Monday, 22 April 2019

The Zong Massacre: Inspiration for Turner's "Slave Ship" Painting

In 1840, British artist J.M.W. Turner produced the above painting to coincide with the International Conference on Abolition of Slavery, organized by the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society. The painting shows people drowning in the sea near a ship as a storm approaches. 

Turner entitled it "Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On." He was inspired in part by reading about the grisly story of the slave ship Zong, in Thomas Clarkson's History and Abolition of the Slave Trade. The story is variously known as the Zong Incident, the Zong Case, or, more recently, as the Zong Massacre.

During its voyage from Accra in modern day Ghana to Jamaica with its "cargo" of 442 African slaves, the grossly overloaded, poorly maintained Zong overshot its target by more than 300 miles due to a navigational error. It was running low on water. Some 62 Africans had already died from disease and many others were ill. 

The crew threw at least 132 Africans into the sea, allegedly to save the rest. A key point in their decision was that the slaves were insured against "loss at sea" but not against death by "natural causes." Humanity did not enter into the equation. 

The Zong made it to Jamaica, where the surviving slaves were sold.
The ship's owners applied for the insurance money for the "lost" slaves. The underwriters denied the claim and the case went to court. A jury ruled against the underwriters and ordered them to pay. Two months later, the underwriters appealed the case to the Court of King's Bench. 

No record of the first trial has survived, but at the second trial, Lord Chief Justice Mansfield summed up the verdict of the first. The jury, he said, believed the crew's action was justified.  "They had no doubt (though it shocks one very much) that the case of slaves was the same as if horses had been thrown overboard." At the second trial, the counsel for the owners went further and claimed that it was just like throwing a load of wood into the sea.
(Image: Lord Mansfield) 

The underwriters argued, with good evidence, that the entire voyage had been badly mismanaged. They also argued that the crew should be prosecuted for murder. Granville Sharp, an active campaigner against the slave trade, probably suggested the latter strategy. A former slave, Olaudah Equiano, had brought Sharp's attention to the Zong Case. (Images: Sharp and Equiano)

Mansfield ruled in favor of the underwriters' contention that poor management was responsible for the loss of the slaves. The Zong's investors received nothing. No murder charges were brought against the crew. 

Nevertheless, the horrors revealed by the Zong Case helped galvanize opponents of the slave trade. Led by men like Sharp, Equiano, William Wilberforce, and Thomas Clarkson, they mounted a mass movement to end it. Parliament finally abolished the trade in 1807. Abolition of slavery itself in the British Empire followed in 1833.

Turner's iconic painting is now in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA.

Further Reading: James Walvin, The Zong: A Masssacre, the Law, and the End of Slavery. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2011.

Saturday, 13 April 2019

An Unfinished "Peace" Painting by Benjamin West, 1782

This painting by Benjamin West of the American peace delegation in Paris, 1782, was never finished. Henry Laurens of South Carolina was part of the reason. 

On October 19, 1781, British general Lord Cornwallis surrendered to George Washington and the French at Yorktown, Virginia. It was the last major battle of the American War for Independence. 

A few months later, in April 1782, American and British delegations began meeting in Paris to negotiate an end to the war. Congress had appointed four men to the America delegation: John Adams of Massachusetts, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, John Jay of  New York, and Henry Laurens of South Carolina. 

The British delegation was led by Richard Oswald, who had made a vast fortune in the African slave trade, and David Hartley, son of a famous philosopher of the same name. Hartley was the first MP to argue for the abolition of the slave trade. They must have had an interesting relationship! Both also had American connections, and Hartley had been a firm opponent of British colonial policy and the war. (Below: Oswald and Hartley)

The negotiations dragged on into November. As they drew near their close, artist Benjamin West went to Paris to paint the delegations. (below: Self portrait by West)

The American born West had moved from his native Pennsylvania to England well before the war, to pursue his artistic career. He had earned recognition as a painter of historic subjects, such as "The Death of General Wolfe" (1770). 

More than thirty years later, West would later paint the "Death of Nelson" (1806). Clearly, West had a thing about death scenes. But his aim in Paris was to commemorate peace between his native and adoptive countries.

After West began the painting of the delegations, he ran into problems. Henry Laurens of South Carolina came to Paris only a day before the preliminary treaty was to be signed. Laurens had been imprisoned in the Tower of London for more than a year, until December 1781. After his release, he pled ill health and remained in England, spending some time in the health spa at Bath, "taking the waters." 

