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.


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.

Memorializing without Memorials: Commemorating the Civil War without Controversial Monuments

By Kathryn Bauer

As Americans, remembering the Civil War is vital in understanding our mistakes to avoid repeating them in the future.  However, we have immensely changed as a country from that time.  Now, it is even more important that we commemorate and memorialize the Civil War in a way that is accurate, but not offensive.

Currently, there is great debate over the public display of Confederacy monuments.  It is argued that the statues celebrate the regional pride and tradition of the Confederacy, while practicing the right to free speech.  Others argue that memorializing the Confederacy celebrates a group who did not believe in equality for all, and were simply racist.

Honoring individuals who are faces of America’s adverse racial past makes people uncomfortable, threatened, and upset.  It is easily understandable how one can feel targeted, walking by towering statues of these individuals everyday on routes to school or work.

I agree that these individuals should be memorialized.  It is necessary to remember the Civil Way, but not in a public showcase.  The monuments should be in a museum, where people who wish to learn about these individuals can go, and those who are offended by them can steer clear.

To improve the American public memory, Americans can memorialize without monuments.  In her novel, This Republic of Suffering, Drew Gilpin Faust showcases themes of “Dying”, “Killing”, “Burying”, “Realizing”, “Believing and Doubting”, “Numbering”, and “Surviving”, surrounding how Americans dealt with the great number of deaths of the Civil War, themes that both, the North and South could agree upon.  These same themes can successfully and effectively act as present replacements for commemorating this critical time in history.

Faust focuses on “Dying”, “Killing”, and “Burying”, in that both, the Union and the Confederacy fought and died for their tradition and heritage, therefore they should be commemorated today.  Respectfully burying bodies during the Civil War was challenging.  Soldiers had no self indicators such as dog tags and their deaths usually occurred far from home, leaving fallen bodies unmarked and disrespected.

As a result, the government constructed national grave sites honoring the fallen.  These national grave sites act as a great substitute to monuments for American public memory in present day.  They memorialize and acknowledge the individuals of the Confederacy and the Union with unity and equality.  Regardless of rank or color, the soldiers are memorialized and remembered in an area devoted to the Civil War, yet still easily accessible to the public.



civil war.JPG

Photograph by Kathryn Bauer  — This image captured at Elmwood Cemetery, highlights a respectful and quiet approach to memorializing the fallen.  The cemetery utilizes small markers pictured to the right, in combination with petite American flags at the graves of the soldiers.  This signifies, regardless of the size of the gravestone purchased by the family of the fallen, that the American individual is recognized as a one who fought, further memorialized without an aggressive, in your face approach.  Additionally, the gravestone featured in the left image belonging to a Union solider, shares the same commemorative marker as his brother, a Confederate soldier, buried across the country.  Regardless of what side they fought for, each solider, the faces of the Civil War, is remembered and acknowledged in a place of privacy, yet open to all.  This approach to memorializing and commemorating is respectful to the soldiers of the Civil War as well as to all Americans today.

Additionally, Faust illuminates the themes of “Realizing”, “Believing and Doubting”, “Numbering” and “Surviving”.  These themes emphasize awareness and transformative consciousness.  Presently Americans have to understand and acknowledge both sides of the controversial monuments and seek effective alternates.

It is essential we celebrate and address the immense number of fallen war individuals, additionally respectfully memorialize them.  Nevertheless, it is even more essential that in a country where everyone is equal, we do so in a way that ensures no person is felt they are not, due to a Civil War monument.

Remembering the bodies and memorializing them are left to those who are alive: the war survivors then, and all of us as Americans, now.  Remembering American history in a public manner is necessary to understand our past, thus understand our present as a country to come.

We need to move the conterversal monuments to museums, not destroy them and our negative history entirely, just have them at a place where they can be viewed at a place of learning, not a busy street corner.  Faust’s themes successfully serve as bases for commemorating and memorializing the Civil War without controversy.

As a country, America is always improving and growing.  We are not the same as we were during the Civil War, and in ten years changes will have taken place.  To keep up with our ever changing country, we must update how we remember the past, not simply destroy it, to ensure a better future.



Longfellow’s “The Slave Singing at Midnight”: A White Man’s Depiction of the Enslaved in 1842

by Kathryn Bauer

America, as a new nation, struggled to find unity as a result of the peoples’ immense divide over the institution of slavery.  Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem, “The Slave Singing at Midnight” assists readers in understanding the progression of an emergent American cultural voice away from the institution of slavery and moving towards abolishment, while still illuminating the inequality faced by the enslaved, due to White American’s ignorance.

