Witnessing Slavery. Art and Travel in the Age of Abolition

Thomas, Sarah
304 S.
€ 45,53
Reviewed for Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists by
Annika Vosseler, Institut für Afrikastudien, Universität Leipzig

Sarah Thomas’s book joins several publications focusing on the visual representation of slavery in the British West Indies, Jamaica and Brazil from 1700 to 1900. In 168 watercolours, paintings, drawings, and prints, Thomas, a lecturer in History of Art at Birkbeck, University of London, traces the shifting iconography of slavery in British and European art in the turbulent period of 1760 to 1840 in six chapters. The aim and novelty of the book is to elucidate the agency of visual culture by showing how the works of travelling artists engaged with the abolitionist movement. Thomas demonstrates the increasing significance of eyewitness accounts for abolitionist and pro-slavery propaganda in contrast to reports by ‘armchair travellers’.

In Chapter 1 Thomas sets the frame for her analysis by introducing the reader to the concept of the ‘testamentary space’ which is an imaginary space created through literature and pictures which she links to the figure of the ‘travelling eyewitness’. She demonstrates the epistemological problem of witnessing, which is to bear testimony to the truth, according to the best of one’s knowledge (p. 2). Shifts in the politics of abolition at the end of the eighteenth century had a great effect on the European perception of the imagery of eyewitness artists like Agostino Brunias, John G. Steadman, or James Hakewill. Their images were increasingly accepted as irrefutable ocular testimony (p.2). Thomas points out the epistemological authority of the pictures which exceeded the relevance of texts at some stage. Therefore, images must consequently be considered a central feature in the imperial project of visualising the ‘New World’.

In Chapter 2 the focus lies on the influence that Enlightenment conceptions of political liberty and natural rights, the rise of the evangelical Nonconformist movements and the political impact of the American War of Independence had on visual culture. The ‘sympathetic eyewitness’ engaged in passionate political debates over slavery is at the centre of attention. Thomas illustrates the steadily shift in the iconography of slavery which was increasingly informed by notions of sympathy/sensibility. This observation reflects the debate culture of the period which was influenced by the discourse of sensibility driven by tendencies in British Protestantism promoting “compassion for those whom society despised” (p. 36) on the one hand. On the other hand, however, visual culture was shaped by satirical imagery which increasingly become part of the pro- and anti-slavery propaganda. Simultaneously, Thomas traces the impact that graphic prints had on the discussions of abolition and how anti-slavery politics slowly infiltrated High Art.

At the centre of Chapter 3 is Brunias’s œuvre through which Thomas interrogates the imperial project. Thomas’s analysis shows how much effort Brunias put into his images to depict a perfectly well-ordered colonial society with a clear racial and social hierarchy, representing the enslaved as a constantly happy and healthy rural workforce. His idealised “working landscapes were presented as source of visual pleasure, a space that was naturalised by its deployment of a deeply familiar pictorial language” (p. 92). Here, Thomas draws the parallels to the visual representation of the English peasantry in paintings of Richard Wilson, Thomas Gainsborough or Francis Wheatley. In both visual traditions the readers recognise the seeming timelessness in which both marginal groups are represented. However, these images must be seen in the context of a growing demand for social reforms and amelioration for the rural British population as well as for the enslaved abroad.

In Chapter 4 Thomas focuses on plates printed in the book Narrative of a five years expedition against the revolted Negroes of Surinman (1796) which are among the best and yet least understood images in the slave archive (p. 122). She argues that John G. Stedman is most likely the creator of these plates by comparing few of his still existing originals, which he mentioned being made on the spot, with engravings that were produced later. The book and plates were perceived as reliable first-hand account of the life in a colonial plantation society as the plates seemed to provide a persuasive testimony to an otherwise unbelievable brutality of the slave society (p. 123). Discussed in their art-historical context, Thomas traces the different visual traditions visible in the plates ranging from Christian iconography to depictions of war atrocities and illustrates the strong similarities with earlier ethnographic imagery in the tradition of natural history recordings.

Chapter 5 illuminates the changing and complex relationship between the topographical imagination (a request for truth) and the picturesque (its emphasis on aesthetics) exemplified in Hakewill’s work. Thomas shows how his images became embedded in the fraught politics of the 1820s and 30s and how they were used as testimonial artefacts in support of the planters cause (p. 125). Hakewill understood ‘being there’ as a demand for political engagement and saw his role as transcribing visually the sights he witnessed, preparing the raw data for distinguished artists who would aesthetically elevate it. Hakewill was concerned with presenting a view of slave society as natural and timeless as possible, “arresting history in his plates” (p. 143). Thomas again broadens the discussion by including comparable images of further British artists who were concerned with other maligned and contested bodies like the convicts sent to Australia or the rural poor in England.

In the final chapter slavery is framed as spectacle in Rio de Janeiro at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Thomas compares the imagery of Jean-Baptiste Debret, Johann Moritz Rugendas and Earle whose attentions shifted away from the picturesque towards the private daily life of the Cariocan slaves. Thomas argues that the visual archive of slavery in Brazil is more brutal in expression compared to other slave societies partly due to the hyper-visibility of torture in the major cities of Brazil (p.168). Compared to British artists in Rio de Janeiro who painted softer images of life in a slave society, European eyewitness artists told a far more intuitive and brutal story. Thomas demonstrates that the artists were aware of the impact their images had on European audiences but that most of them felt compelled to visually document the inhumanity in slave societies.

Sarah Thomas produced a convincing book in which she argues for a stronger inclusion of visual culture in debates of abolition of slavery in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. She carves out the vital role that eyewitness accounts of itinerate artists play in the re-evaluation of the iconography of slavery. In judging the eyewitness artist their often-high dependence on local and metropolitan elites for financial income must be considered. Thomas critically engages with the role that images played in the abolitionist or pro-slavery propaganda and highlights that their deployment was often independent of the stance of the artist. Although she makes clear what her sources are it might have been worthwhile to consider more voices of enslaved and women. Nonetheless, the book is stimulating for all who are interested in neglected visual sources (pictures, drawings, paintings) and the role of visual culture in the era of abolition. Thomas delivered an excellent volume in which she comprehensibly shows the great impact that visual culture had on the era of abolition and how contested images of eyewitness artists were used for the propaganda purposes of the pro- and anti-slavery movements.

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