In November 1782, Laurens received a letter from Adams informing him that his son John had been killed in a minor skirmish with British foragers at Combahee, South Carolina in August. It was a senseless death, because the war was effectively over. Adams pleaded for Laurens to come to Paris immediately, which he now did. Adams was probably concerned that the delegation had no representative from a Southern state. 

Laurens may have thought that as well. On his arrival, he added a clause to the treaty, requiring the British to return thousands of runaway slaves to their American masters. Oswald conceded it, perhaps because he and Laurens were old business partners in the slave trade. 

Hartley was no longer there, which probably helped Oswald seal the deal. British General Sir Henry Clinton had promised freedom to all runaways who came over to their lines. (In the end, the British refused to hand over the runaways, which soured relations with the US for many years.)

Laurens' late arrival explains why his portrait is only partly complete in the West painting. Laurens is the figure in red standing at the back. To his right are Franklin, Adams, and Jay. The man to Laurens' left is William Temple Franklin, Ben Franklin's grandson and the Americans' secretary.

West would most likely have finished Laurens' portrait despite his tardiness, if he had not faced a much bigger problem. The British delegates refused to sit for the painting. West gave up and left the right side of the painting blank. 

The unfinished painting ended up in Adams' possession. It remained in the Adams family for many years. It currently hangs in the Winterthur Museum in Delaware.

In 1816 West would paint one of the Americans again: a famous tribute to his fellow Pennsylvanian, Benjamin Franklin.

Sunday, 7 April 2019

Francis Barber: the Slave who became Samuel Johnson's Heir

Samuel Johnson  (1709-1784), often referred to as Dr. Johnson, is best known for his Dictionary of the English Language (1755), and the classic biography of him by his friend James Boswell, The Life of Dr. Johnson. (Below: Portrait of Johnson by Joshua Reynolds)

Among Johnson's many other writings is a long essay, Taxation No Tyranny: An Answer to the Resolutions and Address of the American Congress  (1775). As the title indicates, Johnson rejects the American colonists' complaint that they were being oppressed by taxes levied by the British parliament. 

Among other things, Johnson argued that the Americans' claim that there should be "No Taxation without Representation" was unfounded. The colonists had voluntarily resigned the power of voting in British elections by leaving Britain, but retained "virtual representation" in Parliament, as did British people who had no right to vote. If the colonists wanted to take part in British politics, he suggested, they could move to England and buy an estate. 

This argument was unconvincing then and hasn't improved with time. Taxation No Tyranny has contributed to the common view of Johnson as an arch Tory. In some respects he was, but the reality is more complicated, and far more interesting. Another of Johnson's arguments is far more powerful -- and liberal. It may be summed up in the line "How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?" 

Here Johnson hit the colonial argument for liberty at its most vulnerable point. The colonists claimed that the British government was trying to enslave them while holding hundreds of thousands of people in the most oppressive form of bondage. 

Johnson, unlike most influential Britons in the 1770s, considered slavery an abomination. He once proposed a toast to "the next rebellion of the negroes in the West Indies." He also argued that if the Africans were freed and given some land, they would likely prove better citizens than their masters.

Johnson did more than talk the talk. Years before he essentially adopted a former Jamaican slave, Francis Barber, and educated him. Barber entered Johnson's household as a boy in 1752. Johnson's wife Elizabeth had just died, plunging Johnson into a deep depression. Barber's owner sent Barber to serve as Johnson's valet. 

Barber  (1742/3-1801), originally named Quashey, was still a slave at that time, but his owner freed him two years later. After gaining his freedom, he worked for an apothecary, briefly as a sailor in the Navy, and then as Johnson's assistant. Barber married Elizabeth Ball, a white woman with whom he had two children. In his will, Johnson left Barber a substantial legacy in money along with his books and papers, and a gold watch. 

The portrait above, which some art experts attribute to Johnson's friend Joshua Reynolds, hangs in Johnson's house today. Whether it is a portrait of Barber or not is disputed. Some experts think it is a portrait of Reynolds' manservant. 

Johnson's house, just off Fleet Street in Gough Square, is open to the public daily. It is well worth visiting to learn more about Johnson and Barber.

Further Reading: Michael Bundock, The Fortunes of Francis Barber: The True Story of the Jamaican Slave who Became Samuel Johnson's Heir (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2015)