Representing Slavery: Art, Artefacts and Archives in the Collections of the National Maritime Museum

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Representing Slavery: Art, Artefacts and Archives in the Collections of the National Maritime Museum, edited by Douglas Hamilton and Robert J. Blyth, draws on the extensive collections of the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, and was published to mark the 200th anniversary of Parliament’s abolition of the British slave trade in 1807.

Ten specially commissioned essays by leading scholars set the collections in their historical context, demonstrating the scale and brutality of slavery, the nature and extent of African resistance, and the widespread efforts to achieve abolition and emancipation.

Representing Slavery reveals the astonishing range, complexity and longevity of the impact of slavery on Africa, Europe and the Americas, and the importance of the often neglected East African and Indian Ocean slave trades. To coincide with Black History Month this February, we share a few of the catalogue entries from the book.

Neck rings, c. 1790
Iron, 850 x 140 x 27 mm

Slavery and the slave trade have left behind a range of artefacts relating to the capture of Africans, their terrible transportation across the Atlantic and their enslavement in the Americas. This small collection of objects shows some of the goods of exchange employed along the West African coast and examples of the instruments of restraint and repression used on slave ships and the plantations.


Log of the slaver-ship Sandown, Captain Samuel Gamble, 1793

The Sandown was a slave ship that sailed from London in April 1793, arriving at the Iles de Los off West Africa in June. Its captain, Samuel Gamble, called at Rio Nunez in Sierra Leone to buy slaves. The log provides a detailed account of trading in slaves, as well as descriptions of the African interior, its peoples and its flora and fauna. Gamble, who travelled inland, illustrated his log with a series of colour sketches, one of which shows African slaves being brought to the coast at Sierra Leone by the Fulani people. After leaving Africa, Gamble set sail for Jamaica with a cargo of Africans. The voyage was beset by problems – disease was rife, and the Africans rose up against their enslavement. The Sandown eventually arrived in Jamaica where over 200 slaves were disembarked and sold.

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, abolitionist imagery, especially the iconic figure of the kneeling African in chains, appeared on a bewildering range of items, both practical and ornamental. Africans, often shown wearing silver collars, were also depicted on many objects as a form of decorative motif. In addition, Britain’s involvement in slavery and abolition inspired further artefacts, proving a rich legacy of material culture.


Handle with mounted abolitionist plaque, Britain, c. 1790
Enamel; brass, 67 x 46 mm
Mounted as the front of a drawer handle, with the legend ‘Am I not a man and a brother’.

The Wedgwood plaque image of the kneeling slave was quickly adapted for use across a bewildering range of goods and media. Abolitionist households might have had prints, crockery, glassware, soft furnishings, etc. all decorated with versions of the original. Here, a coloured enamel plaque, showing a pleading African with huts, trees and a ship in the distance, has been mounted into a drawer handle. The manifestation of abolitionist material in the domestic sphere is a further indication of the significant role played by women in promoting and advancing the cause.



Cane cutters, c. 1880

This photograph shows life in Jamaica in the later part of the nineteenth century. The sugar industry, although in decline in this period, did not end with the emancipation of slaves in 1838. Instead it continued, with black people becoming employees rather than slaves. As this image suggests, however, emancipation did not bring equality, nor did it end the rigours of working in the cane fields. This failure on the part of plantation owners and the colonial governments significantly to improve the day-to-day conditions and rights of ex-slaves and their descendents provoked resentment, and occasionally rebellion, among people in the Caribbean.


The driver’s whip unfolds its torturing coil. She only sulks — go lash her to her toil. c.1800
Engraving, 126 x 174 mm

Pregnant women were expected to continue their arduous work in the sugar fields until just before they gave birth, and to return to work very soon afterwards. In this print, the exhausted woman was instructed to return to work by a slave driver who carries his whip and is clearly ready to use it. Strikingly, the slave driver is a black man. The complex hierarchies within enslaved society and the corrupting influence of slavery as an institution meant that it was not only white men who abused the enslaved.


The New Union Club, being a representation of what took place at a celebrated dinner, given by a celebrated – society, George Cruikshank, published by George Humphrey, London, 19 July 1819
Hand-coloured etching, 312 x 482 mm

This is one of the most racist and most complex prints of the nineteenth century. It purports to show a dinner held at the African Institution that became increasingly drunken and debauched as the evening progressed. Cruikshank employed many common nineteenth-century racist stereotypes of black people – drunkenness, aggressiveness and sexual promiscuity – and lampooned the idea that black people could aspire to behave like Europeans. In the print, the white abolitionists are portrayed as unsuspecting and bewildered innocents who find themselves entirely out of their depth. Cruikshank seemed to suggest that their association with black people corrupted them – that they were being ‘uncivilised’ rather than black people becoming ‘civilised’.

Meanwhile, the idea of relationships between races is ridiculed. Many familiar and important figures are represented. Abolitionists like William Wilberforce, James Stephen (1758–1832) and Zachary Macaulay (1768–1838) appear next to the street entertainer Billy Waters and the radical Robert Wedderburn (1762–1835/6). Around them, mayhem prevails. Cruikshank provided a challenge to the abolitionist cause and was influenced by Joseph Marryat MP, the agent for the island of Grenada.

Cruikshank also took inspiration from a print by James Gillray (1756–1815) – The Union Club (1801) – which showed a drunken dinner celebrating the Anglo-Irish Union of 1801. In Gillray’s print, the objects of ridicule were the Irish and their supporters. For Cruikshank, the targets of racist caricature and abuse were black people and the abolitionists. While there are clear political and social comments in this satirical print, it was also intended to be entertaining. For all its racial prejudices, it was meant to be funny, and thus tells us something about wider public attitudes to black people and racial difference. This print, and others like it, suggests the depth of racial prejudice in nineteenth-century Britain.


Extracts taken from Representing Slavery: Art, Artefacts and Archives in the Collections of the National Maritime Museum, edited by Douglas Hamilton and Robert J. Blyth, (£25 PB) published by Lund Humphries and available here.

Images © National Maritime Museum, London


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