While on a trip home from overseas, Longfellow crafted, “The Slave Singing at Midnight”, as part of a thirty-page pamphlet, composed of eight poems focused on the abolishment of slavery.  Ironically, Longfellow’s work encompasses a focus on an enslaved person, despite the fact it is written by Longfellow, a White American male.  The poem commences with the enslaved person singing Biblical psalms from The Old Testament:

“Loud he sang the psalm of David!/ He, a Negro and enslaved,/ Sang of Israel’s victory,/ Sang of Zion, bright and free” (Longfellow 1-4).

At a time when Blackface was heavily present in America, it was commonly believed that enslaved persons simply sang jolly tunes for amusement, Longfellow represents a common White American, as he acts shocked of the religious content of the enslaved person’s song as shown by his use of an explanation point after, “Loud he sang the psalm of David!”.  The mention of the psalm of David, a piece of religious text from The Old Testament, in which it is stated that God is always present and protecting over his people, depicts that enslaved persons utilize song, much differently from how Longfellow, and other White Americans believe.  Enslaved persons use the inspiring stories of “Israel’s victory” and “Zion”, the Holy City, and later in the poem, from The New Testament, the story of “Paul and Silas”, in which the suppressed group puts their faith in God and is, in turn, is victorious over their oppressors.  This illustrates how the enslaved persons sang songs as a way to demonstrate their faith and the hopefulness of freedom they contain at this time in America, a very different fact from the common White American’s belief.

Additionally, the poem, written in 1842, encompasses characteristics of the late 18th, early 19th century style of Romanticism, centering on the imagination and emotions.  Longfellow concentrates on the inner world of himself, as well as the enslaved person:

“And the voice of his devotion/ Filled my soul with strange emotion;/ For its tones by turns were glad,/ Sweetly solemn, wildly sad” (Longfellow 13-16).

The enslaved person’s dreams of freedom and hopefulness resulting from organized religion is depicted by “the voice of his devotion”.  The idea that this voice prompts Longfellow to feel “solemn” and “sad”, rather than share the hopefulness of the enslaved person, suggests that the ideals of freedom and equality for enslaved persons at this time in America are still not yet present.  The extreme juxtaposition of emotion between the two very different individuals, highlights the lack of understanding of the enslaved person from the White Man, in this case and on a much grander scale.

As America is becoming a prominent nation, it is still being restrained by its racial ideologies.  The theme of hopefulness, not just that the new nation will succeed, but also in the view of the enslaved persons for equality and freedom, as a result of the close connection between religion and abolishment, illustrates the cultural values of the emergent American voice.  In Longfellow’s poem, the cultural vales are depicted through the main focus and content of the poem: the enslaved person singing of inspiring Biblical pslams, and the Romantic style, which depict the attempts of the growing understanding and acknowledgement of the enslaved persons by White Americans.  The Emancipation Proclamation in 1862, is on the horizon for the American people, and Longfellow’s, “The Slave Singing at Midnight” shows that America is making large strides in the right direction, leading up to this major decision.


the lord and jordan

Howard Finster’s 1976 enamel painting, “The Lord Will Deliver His People Across Jordan”, showcased at The Smithsonian American Art Museum, is a perfect representation of the ties between religion and abolishment, as well as the theme of hopefulness.  The Lord is depicted in this image delivering Joshua and the Israelites from their oppressors through their devotion to Christ.  The Lord’s followers encompass a parallel suppression to the enslaved persons in growing America at the time of Longfellow’s poem in 1842.  Taking a close look at the painting, strong diction, “Brutes”, “Killing” and “Hate”, are painted in the lower half of the painting, illustrating the struggles of Joshua and the Israelites while oppressed.  In early America, White Americans share this same adverse diction toward the enslaved persons, due to their ignorance of the enslaved persons knowledge and understanding, restricted through a racial lens.  Moreover, God is presented in the image as a passageway for Joshua and the Israelites into a land of “Kindness”, “Love”, and “Peace”, present on the upper half of the painting, representing God’s deliverance.  This is comparable to the enslaved person’s belief that if he sings these songs of faith, he too will be delivered, from enslavement.  Lastly, in the center of the painting, “Things must be better just over Jordan…I want hafto cross Jordan alone… The Lord will deliver his people across Jordan”, symbolize the idea of hope, Joshua and the Israelites, as well as the enslaved persons, all, share the belief in the saving power’s of religion.  The have faith that their situation will better through the works of religion.  


Works Cited

Fisher, Miles. Negro Slave Songs in the United States. Read Books Ltd., 2013. 1-20. Print.

