Click on the pictures to see enlarged versions of the images.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Before you Read the Plaque about Turner's “Slave Ship”

(The Slave Ship or Slavers Throwing Overboard the
Dead and Dying — Typhoon Coming On
, by J. M. W. Turner,
1775-1851, English painter, watercolorist, and printmaker)

Captains of slave ships carrying people in chains from Africa across the Middle Passage into slavery in the New World would throw the sick and dying overboard. The captain and the owners could then collect insurance for the lost “cargo”; there was no compensation for the lives of human beings lost to illness.

In 1783, the English slave ship Zong got lost, and sixty slaves and seven crew members died from illness. Thinking that the remaining slaves would become too weak to fetch good money in the slave auctions in Jamaica, the captain ordered 132 African men, women, and children to be shackled and thrown into the sea. One man survived to tell the tale. The case came to the courts in England. The insurance company won and did not pay the claim. No one faced any prosecution for this crime.

Turner painted this image, one of his most famous paintings, in 1840. The British Parliament had abolished the slave trade across its Empire thirty-three years earlier. Slavery was still flourishing, however, in countries ruled by Europe and in the United States. Turner offered this painting as part of the campaign against slavery.

Turner was inspired to create this deeply disturbing image by his abhorrence of slavery. He knew of the notorious case of the Zong, and he had read this verse by James Thomson:

from SUMMER, a part of THE SEASONS

Increasing still the terrors of these storms,
His jaws horrific arm’d with threefold fate,
Here dwells the direful Shark. Lured by the scent
Of steaming crowds, of rank disease, and death,
Behold, he, rushing, cuts the briny flood,
Swift as the Gale can bear the ship along;
And, from the partners of that cruel trade,
Which spoils unhappy Guinea of her sons,
Demands his share of prey — demands themselves.
The stormy Fates descend: one death involves
Tyrants and slaves; when straight, their mangled limbs
Crashing at once, he dyes the purple seas
With gore, and riots in the vengeful meal.

~ James Thomson (1700-1748), Scottish poet and playwright

While the captain of the Zong was not punished, in Turner’s depiction, the captain and crew of the slave ship all face divine fury. Notice at the bottom of the painting the mangled and shackled limbs of the murdered slaves, and above them, the slave ship, a ghost ship, empty, its captain and crew thrown into the maelstrom.

When the painting was first shown in the British Royal Academy in 1840, Turner attached this verse he himself had written in 1812:


Aloft all hands, strike the top-masts and belay;
Yon angry setting sun and fierce-edged clouds
Declare the Typhoon'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?

The last two lines of that poem were later carved on a plaque below the painting. (In the poem below, inspired by the painting, the poet repeats the plaque’s misspelling of “fallacious” as “fanacious.”)


See the bare canvas. A pure white
bone that splits the sky’s
weak, warm skin of colors.

What will be left on the ocean floor,
What will be left under the swells,
What will be left is unspeakable
and vivid and not the vicious beauty
of cracking masts against the atmosphere
writing lines of blood. Not the blended light,
or the curious gulls. Not the market’s
fanacious hope.

Not the gods’ desperation to include us in this disaster,
without our will. But the bare, bright,
smoothed bones of many, many hands,

so cold, down where the master
could not imagine,
could not light
the darkest depths.

~ David Wright, American poet

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