The Slave Ship

J.M.W. Turner  Oil Painting  1840

On November 29, 1781 and the days following, 133 Africans were jettisoned from the slave ship Zong in attempt to lighten the cargo load.  Men, women, and children, some of which were still shackled, were dumped into the Caribbean.   They were alive.

Captain Luke Collingwood became ill, along with a number of crew and slaves.  His crew made a series of navigational errors, and neglected to properly resupply the potable water. In addition, they were carrying more than twice the number of slaves typical for that size ship.

In the 18th century, Africans were nothing but cargo.  The “cargo” was sick and they were low on water.  If they died of natural causes the insurance would not cover their losses.  If they made it to land but were too ill to sell, it would also be a loss for the ship owners.

Money spoke louder than humanity, which isn’t overly surprising as it was a slave ship.  They found a loophole to exploit in the insurance policy.  A loophole that was nothing short of a massacre.

They used the law of General Average, a maritime law stating that all parties share any losses resulting from  a voluntary sacrifice of part of the ship or cargo to save the whole in an emergency.  They were low on water.  The crew later claimed the rest of the cargo couldn’t be maintained unless some were sacrificed.  For 133 people, this human sacrifice was not voluntary.  Ten others saw their sacrifice and jumped overboard in what was later described as an act of defiance.

A number of trials followed after the arrival of the Zong in Jamaica.  The insurance company wouldn’t pay, and the proceedings dragged on for years.  One important point to note, the insurance company actually stated that the use of General Average did not apply as it could never justify the killing of innocent people, slaves or not.  They went on to say that the actions of the crew were nothing short of murder.

Whether the legal team of the insurance company was just looking for a way to not pay, no one can be sure.  However, historians do believe they were swayed by Granville Sharp, an abolitionist.  The story of the Zong Massacre, although not widely reported at the time, became a horrific example of the treatment slaves faced and influenced the abolitionist movement for years to come.

Slavery was abolished in England in 1833.  Not until Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1865 were slaves freed in the United States.

JMW Turner is one of Britain’s most beloved and highly treasured artists.  His Romanticism style landscapes gained as much popularity as the historic paintings of his time.  His later works, The Slave Ship included, are often seen as the precursors to Impressionism.

I’m such a fan of Turner’s earlier Romantic works, that when I first saw this piece I had the same reaction that many of his contemporaries had.  What is this?  Where are the beautiful masts with the wind blowing them like his other sea paintings?  Where are the rolling clouds and delicately detailed waves?

Maybe he had lost it.  People talked that he was loosing his eyesight, his patience, his mind.  But then I learned the story of the Zong.   Turner painted The Slave Ship after reading The History and Abolition of the Slave Trade by Thomas Clarkson.  It was painted for  a meeting of the British Anti-Slavery Society, of which Turner was a member.  He may have hoped Prince Albert would see it and would be inspired to enforce tougher anti-slavery laws.

This painting is difficult for me.  I like things orderly, deliberate, beautiful.  This is anything but.  It’s dark and furious, ominous.  You can see the ship in the background, but the light across the bow almost looks like fog.  But what you can see in the forground of the painting are limbs reaching from the water, some still shackled.  It even appears that there are a group of fish and birds attacking the flailing bodies.

As with so many other paintings, it’s the history that makes this painting beautiful to me, not the color, the technique, the brushstrokes.  The passion Turner felt, the horror, the sense that the story needed to be told.  And although it’s not the beautiful Turner style I would have chosen, it did its job.  It caught my attention.  It inspired me to learn and to share the story with you.

 

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