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William Turner - The Slave Ship

by Alexandra Tuschka

This picture with its wild, and for Turner typical dynamic color application has another longer title, which immediately gives us information about the exact theme of the picture: Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying - Typhoon Coming On / Sklavenhändler werfen die Toten und Sterbenden über Bord - Ein Taifun wird bald kommen. With this painting, the English painter refers to a real event from 1781, where the English slave ship "Zong" had strayed from its course and mistakenly held the Jamaican coast as the island of Hispaniola. In view of the approaching shortage of water and food on the onward voyage, the crew threw a total of about 132 slaves into the sea on various days. While there were originally 442 slaves housed on the ship, there were only 17 crew members. The cruel act was also motivated by insurance issues. Because slaves were considered "cargo," their killing was seen as legally justified as a so-called "distress throw," and the insurance company had to pay. Thirty pounds sterling per person who went overboard for any reason. While the 1781 mass killing did not cause much of a stir, these inhumane examples became the poster child again in the wake of abolitionism. Turner, who was still a child when this event occurred, painted this picture in 1840, when some 60 years after the fact. In 1807, the English had finally outlawed slavery. The topic remained topical, because until this ban was enforced, some slaves still had to go overboard. The Royal Navy pursued the slave traders, so it was better to part with the "cargo" than to be caught with it.

His added "typhoon" had little to do with this story, however, because the fact that the "Zong" went astray was due not to the weather but to the crew's incompetence. This insertion was in turn inspired by an 18th century poem describing a slave ship in distress. When the work was first exhibited, the painter added to it some of his own poetic lines from his unfinished and unpublished poem "Fallacies of Hope" (1812):

"Aloft all hands, strike the top-masts and belay;

Yon angry setting sun and fierce-edged clouds

Declare the Typhon's coming.

Before it sweeps your decks, throw overboard

The dead and dying - ne'er heed their chains

Hope, Hope, fallacious Hope!

Where is thy market now?"

The integration of this force of nature supports the drama of the scene and places the events in an imaginary context. In doing so, he heightens the drama to the extreme and suggests an urgency that makes one shudder.

The wild brushstrokes along with the hustle and bustle of the sea require the viewer to look closely. In the foreground, the gruesome details become apparent: we see quite presently a pale leg protruding from the water, its foot still in shackles. We can also still vaguely sense female breasts. Fish and birds pounce on the body. From the right, an oversized fish with a huge mouth and eyes rushes in. Many hands protrude from the water, vehement, seeking help but helpless. The moving water, the winds that bend into the center of the picture make the scene even more threatening. Turner deliberately chose a light skin color for those overboard, making it easier for his contemporaries to identify. The floating shackles were criticism of overly imaginative viewers, as this seemed unrealistic to them. One of them was Mark Twain, whom the picture infuriated for a long time, until, as he wryly noted, he studied art: "It [Education] reconciles us to the fish swimming around on top of the mud - I mean the water. Most of the picture is an obvious impossibility-that is, a lie; and only rigorous cultivation can enable a man to find truth in a lie." Of course, the effect of a real impression was secondary to Turner's message: there is no chance of survival here.

John Ruskin became the first owner of the work and raved:

"But, I think, the noblest sea that Turner has ever painted, and, if so, the noblest certainly ever painted by man, is that of the Slave Ship, the chief Academy picture of the Exhibition of 1840.(...) I believe, if I were reduced to rest Turner's immortality upon any single work, I should choose this. Its daring conception - ideal in the highest sense of the word (...) and the whole picture dedicated to the most sublime of subjects and impressions - (completing thus the perfect system of all truth, which we have shown to be formed by Turner's works) - the power, majesty, and deathfulness of the open, deep, illimitable Sea."

William Turner - The Slave Ship

Oil on canvas, 1840, 90.8 x 122.6 cm, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

John Ruskin, Modern Painters, vol. 1 (New York-Chicago: National Library Association, n.d.), 382-3.

Turner's poem at: A. J. Finberg, "The Life of J.M.W. Turner," R.A., 2nd ed., 1961, p. 47.

Andrew Walker, "From Private Sermon to Public Masterpiece: J.M.W. Turner's The Slave Ship in Boston, 1876-1899," Journal of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, vol. 6 (1994): 6-7.


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