Last week, inspired by a talk I was asked to put together for Black History Month, I wrote an introduction to looking at the history of depictions of slavery in British artwork and across a range of artistic genres. You can (re)visit my introductory post here. This week, I’d like to look at just a few examples of slavery in the arts to demonstrate some of the information that we can gather from artistic works.
I should note that my postgraduate research centred on identifying proslavery arguments, works, individuals and societies, and their efforts to combat popular abolitionism in Britain in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, up to the mid-1830s. As such, much of my work on the history of slavery in art was focussed on pro-slavery works, and the items I’ve selected here reflect this experience.
It’s important to remember that just because a piece of artwork, literature, music, or propaganda seems to state or promote one side of the slavery debates, this does not necessarily mean that the author or publisher held those beliefs. It could have been that he or she (although probably ‘he’ at this point in time) was aware of the market and what the public wanted, in order to maximise their chances of sales. In other cases the author or publisher clearly states that they are trying to contribute to the slavery debates. Finally, in some cases the author is an anti-slavery or West Indian society or representative, and so the connection and motivation behind the work doesn’t need to be inferred.
Political Prints and Caricatures: ‘The Blind Enthusiast’, published by William Holland
The Blind Enthusiast is a very interesting piece. It is a political print, a format that was gaining popularity amongst the politically-aware and active elites in London during this period. Politicians and wealthier Londoners could collect prints: many more could view them in shop windows in London. To be a good print, the characters and scene needed to be recognisable. Wilberforce stands blindfolded in the centre of the scene, therefore his image must have been recognisable by members of the British public by the early 1790s.
The print is making a commonly-advanced anti-abolitionist argument: that the work, information, and propaganda being produced by abolitionists (here embodied by Wilberforce) is actually setting the colonies alight. The islands are labelled, just to make sure that the viewer sees that it is Britain’s West Indian colonies that are being enflamed.
At this time and across the following three decades, abolitionists would be charged again and again that by regularly challenging colonial slavery in Parliament (Wilberforce brought in bills to abolish the slave trade annually), sending missionaries to the colonies to inform and convert slaves, and spreading conflicting ‘incendiary’ information about British abolition through colonial newspapers, they were damaging master-slave relations and threatening the ‘peace’ in the islands.
Environmental Theatre: Using blackface to gain attention and support
‘The delusions practised, too, in order to work upon the people, and excite their sympathy, were of a ridiculous nature; and when his noble friend (the Lord Chancellor) stood for Yorkshire, there were persons led about in chains, with blackened faces, in order to rouse the feelings of the people.’
Alexander Baring, House of Commons, 15 April 1831
On 15 April 1831, MP Thomas Fowell Buxton brought in a motion for the abolition of slavery. The motion is introduced with a lengthy speech, typical of motions for abolition and emancipation at the time, that discusses the history of British slavery in the West Indies, what is believed to be the current state of slavery there, and the pressing demand for abolition. In the discussion that follows his motion receives substantial support and also some strong opposition. In the end, the debate is adjourned until after the forthcoming Reform debates.
I’d like to take minute here to look at one element of a sceptical MP’s argument. MP Alexander Baring presents a lengthy speech in defence of the colonies that points out holes and errors in the beliefs that underpin the stated arguments for abolition. In his speech, he intentionally downplays the importance of the ‘5,600 petitions’ by suggesting that, while they may indeed contain tens of thousands of signatures, they were all created by the same society. He then goes on to say the abolitionists have been going to towns and creating spectacles through blackface and and chains to bring awareness of colonial slavery to the wider British public.
I think such activities could be interpreted as early environmental theatre. Environmental theatre aims to remove the distinction between the audience/observer and the actors/show by typically removing the need for a stage and instead performing on the streets, in public forums and venues, with or without notice. The action takes place within the audience, and the audience may or may not know that they are viewing a planned or somewhat scripted performance. It can be used to draw attention to causes, which Baring believes to have been the intention here, and the nature of this type of theatre encourages the public to get involved, take a role, learn more, and be motivated to then do something. In Baring’s opinion, spectacles such as these may have unfairly affected both voting and the signing of petitions.
Wedgwood’s ‘Am I Not a Man and a Brother?’ blue jasperware
Many of us are familiar with the phrase, ‘Am I not a man and a brother?’, and the associated image of a kneeling enslaved man of African descent in chains. Josiah Wedgwood, a prominent abolitionist and the founder of the Wedgewood pottery business, worked with The Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade to place the iconic image on the famous medallions. The resulting image was a massive seller in the 1790s and into the 1800s across a range of formats. Therefore, this was a commercially-successful image.
Wedgwood’s medallions in particular became a popular fashion accessory for women, but the image was also used on Wedgwood’s famous blue jasperware. Through the Society’s efforts and those of Wedgwood and his descendants (he died in 1795), they made this image and the plea for help with the abolitionist cause recognisable across Britain. At the same time, they also made a lot of money for their business and their cause.
This is a very specific image, however, that is being promoted and shared here for the purposes of spreading information and selling goods. It is the image of a man who is begging for help. He is unable to help himself yet he wants help, he is physically restrained by chains, and he is almost naked and therefore even more vulnerable. The Society is sharing a safe, reassuring, commercially-viable image with the British public, one that insists that enslaved Africans need help and that they are not a threat. The man in the picture is child-like, docile even, in need of paternal care. There is no sense of African agency or strength here. It was a success and has left a lasting impression.
You’ll find my list of suggested readings in the first of these two posts on slavery and the arts. If you’d like more information and many more examples of proslavery arts and culture in Britain in the 1700s and 1800s, why not check out Chapter 3 of Proslavery Britain: Fighting for Slavery in an Era of Abolition.