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A Deafening Roar: Was J.M.W Turner's Slave Ship predicting the persistence of systemic racism?

J.M.W Turner's The Slave Ship isn’t a visual depiction of the Atlantic Slave Trade, it is an emblem of remorse, a totem of inhumanity, a glance into the future.


The year is 1840. The air is heavy in London. A blue smoke embroiders the city of a morose veil. Sewage floods filthy street pavements, delicately gliding into the misty abyss of the Thames River. Idle merchants and foxy traders discuss, words fade into the city’s clamor. Niched at the intersection of Harley Street, adorned of an elegant Georgian facade, is the studio of J.M.W Turner. The artist disposes a thin paint brush (still glistening with white pigments drenched in oil) onto the oak table of his atelier. The last stroke to what will become his most emblematic creation.

Turner painted in an aspiration to elucidate the mysteries of a world distraught by conflicting tensions, between the grotesque and the sublime, the human and the monstrous, the real and the mystical. Immersed in enigmas, the painter eventually became one. In this afternoon of May, I invite you to dive in deep waters with me. Where to? The dim oceanic crevasse where Turner, Art and Racial Capitalism meet.


Turner is addressed as the painter of light, I claim he’s the painter of air. Air is stronger than light, air persists where light is faint. Air can be cold, and oh so warm. Air is immersed in all elements, air dances through people, places, objects. Air is a misty molecular land where everything meets, everything collides. In a Turner painting, it is the enchanting wind emanated by theatric brushstrokes, vaporing out of the canvas, flooding the eyes and the nose and the soul of the viewer, which creates emotion. And no painting of his sparks this visceral reaction like The Slave Ship does.

« Between these two ridges the fire of the sunset falls along the trough of the sea, dyeing it with an awful but glorious light, the intense lurid splendor which burns like gold bathes like blood » - John Ruskin, Modern Painters, 1843

Strokes of crimson blues bruise the golden horizon in a brutal whip of color, forming an infernal cloud looming above the seashore, chocking the ethereal white light of its voluptuous glory. The tempest animates the tumultuous sea of a suffocating motion, ravenous silver scaled fish convulse out of infernal waters, limbs spam amidst a bath of maroon blood, tentacles dance to the Orchestra cacophony of this grandiose, petrifying scene. A vessel of death soars from a fissure of sea. It is the Zong Ship.

The Slave Ship, initially entitled Slavers Throwing overboard the Dead, immortalizes the 1781 Zong Massacre, concomitantly crystallizing the horrendous realities of Atlantic Slave Trade. The ship was sailing to Jamaica, where traders would allocate slaves to masters and plantations. Inside the boat’s hideous facade, beneath the deck, 400 suffocating human beings (referred to as ‘cargo’) were held captive in the putrid confines of an infernal prison, of an infernal system. Throughout 19th century transatlantic voyages, 1.8 million slaves died from disease, suffocation or malnutrition, it was extremely common for there to be human fatalities. Yet, the Zong lost an abnormal 133 of the 400 slaves aboard. Slaves were thrown overboard to protect the copious rations of sailors, for British them to indulge in gluttony… As insurers discovered the outstanding economic loss entailed by this mass murder (it was typical for insurance to be taken out off of the financial value of ‘human cargoes’) Luke Collingwood, the captain, was put into trial and later sentenced. An appalling story which captures the tragedy of slavery, of capitalism, systems in which the utmost luxury of some prevails over the life of others.


Now, it is important not to misunderstand the painter’s piece as a heroic ode to the Zong’s victims. What prompted the artist to paint wasn’t compassion, it was guilt. Turner was one of the many young British men who wished to profit from the Industrial Revolution, by investing in promising commercial projects. The agent Stephen Drew proposed an appealing investment deal in the Dry Sugar Work Estate, which Turner accepted. In black ink the terms of the contract read « These objects cannot be accomplished without a large gang of slaves ». Turner reads. Signs the deal. The Blood shed may have been far, Turner’s masterful hands will forever be stained by the scarlet flush of criminality. Amidst bureaucratic processes, contracts, deals, financial jargon, many Europeans indirectly partook in the Atlantic Slave Trade without having to coexist with soul-crushing remorse. Yet, like the silver scaled fish of Turner’s Painting, remorse eventually resurfaces. (A Chain of Murder in the Slave Trade: A Wider Context of the Zong Massacre, J.Krikler)

