J.M.W. Turner’s Painting, “The Slave Ship, 1840” Illustrates the Horrors of Nineteenth-Century American Slave Ships

By Kathryn Bauer

Illustrious painter, Joseph Mallord William Turner, though of British background, fittingly depicts the disturbing reality of the nineteenth-century American slave ships, along with the backlash America faced from Great Britain due to this adverse aspect of American culture.  Inspired by fellow English abolitionist, Thomas Clarkson’s “The History and Abolition of the Slave Trade”, focusing on the antagonistic nature of the slave trade, further the religious obligations to press for its end, Turner created his piece in order to stress the urgency of America to follow the British and abolish slavery.  Turner’s painting is vital to understanding this gruesome aspect of nineteenth-century American culture, as it provides a moving, deeply symbolic image centered around the horrors of a slave ship.

In his 1840 oil painting, done on a canvas background, Turner sheds light on the appalling culture of the slave trade from overseas to the blossoming country, through his thoughtful use of color in addition to evocative and detailed imagery.  To begin, Turner uses harsh, deep hues in contrast with light, bright colors to set the tone of the suggestive painting.  The use of rich purples, blues and blacks behind the sailing slave ship creates a sense of violence, trouble and death present amongst the crashing waves.  Viewers should take great note of these colors, commonly associated with the loss of hope, ultimately death.  These are most fitting for Turner’s painting’s purpose: portraying the unnerving darkness of slave ships.  In his novel, “Slave Ships and Slaving”, George Francis Dow illustrates the harsh conditions in which enslaved persons are starved, overcrowded, susceptible to various diseases, as well as violently beaten.  Dow continues: “Now, before they had an opportunity of selling [the enslaved persons] to white people, [captains and crew] were often obliged to kill great multitudes” (Dow xix).  These unnecessary mass killings are pictured below in Turner’s painting through his imagery of the countless drowning bodies in the bottom right.

slaveship1

Joseph Mallord William Turner’s The Slave Ship 1840, located at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts,  imagery within the painting may be compact, nonetheless encompasses tremendous significance.  Present in the foreground of the paining, amongst the crests of the murderous waves, Turner illustrates numerous chained hands of the enslaved.  The enslaved may have been thrown overboard due to health issues, overcrowding or even just out of brutality are viewed reaching to the heavens in acts of salvation.  This scene is disturbing to any religious viewer, thus prompting them to join the abolishment movement, to better their own chances for salvation.

In contrast, the pure and holy descending strokes of yellows and whites, seem to fall from the top of the canvas to the part of the sea where drowning enslaved persons’ hands are pictured.  These somber colors, placed in juxtaposition to the dreamy, bright golds and whites, showcase the tragic ending of the enslaved still aboard the ship, while the souls of the drowning enslaved persons ascend to heaven.  This in turn, emphasizes the emotional and spiritual themes of the Second Great Awakening.  The Second Great Awakening, stresses the idea of creating one’s own destiny by acting in a way to rid the evils from the world, moving away from the ideas of predestination.  With regards to the slave ships, captains, along with crew members, partaking in the reprehensible activity of transporting enslaved individuals, will accordingly have a dark ending, as accentuated by Turner through the hellish colors enclosing the slave ship.

Through the somber and disturbing painting, Turner shocks his viewers to the reality of the horrors of nineteenth-century American slave ships.  This in turn, prompts his audience to become aware of the necessary change.  The fact that an outsider, a British painter, is arousing such change, hints at the world’s reticule of the new country’s ways.  It is true that the trading of enslaved persons was a global market, however it is often forgotten that the anti-abolishment movement was global, as well.

Works Cited

Dow, George Francis. Slave Ships and Slaving. Dover, 2002.

Rediker, Marcus. The Slave Ship: A Human History. Penguin, 2011.

Turner, Joseph Mallord William. The Slave Ship. 1840, Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

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