The following passage from the author's book on the historical contexts of Turner's painting explains the visual tools used by abolitionists long before the artist created his work.— George P. Landow.
A major indication that the anti-slavery campaign was gaining strength was that its message began to move beyond the printed and spoken word. Celebrating its twentieth year in 1788, the Royal Academy held its annual banquet and exhibition at Somerset House in late spring. . . . One entry, painted by George Morland, was notable that year: The Execrable Human Traffic, which depicted slave dealers on the beach tearing an African from his family. Academy entries were not usually of a topical nature. Most if not all concentrated on historical subjects; some were portraits of contemporary and historical figures. Topical subjects— particularly controversial ones—were beyond the bounds of good taste. The president of the Royal Academy Sir Joshua Reynolds advocated the grand style of painting that idealized the often imperfect forms of nature. He excelled at portrait painting and encouraged a thoughtful study of important historical events as subjects for large paintings.
Morland broke from protocol by exhibiting this painting, which was met with some subdued controversy. At 25, he exhibited sporadically at the Academy and was most famous for his rustic, sentimental scenes. . . . Like some of his fellow artists, Morland was a fringe supporter of the abolitionist movement. With this work, Morland was one of the first to depict in paint slavery's dehumanizing aspects by using the mawkish technique of depicting a man being torn from his wife and children by beastly European slavers. Morland would help develop a tradition of visual depiction that would stretch from the mid 1780s to 1860 and beyond. Such representations focused solely on the middle passage and the embarkation from African beaches or the debarkation of slaves on Caribbean soil. It definitely had an anti-European thrust. Africa's role in the trade was conspicuously absent. No artist of the age considered the effects of the voyage itself, probably because no one dared venture into that hellish world for first-hand observation.
Consequently. Morland helped develop a tradition wherein art was used to encourage white guilt among the upper crust of English society. The strategy for Morland and other artists was to accomplish this without inciting revulsion and disgust on the part of the viewer. The slave would be presented as an innocent, wholly passive victim of white oppression, but the depiction would suggest that it was the institution itself that was to blame—not the individual British slaver. Morland's composition proved popular. Supported by SEAST [Society for the Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade] , it was engraved by another artist and sold widely-throughout Britain and eventually France.
But the most impactful depictions for the abolitionists came not from Royal Academy or the higher arts in general, but from within the ranks of the SEAST committee. By 1788 two primary images emerged from the movement. The first, designed by craftsmen working under the famed potter Josiah Wedgwood, created the seal of the committee, which illustrated a kneeling, supplicant male slave, bearing the inscription "Am I not a Man and a Brother?" The second image, perhaps the most effective illustration used in a propaganda campaign in history, was an overview of the slave ship Brooks, depicting the horrid, sardine-like conditions of a slaver in the middle passage.
The Wedgwood seal proved an effective propaganda tool in its own right. Its depiction of a chained, victimized African was amply reproduced on books, stationery, pamphlets, snuffboxes, and cufflinks. Benjamin Franklin, always savvy to political symbolism, called the image "equal to that of the best written pamphlet." Clarkson had them minted as medallions, distributing them freely at antislavery rallies. Unable to vote, women adopted the image in bracelets and broaches to demonstrate their support of the movement.
Until Turner's Slave Ship was first exhibited in 1840, the image of the Brooks was the most important and influential illustration associated with slavery. First drawn in late 1788 by William Elford of the Plymouth chapter of SEAST, the Brooks' illustration became famous on both sides of the Atlantic. Sailing out of Liverpool, the Brooks was a 297-ton slaver that could carry over 700 men, women and children. Nearly three times the size of the Zong, the Brooks was chosen as the flagship for the movement because it was the most typical of the vessels considered. Speaking for the London committee, Clarkson considered it necessary to select a ship "which had engaged in the slave trade, with her real dimensions, if they meant to make a fair representation of the manner of transporta- tion." The Brooks was famous in the trade and offered, particularly for the opposition, "no complaint of exaggeration."24
Over me next few months tne diagram was reworked and modified, eventually featuring a top, side, and end view of the vessel. The diagram showed 482 slaves—a respectable number given the ship often carried more than 600—tightly packed "like herrings in a barrel" in the lower deck. It was promptly distributed to homes and pubs around the country and eventually reached the Continent, where it received widespread scrutiny. Beneath the graphic was the explanatory text that began: "The above plate represents the lower deck of an African ship 297 tons burden, with the slaves stowed in it, in the proportion of not quite one to a ton." After the opening, seven paragraphs of explanation and call to arms followed. Several versions ensued during the next few years, which expanded the original design. The goal remained to be objective and to present the facts in as scientific and descriptive method as possible. As a result, the Brooks' diagram used precise measurements and numbers. For instance, each section of the slave quarters was given in exact feet and inches; the number of seamen required to sail her across the Atlantic was supplied, as well as the exact division of age and gender of the slaves that sailed on the last voyage. The diagram proved both effective in public room discussion, as lecture support, and as an instrument in par- liamentary debate. Additionally, it addressed Clarksons concern for British seamen, whose attrition rate on voyages was 20 percent. [62-64]
May, Stephen J. Voyage of the Slave Ship: J. M. W. Turner's Masterpiece in Historical Context. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2014. ISBN 978-0-7989-4. Pp. viii + 206. [Review in the Victorian Web]
Last modified 1 June 2014