Longfellow, Henry, Wadsworth. “The Slave Singing at Midnight” Poems on Slavery.            Cambridge: John Owen, 1842. Print.

McKivigan, John R. “Revival Religion and Anti-Slavery Politics” History of the American Abolitionist Movement. Garland Publishing Inc., 1999. 379-391. Print.

The Restrictions of Freedom Upon a Former Slave

by Kathryn Bauer

Even after achieving freedom in America, enslaved persons continue to face immense restrictions.  Former enslaved persons utilize very personal narratives, to voice the truth of their harsh realities to the great public.  In his bibliography, A Narrative of Thomas Smallwood, the former enslaved person of thirty years, focuses his narrative on the constraints inflicted upon enslaved persons.  Thomas Smallwood illustrates how paternalistic enslavement restricts enslaved persons’ teachings, the unjust cost of freedom for the enslaved persons, and the dangers fugitive enslaved persons fear.  

To begin, Smallwood exposes the adverse truth about paternalistic enslavement by conveying his purposely limited schoolings from his master:

“my master, and his wife, learned me the English alphabet, and to spell in two syllables…This may afford the reader a glimpse into the abyss of intellectual darkness into which the African race in America has been so long purposely confined”(14).

By leaving the passage dotted with Smallwood’s grammatical errors, the audience is shown the ineffectiveness of Smallwood’s master’s lessons, debunking the idea that enslaved persons’ masters are sufficiently educating their enslaved persons.  In this passage, Smallwood suggests the behavior of the enslaved persons’ masters are immoral, for they are not acclimating the enslaved persons into American life, the main ideal of paternalistic enslavement.  In Race, Republicanism, and Domestic Service in the Antebellum United States, this immoral act of restriction is further illuminated.  Mary Cathryn Cain confirms the reality of this racial logic still in effect for free, Black American servants:

“that domestic employers increasingly viewed their servants through a prism of race, so as to protect their own ideological interests” (65).

This passage additionally highlights the fact that this “intellectual darkness” is done purposely to act as a “confinement”, as a result of the domestic employers’ “own ideological interests”, stemming from their firm beliefs of White supremacy.  This fact informs readers that White Americans are not trying to better accustom their enslaved persons and servants as they claim to.  The domestic employers’ “ideological interests”,  in which they feel they must “protect” themselves, ensuring White men remain dominant, is achieved by guaranteeing Blacks are never to be completely free or equal to White men.  One way this is ensured is through restricting the lessons of the enslaved persons, depriving them of ample knowledge necessary to excel in American life.


Becky Coleman, is pictured with a book in-hand, suggesting she is taking it upon herself to further her education as a Louisiana Freedwoman.

Moreover, to further restrict enslaved persons from easily achieving freedom, masters demand the value of their enslaved person in exchange for their release.  Smallwood,  expands on the wrongful act:

“…if it is just for slaveholders to compel men and women to work for them without pay, because they are black… then it is equally just for them, or their friends, to deprive their masters of such labour without pay ” (19).

Smallwood aims to shock his audience with the fact that free enslaved persons, are not in the slightest bit “free”, by depicting the illogical notion of the act of requesting pay from enslaved persons.  Smallwood, to acquire his own freedom must pay five hundred dollars to his master.  He suggests, that this is an obscene amount for an enslaved person to earn while under his master’s control, making it nearly impossible for the enslaved to gain their freedom in their lifetime.  Moreover, Smallwood depicts the immorality of requesting money in exchange for the freedom of former enslaved persons.  Enslaved persons should have no obligation to buy their way out, considering the fact they never sold themselves into slavery.

Once free, Smallwood dedicated his life to attempting to free other enslaved persons.  Smallwood uses detailed descriptions to recount a gruesome failed account:

“… we had to make speed in making our own escape and leave the poor creatures to the mercy of the bloodhounds…I heard the clanking of the chains, and shrieks of the poor souls…they were in the claws of the lions” (39).

The appalling imagery Smallwood creates in this passage by utilizing the sense of hearing, inflicts fear upon his audience.  As an author, he successfully attempts to horrify his audience with the cruelty that accompanies capturing fleeing enslaved persons, highlighting his disapproval of the maltreatment of the enslaved under the institution of enslavement.


Here is a visual representation of the brutality of capturing of fugitive enslaved persons.   Take note of the sizable chains being placed on the enslaved person to the left.

Smallwood, in his narrative, recounts the confinements of paternalistic enslavement, his unjust acquirement of  freedom, and the troubles he faces as a freedman assisting in the release of other enslaved persons.  He does so in order to depict to his audience the restrictions of freedom upon a former enslaved person that result from the immoral institution of enslavement.