JW Turner, 1840, The Slave Ship
Turner’s painting "The Slave Ship" or "Slavers Throwing overboard the Dead and Dying—Typhoon coming on" Oil on Canvas. Museum of Fine Arts Boston. It was first exhibited in London in 1840 and in it Turner depicts a ship, visible in the background, sailing through a tumultuous sea of churning water and leaving scattered human forms floating in its wake.
He was inspired to paint “The Slave Ship” after reading a book, “The History and Abolition of the Slave Trade,” written by Thomas Clarkson in 1808 and reprinted in 1839. In 1783, the setting of the book, slaving companies reimbursed sea captains for slaves lost at sea, but not for those who died onboard, believing that the captains shouldn’t be compensated for their maltreatment of the slaves. The book depicted a captain, confronted with the problem of a ship full of sick slaves and an oncoming typhoon, choosing to throw the slaves overboard so that he could claim the insurance for drowning.
The book was based on actual events on the British slave ship Zong owned by James Gregson and colleagues in a Liverpool slave-trading firm which, had taken on 440 slaves, far more than it could safely transport when it left the Gold Coast for Jamaica on 6 September 1781. By the 29 November, the overcrowding, together with malnutrition and disease, had killed seven of the crew and approximately sixty enslaved Africans. With the journey prolonged by contrary winds and inept navigation, Captain Luke Collingwood had an increasing number of the dead and dying in his cargo hold. If he delivered them and they died onshore the Liverpool ship-owners would have no redress; but if they died at sea they were covered by the ship's insurance. As, in law, the slaves would be considered cargo, the "jettison clause" covered their loss at £30 a head (£37,100 in 2011 pounds).
Within a few days, 133 Africans whom the crew thought were least likely to recover were chained, ankle by ankle, then thrown overboard, weighed down with balls. Some 55 Africans were thrown overboard on November 29, and 42 on November 30. 26 more were thrown overboard on December 1, while 10, in a last act of defiance, committed suicide.
The Zong arrived in Jamaica on December 28, 1781, with 208 Africans, 232 fewer than it had when it departed the African Coast - a mortality rate of 53 per cent. This ranks among the ships with the highest mortality rate and is noteworthy because the largest number of deaths was deliberate and premeditated. Even more disturbing is the fact that the journey took an inordinately long period of 112 days, compared to the average 60-day length of Middle Passage journeys.
The resulting court case, brought as a civil action by the ship-owners seeking compensation from the insurers for the slave-traders' lost "cargo", was a landmark in the battle against the African Slave Trade of the eighteenth century
The case was brought to court on March 6, 1783 (Gregson vs. Gilbert) - not for murder by Collingwood and his crew, but because the underwriters refused to honour the £30 per African loss, which the Liverpool consortium was demanding. The insurers underscored their refusal with the argument that they saw no justifiable means for the mass murder. They argued, and justifiably so, that Collingwood did not execute his full professional responsibility, as contrary to his protestations, evidence existed which showed there was sufficient water on board the ship.
This gruesome story likely inspired Turner to create his landscape and to choose to coincide its exhibition with a meeting of the British Anti-Slavery Society. Although slavery had been outlawed in the British Empire since 1833, Turner – and many other abolitionists – believed that slavery should be outlawed around the world. Turner thus exhibited his painting during the anti-slavery conference, intending for Crown Prince Albert, who was speaking at the event, to see it and be moved to increase British anti-slavery efforts.
Zong was not an isolated incident, The Proceedings of the General Anti-Slavery Convention, London 1843 reporting:
The South African Commercial Advertiser, of February 20th, 1841, contains the following extract of a letter from St. Helena.
“We have here a Portuguese schooner, captured by the Waterwitch, for condemnation, with 230 slaves on board. They have the small-pox very bad. Those that are free from it are landed at Lemon Valley, which place is kept under strict quarantine. When the Waterwitch first gave chase, the captain endeavoured to get away by lightening the vessel; for which purpose he threw overboard about 130 slaves, having originally on board 350. He then ran his vessel on shore, and made his escape. The boats of the Waterwitch saved about seventy from drowning, but the greater part of them died afterwards from exhaustion”
While the impact of the painting can’t be accurately measured, it likely contributed to the passing of an 1843 law in which the British Empire pledged to more effectively suppress slavery and the slave trade. Once that law had been passed, a cascade of anti-slavery laws from many other Atlantic countries were passed, dramatically decreasing the amount of slavery in the 19th century.