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Witnessing Slavery

Art and Travel in the Age of Abolition


Sarah Thomas


Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art

New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019

Hardback, 288 pp., 168 black and white images

ISBN 978-1913107055. $55


Reviewed by Laurent Bury

Université Lumière–Lyon 2





For the readers who could decide to buy this book on the sole faith of its front cover or its title, two warnings may be in order. Even though the picture chosen to strike the buyer’s attention in a bookshop is an oil painting, John Simpson’s The Captive Slave, exhibited in 1827 at the Royal Academy, Witnessing Slavery is mostly about a different kind of art, since it discusses works on paper rather than canvases, printed illustrations rather than independent images. Besides, the word “slavery” is here taken in a specific meaning, as Sarah Thomas exclusively focuses on the practice as it existed in the Americas, as part of the Transatlantic Exchange which sent millions of Africans to plantations in the New World. The fact that Eastern slavery remained a source of inspiration for artists until the end of the 19th century is acknowledged, and an example of such Orientalism is even reproduced (William Alan’s Slave Market, Constantinople of 1838), but precisely because this painting “reminds us of what their [the artists examined in the book] images were not: grand, classical and imbued with historical symbolism” [210]. The potential buyer’s attention should therefore be attracted by the subtitle: Art and Travel in the Age of Abolition is slightly more explicit about the contents of the volume, focusing on not so famous artists who went abroad in order to bring back a testimony of what they had observed “on the spot”, at a time when a possible abolition of the slave trade, or even the end of slavery itself, was hotly debated in Europe, and especially in England, between the 1770s and the 1840s. The aim of this book thus differs considerably from recent publications such as Denise Murrell’s Posing Modernity : The Black Model from Manet and Matisse to Today, the catalogue of the exhibition co-organised in 2018-2019 by the Wallach Art Gallery at Columbia University and the Musée d’Orsay, or Jan Marsh’s slightly older Black Victorians : Black People in British Art 1800-1900, published to accompany an exhibition at the Manchester City Art Gallery in 2005-2006.

Sarah Thomas is lecturer in the Department of History of Art at Birkbeck, University of London. Her subject is those pictures which were created in what Ian Baucom calls a “testamentary space”, that is, they were attributed a documentary value by the amateur or professional artists who insisted they had been eyewitnesses of what they depicted in their works. Travelling supposedly gave their images an epistemological and scopic authority, since the I/eye of the itinerant painter was to be implicitly trusted. The visual culture thus produced was available to advocates or adversaries of slavery: strangely enough for our modern eyes, “it is mistaken to assume that the representation of brutality directed toward the enslaved is automatically censorious of that brutality” [32]. While claiming to be “true to nature” as mere “statements of facts”, those pictures could be appropriated for various uses, whatever their picturesque or scientific ambitions.

A second chapter reminds the reader that the abolition of the slave trade in 1807 by Britain, followed by the emancipation of its slaves in 1833, can be perceived in the context of the “cult of sensibility”: the capacity to entertain some compassion for the victims of the slave system was in itself a proof of feelings, since one had to be a sensitive being in order to imagine the Blacks’ pain. The scenes witnessed by artists could only inspire them with heartfelt sympathy for the sufferers, and the same had to be true for the viewers of their pictures, at least according to the abolitionists. Sarah Thomas analyses the two iconic images of the abolition movement: “Am I not a Man and a Brother?”, created ca. 1787, remains quite famous nowadays and appealed directly to the viewer’s feelings, but the “Description of a Slave Ship” print (1789) relied on a more intellectual reaction of moral indignation, through its graphic display of inhumanity, with dozens of (black) bodies crammed into the lower level of a ship. However, it was one thing to display manacled, passive slaves, and another to show their occasional rebellion, either as caricatures or as examples of “high art”.

In the next three chapters, Sarah Thomas studies three very different artists, whose representations of slavery obeyed completely opposite agendas. The Anglo-Italian painter Agostino Brunias (ca. 1730-1796) spent a whole decade in the West Indies, from 1765 to 1775, his main patron being Sir William Young, a rich planter, for whom he painted idyllic market scenes or contented slaves peacefully dancing, “mimicking the cultured refinement of their wealthy European counterparts” [75]. Brunias’ vision of social harmony and racial diversity was no more than an imperial fiction: his “idealised view of life” in the Caribbean “served to assuage mounting colonial anxieties concerning the future of the slave trade” [59] and “defused fears of chaos and black savagery” [84; “diffused” is the word used on that page, but the meaning is clearly “defused”]. Those paintings reflected the opinion of anti-abolitionists who advocated “amelioration”, resorting to benevolence towards slaves so that they could multiply and thus make commerce triangulaire superfluous, since there would be enough local labour born in slavery to dispense with the importation of new workers. This colonial Arcadia of idle slaves could also be opposed to the predicament of the British working class, slavery being presented by anti-abolitionists as far more “comfortable” than factory life.

