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A Slave Ship by jmw Turner

A Slave Ship is one of the art pieces of work by J.M.W Turner in 1840s. Thinking of the year of the 1800s what comes to mind first is about slavery that prevailed harshly during that time. Those years were still considered as notorious for the slave trading in trans-Atlantic region. Though there was the culture existed back then but we looked them as an assault to human dignity.

Brief Biography of J.M.W Turner

J.M.W. Turner in full as Joseph Mallord William Turner was born on April 1775 in London was an English Romantic Painter who painted in landscapes revealing his extraordinary skills of expressing light, atmosphere and color studies that were unmatched in their range.

Turner’s father was a barber and his mother was mentally ill because of which he had to spend his childhood with relatives. He began to work as an assistant to architects in the early years of his life but at age of 14, he started to study at the Royal Academy of Schools.

At the early stage his work mainly consisted of drawings and watercolors but in the year 1796, Turner Exhibited at Royal Academy with his first painting “The Fishermen at Sea”. It was highly appraised by critics and he received a national reputation as a brilliant artist. He was then elected as an associate of the Royal Academy in the year 1802 and later he became a full academician. Also, he was the professor of perspective in the year 1807 and in 1845 he became deputy president.

He found a group of the benefactor who commissioned his work and also funded his foreign trips. He set a pattern of his work by the age of 20 which is he would travel in summer, sketching and finding enthusiasm and then he returns home in winter to develop his paintings.

Turner’s most artistic period got a rage with his paintings like “The Fighting Temeraire” and “Rain, Steam, and Speed”. Turner never married but he had a long lasting relationship with the landlady of the seaside house he resided in at Margate, Mrs. Booth. Turner died on December 1851 at his home in Chelsea and was grounded at St Paul’s Cathedral.

The Slave Ship and its Poem by Turner

Below is the painting of the Slave ship created by Turner in 1840. The former title to this ship was “Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying. Typhoon Coming On”.

The Slave Ship
The Slave Ship

If the title “slave ship” is unknown to the viewer that they might see the painting as a stream of colors that surrounds the ship. The bright light in the center that appears like a sunset immediately catches the attention of the viewer’s eyes. The sun divides the scene with a lustrous beam of light over the stormy red sea.

One can also see a ship on the left side which is moving away from the indicator to show that a storm is passing. Many body parts and chains are also seen sticking out of the water.

The hands and legs that are seen in the foreground above the water are dark skinned symbolizing that they are of slaves who were chained.  Looking more sharply we can also see many fishes, seagulls and sea monsters that are hovering above the water. The sails of the ships are not unrolled and the spray flies are buzzing around it.

The colors used for painting are violent as sunset is of orange, yellow and blood red colored while the ocean is a mixture of white foam, dark grey, and gloomy brown color. It symbolizes violence at first look precisely the violence of nature. Once the title is known it is noticed to be the violence of human against human.

The painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy in London at the same time when the meeting of the Anti-Slavery League was also organized. With this, he also influenced people to create awareness about anti-slavery.

The Slave Ship Poem by Turner

Apart from being a painter, Turner was also a poet and that can be proved by the following poem that he paired with the painting of Slave Ship.

“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?”

Interpretation of Poem

 It states that downfall of the society of slave is being symbolized with the coming storm. Turner’s belief in a free market society as a much better society might show a doubt. In general, the poem can be interpreted as a small ship being thrown away by natural elements like water, fire, and wind. The ship in the storm represents emblem for human life.

A representation of the fight of natural elements and humankind shows the fight between civilization and nature. The humanoid image of God is replaced by the brooding storm, devouring waves, sinking sun and transcendental powers.

The Zong Massacre

Looking back in the history where trans-Atlantic slave trade prevailed, one can get documents related to the fraud of insurance. Though slaves were insured it was very limited. As for example if a person dies because of malnourishment or any illness on board, there was no money taken for them. Anyhow if they get caught in the storm while on board they provided with some amount of compensation.

The Zong Massacre
The Zong Massacre

The Zong Massacre was a famous case in 1781. It is a remarkable event over which mass killing of more than 130 slaves of Africa was done by the crew of British Slave Ship “Zong” because of sickness. The British commander Captain Collingwood wanted to claim their insurance and he would only get them if they were thrown as he would report that they were caught in the storm. He could not claim it if they died of illness. So he threw them all overboard within three days.

However, the case led to the trial not because of the murders but due to the refusal of the insurers as they found out the truth. The case was not for humanity but for the money and power of European culture.

There were not many proofs or pictures related to this issue. Without Turners painting any generation would have not known about the severity of this issue. Hence with the bright usage of colors, he revealed the meaning of colors and their impact. It brought awareness about the issue of human dignity.

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