Innocence Abroad: The Dutch Imagination and the New World, winner of the Renaissance Society of America's Gordan Prize and the Holland Society's Hendricks Prize; Making Knowledge in Early Modern Europe: Practices, Objects, and Texts (with Pamela Smith); The Discovery of Guiana by Sir Walter Ralegh; Going Dutch: The Dutch Presence in America, 1609–2009 (with A. Stott); and Inventing Exoticism: Geography, Globalism, and Europe's Early Modern World, which was recently translated into Chinese. A finalist for the Kenshur Prize of the American Society for Eighteenth Century Studies, Inventing Exoticism explores the development of European forms of 'exoticism'—ways of looking at and imagining, representing and framing, the non-European world—in these pivotal years of global encounter. His latest book, The Globalization of Netherlandish Art (with Thijs Weststeijn), will be published later this year.