Slave Ship by J.M.W. Turner, 1840

This painting was inspired by the story of the slave ship Zong, which in 1781 ordered 133 slaves thrown overboard so the captain could collect insurance payments for them. This was common practice in the slave trade, as insurance could only be collected for those who drowned at sea, but not any who died on board, so any slave that was dead or dying would be hurled into the ocean to increase profits. The painting was originally titled “Slavers Throwing overboard the Dead and Dying--Typhoon coming on.”

This painting was considered a Romantic maritime painting, but it shows how the echoes of slavery reverberated during the Victorian Era and continued affecting cultural understandings of humanity. This painting also deals with themes of nature in ways that dovetail with literary themes seen during the Victorian Era.

The Slave Trade Act of 1807 made the slave trade illegal in the British Empire, however it did not change the status of already enslaved people. Because of this, the Anti-Slavery Society was founded in 1823, and the British Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 finally abolished slavery within the British Empire. The Society then became the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society in 1839, to focus on fighting for global abolition of slavery, and Turner created this painting to urge the British to increase efforts against slavery around the world.

The painting uses themes of nature, particularly the concept of the “sublime,” to communicate its message. The idea of the sublime is to capture the powerlessness and terror of humanity when faced with nature, which is seen in the way the storm swallows up both the slaves and the slavers. Turner uses varied perspective to make the viewer feel sympathy for the slaves and judgement for the slavers in the background as they receive their just punishment, but the storm is also simultaneously drowning the slaves and allowing them to be eaten by sea creatures. This emphasizes the brutal ruthlessness of nature, which doles out punishment to those who deserve it, but also swallows up those who do not.

This work shows conflict with nature in a way that can be seen in other works of the Victorian Era, and the ongoing effects of colonialism and the slave trade on British society.

By J. M. W. Turner - Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Public Domain,