John Gabriel Stedman (1744-1797) was the son of a Scottish father and a Dutch mother. As a soldier, he was sent to the colony of Suriname between 1773 and 1777 to quench a slave rebellion. When he came back to the Old Continent, he decided to use the many sketches he had drawn in Southern America (only one of them has survived) and to write a Narrative of a Five Years Expedition against the Revolted Negroes of Suriname, published in London in 1796. The book has become famous because some of its printed plates, which had been entrusted to a whole team of engravers, were prepared by no other than William Blake, many people believing those pictures to be Blake’s own creations. Stedman seems to have occupied an intermediate position: he owned a slave in Europe but he had fallen in love with a Black woman in Suriname, and the way he described some of the atrocities committed against the rebel slaves, in words and in images, made him an involuntary ally of the abolitionists, even though his publisher’s interventions “attempted to shift the author’s ambivalence about race and slavery towards a pro-slavery position” [102].

Architect James Hakewill (1778-1843) had published in 1820 a Picturesque Tour of Italy, which was followed in 1825 by a Picturesque Tour of the Island of Jamaica, for the illustration of which he himself had transformed his Jamaican drawings into aquatints, so as to make the work of engravers easier. “While Picturesque Tour may have begun as a project designed to satisfy the burgeoning market for exotic scenery, by the mid-1820s it had mutated into a vital tool of propaganda in the desperate struggle for planter survival” [133]. It is particularly interesting to see how Hakewill’s “neutral”, placid topographical views were reused a few years later by Adolphe Duperly in order to depict various scenes of the Christmas Rebellion of 1831-1832, one of Jamaica’s most significant slave uprisings. With Hakewill, slavery appeared as an ordinary element of the colonial landscape: “he effectively normalised the institution, transforming it into a palatable message for his anxious clientele” [125]. But the flames, smoke, soldiers and casualties added by Duperly show how deceptive such a reassuring conception could be.

Under the title “Slavery as spectacle”, the final chapter compares the work of three artists who spent some time in Rio de Janeiro in the 1820s. As opposed to the world of West Indian plantations, Brazil was an urban slave society, and slaves could be seen everywhere in the streets, either at work or enjoying some leisure, being sold or being disciplined. For early-nineteenth-century French or British artists, it was obviously much easier “to reveal the horrific legacy of the Portuguese slave trade than it was to draw attention to ongoing brutality of slave life in [their own] nation’s own colonies” [169]. Jean-Baptiste Decret (1768-1848) fled Paris in 1816 to become official history painter to the Brazilian court; the illustrations of his Voyage pittoresque et historique au Brésil (1834-39) show some examples of barbaric punishment, but the text of the book seems to express more humanity towards “Negroes”. Augustus Earle (1793-1838) was probably an abolitionist and may have intended his boisterous watercolours for a travel book; in 1824, he sent an oil painting to the Royal Academy, Gate and Slave Market at Pernambuco as an expression of his anti-slavery stance. The pictures included by Johann Moritz Rugendas (1802-1858) in his own Voyage pittoresque dans le Brésil (1835) had neither the intensity nor the humour of Earle’s scenes.

In her conclusion, Sarah Thomas discusses two examples of “high art” reaction to slavery: Turner’s Slavers throwing overboard the dead and dying, typhoon coming and François-Auguste Biard’s The Slave Trade, which were both on display at the RA exhibition in 1840 (it is indeed very unfortunate that the Biard exhibition which should have been hosted at the Musée Victor Hugo in Paris could not open this winter because of the pandemic). While Thackeray made fun of Turner’s eccentricities – in particular the representation of iron chains miraculously floating in the ocean – Biard offered “a gratuitously detailed, voyeuristic and unambiguous catalogue of human abuses” [221], this “litany of horrors” being “an acknowledged abolitionist tactics” allowing to visualise “what was otherwise out of sight and unimaginable to most people in Britain” [221-222].



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