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“The Slave Ship” by J. M. W. Turner

"The Slave Ship" by J. M. W. Turner

“The Slave Ship” by J. M. W. Turner

“The Slave Ship” by J. M. W. Turner was originally titled “Slavers Throwing overboard the Dead and Dying—Typhoon coming on”. Turner has depicted a ship, visible in the background, sailing through a tumultuous sea of churning water and leaving scattered human forms floating in its wake. Turner was inspired to paint this picture after reading about the Zong massacre, in which a captain of a slave ship ordered 133 slaves to be thrown overboard in 1781 so that insurance payments could be collected.

The first impressions of “The Slave Ship” is of an enormous deep-red sunset over a stormy sea, an indication of an approaching typhoon, however on closer inspection one can discern a sailing ship being bounced around in the white churning sea. The masts of the ship are blood-red, and the ship’s sails are furled in preparation for the typhoon. In the foreground can be seen the many bodies floating in the water. Their chained hands and feet indicate that they are slaves. Looking more carefully, one can see fish and marine creatures swimming preparing to eat the slaves, and seabirds circling overhead.

The terrible events on the British slave ship Zong inspired Turner to create this maritime painting and to choose to coincide its exhibition with a meeting of the British Anti-Slavery Society in 1840. Although slavery had been outlawed in the British Empire in 1833, Turner and many other abolitionists believed that slavery should be banned around the world. Turner thus exhibited his painting during the anti-slavery conference, and placed next to the picture his own untitled poem, written in 1812:

“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?”
– J. M. W. Turner

Zong Massacre

The Zong massacre was the mass killing of more than 130 African slaves by the crew of the British slave ship Zong in 1781. A slave-trading syndicate, based in Liverpool, England owned the ship and sailed her in the Atlantic slave trade. As was standard business practice, the syndicate had taken out insurance on the lives of the slaves as cargo. When the ship ran low on drinking water following navigational mistakes, the crew threw slaves overboard into the sea to drown. This cruel action was taken to ensure that the syndicate did not lose money on the slaves who would have died from the lack of water.

When the Zong’s owners made a claim to their insurers for the loss of the slaves, the insurers refused to pay, and the resulting court cases held that in some circumstances, the deliberate killing of slaves was legal and that insurers could be required to pay for the slaves’ deaths. Eventually, the judge ruled against the syndicate in this case, due to new evidence being introduced suggesting the captain and crew were at fault.

Abolition of the Slave Trade

A freed slave from the Zong brought the news of the massacre to the attention of the anti-slavery campaigners, who worked unsuccessfully to have the ship’s crew prosecuted for murder. Because of the legal dispute, reports of the massacre received increased publicity, stimulating the abolitionist movement in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

The Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade was founded in 1787. The next year Parliament passed the first law regulating the slave trade, to limit the number of slaves per ship. Then, in 1791, Parliament prohibited insurance companies from reimbursing ship owners when slaves were thrown overboard. The Zong events were increasingly cited as a powerful symbol of the horrors of the Middle Passage of slaves to the New World. Slavery was eventually outlawed in the British Empire in 1833.

Joseph Mallord William Turner

Joseph Mallord William Turner, later more commonly called J. M. W. Turner entered the Royal Academy of Art in 1789, aged 14, and his first watercolour was accepted for the Royal Academy summer exhibition of 1790 when Turner was 15. From a young art student trained in executing topographical watercolours, he became one of the most original artists of his time. Turner was a Romantic painter, printmaker and watercolourist, today known for his vivid colouration, imaginative landscapes and turbulent marine paintings. As a private, eccentric and reclusive figure, Turner was controversial throughout his career. He left over 2,000 paintings and 19,000 drawings and sketches.

Turner’s emphasis in many of his works was on colour. This painting exemplifies this focus on the interactions of various colours. Few defined brush strokes appear in the picture, and objects, colours, and figures become indistinct. Objects are defined by their colours in the art, and some objects like the bodies of the slaves and the storm have no real border at all, is solely determined by the contrast with the pigments around them.

Turner’s emphasis on colour is typical of many Romantic works of the time. The indistinct shapes and the pervasiveness of the sunset’s blood-red glow convey the focus on nature and illustrate the idea that nature is superior to man.

Reflections

  • The art critic John Ruskin wrote about this painting: “If I were reduced to rest Turner’s immortality upon any single work, I should choose this.”
  • A story of horror for such a masterful painting?

The Slave Ship

  • Title:             The Slave Ship
  • Originally:     Slavers Throwing overboard the Dead and Dying—Typhoon coming on
  • Artist:           J. M. W. Turner
  • Date:            1840
  • Medium:      Oil on canvas
  • Dimensions: 90.8 cm × 122.6 cm (35.7 in × 48.3 in)
  • Museum:      Museum of Fine Arts

Joseph Mallord William Turner

Explore the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

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“If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.”
– Abraham Lincoln

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Photo Credit: 1) J. M. W. Turner [Public domain]

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