The Slave Ship


BY ELIZABETH THOMSON

Before digging into women and CEL, it is worth digging into the presence of CEL activism over centuries. Slavery comes to mind, especially in the 1800s. The 1800s are notorious for the trans-Atlantic slave trade. While it is easy to say, in retrospect, "That is just how culture was back then," we must consider that not everyone looked the other way from this assault on human dignity. We see this reflected in art: specifically, for the purposes of this week’s blog entry, a painting from 1840 by Englishman Joseph Mallord William Turner, "The Slave Ship."

Turner was born in 1775. He began his career as an artist at age 12, growing to be arguably the best landscapist in the 19th century. As a result, he had tremendous influence with his work. By including light and color in his form (what composes the work), he reveals powerful content (what the work is saying).

Without knowing the title of "The Slave Ship," one might just see a rush of colors surrounding a ship. The eye is drawn immediately to a bright light in the center -- perhaps a sunset. As the old saying goes: "Red at night, sailors' delight; red in the morning, sailors' warning." To the left is a ship heading away from the indicator that a storm is passing. It is one of two objects in the painting that is not painterly, i.e., that has definitive lines and is not impressionistic. The only other object in the painting that is not painterly lies in the foreground: body parts and their chains. The formal title of the painting is actually "Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On."

The colors are violent. The sunset is a blinding yellow, orange, and blood red; the ocean is a mix of dark grey, white foam, and a murky brown. Clearly there is a message about violence: at first glance, the violence of nature. Then, once the viewer learns the title, one sees the violence of humans against humans.

When the painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy, Turner paired it with a poem:

Aloft all hands, strike the top-masts and belay;

Yon angry setting sun and fierce-edged clouds

Declare the Typhon's coming.

Before it sweeps your decks, throw overboard

The dead and dying - ne'er heed their chains

Hope, Hope, fallacious Hope!

Where is thy market now?

What is the slave ship? Why are these slaves thrown overboard?

Looking into the history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, one finds documents about insurance fraud. Slaves were insured, but only to a certain extent. If a person died of illness or malnourishment, no money was taken. However, if there was a storm and the person went overboard, there was compensation.

In 1781, there was a famous case called the Zong Massacre. It led to a trial: not for murder, but for the insurer's refusal to pay. When someone wanted to charge for murder, the judge brushed it aside:

What is this claim that human people have been thrown overboard? This is a case of chattels or goods. Blacks are goods and property; it is madness to accuse these well-serving honourable [sic] men of murder. They acted out of necessity and in the most appropriate manner for the cause. The late Captain Collingwood acted in the interest of his ship to protect the safety of his crew. To question the judgement [sic] of an experienced well-travelled captain held in the highest regard is one of folly, especially when talking of slaves. The case is the same as if wood had been thrown overboard. ("The Zong Massacre – a summary")

Disturbingly, this is the same view held by those opposed to CEL even today: that those degraded by slavery are not really humans, but disposable economic goods. Turner demonstrates that words are not the only means of conveying this message. Any activist should know that each person has a unique way of expressing content that can reach people in alternative ways, i.e., not just with proselytizing in a preachy way. Without Turner’s art, many of us would never have known about the issue. If art historians did not exist to explain the painting, unraveling the meaning behind the colors and subject matter, we would not have experienced that revulsion or realization that this is the idea that keeps affronts on human dignity persistent today.

REFERENCES

"Joseph Mallord William Turner." Artble. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Mar. 2013.

Turner, Joseph Mallard William. The Slave Ship. 1830. Image. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Accession Number 99.22.

"The Zong Massacre – a summary." History in an Hour. WordPress, 29 Nov. 2011. Web. 16 Mar. 2013.


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