This historical context might seem irrelevant in understanding a painting, which one could argue needs to be felt more than understood. Yet, the Slave Ship has complex political, moral, economic and historical underpinnings which cannot be disregarded. Without these keys, the Slave Ship shall forever rest in your mind as a merely colorful landscape piece. With the keys, a sweeping blow of philosophical reflections and possibilities can strike your mediocre relation to art of an inflamed thunder. The importance of context was emphasized by Turner himself, through a poem. In 1840, standing in the monumental parlor of the Royal Academy of Arts, The Slave Ship, exhibited for the first time. Framed next to the gilded masterpiece, a poem by JMW Turner himself. You glance at the showpiece. You turn your head to read the poem. A whisper of truth, echoes in the vastness of the majestic chamber of artifice amidst which you stand. It reads:

"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?"

Turner sought to comprehend the universals of human existence. From exploring the fundamentals of hydrodynamics, to the mechanisms of social organization, his life was a quest for answers. The artist read intensely, which contributed to his political turn to Liberal thinking. Amongst the texts which marked Turner, reigns in statuesque splendor the infamous History of Abolition of the African Slave Trade by Thomas Clarkson. A book which inspired The Slave Ship. The poem Fallacies of Hope reveals the true nature of Turner, of someone that was a thinker perhaps more than an artist. In decrypting his painting, I’ve been enticed into examining the painter’s thinking, more than his brushstroke. Exploring the ineffable territory where both come into friction, into fusion. In the hope of finding a story there.

I did. A story that burgeons in the fertile womb of poetry. With close attention to the details of the painting, you remark a gleaming tentacle magnificently propelled from the deep bosom of the sea. Only one tentacle. Rising from troubled waters with the postural elegance of a Sphinx, the predatory stature of a warship, the motion of a mystery. Why paint this tentacle? In a painting that appears, upon first glance, to be a historic narration of the transatlantic slave trade… Why include this disguised, discrete creature? Why did Turner take the risk to disrupt the realist cohesion of his masterpiece, for this single, curious, tentacle? This surrealist element is one that must not be overlooked. J.W.M Turner was a member of the Royal Academy, his commitment to traditional rules of painting, to realism, was absolute. The inclusion of a tentacled creature was a statement, a message. Here is my attempt at its decryption.

A STORY BEYOND AESTHETICS: Elucidating a Mystery.

What inspired J.M.W Turner’s depiction of a sea monster? Some claim it was Thomas Beale’s Natural History of the Sperm Whale, where Beale describes a « Leviathan Man Eating Sea Squid ». (The Voyage of the Slave Ship, S. May) I accept this possibility. A Leviathan. The mere sonority of the word resembles the painting’s frightening grandeur. Evidently, I’ve connected Turner’s secretive Leviathan to Hobbes’ infamous one. In his sociopolitical treaty, the author claims that the absolute power of the Leviathan, of the sovereign, is justified by the people’s consent to being ruled. For Hobbes, you accept the destruction caused by the monsters you have let in. Now, going back to the 19th century, to Turner. What monster began to loom in the shadows of the Industrial Revolution? To appear amidst the Atlantic Slave Trade? I’ve found only but one answer. Only one creature whose immensity rivals that of a Leviathan, that of Turner’s thunderous sea. Capitalism.

Bare with me. In Turner’s poem, Fallacies of Hope, which accompanies The Slave Ship, Turner states the ‘angry setting sun’ and the ‘fierce edged clouds’ declare the arrival of a Typhoon. He then proceeds onto denouncing a ‘fallacious hope’, as though this arriving force was expected to bring abundance, joy. Yet, deceptively, brought only chaos and bloodshed. Dispersed in the poem are references to slavery, the poem concludes on the word ‘Market’. Isn’t this typhoon a metaphor for capitalism? This almighty system which, in its dawn, glimmered like a bright spark of hope for human progress? A system so exceptional it would be worth dying for, killing for… Is there a moral disguised in the artist’s brushstrokes? A Warning?

Once I dug further, dates didn’t coincide. Turner’s painting was made in 1840, once slavery was already abolished in Great Britain, excluding the possibility of the painting being a radical political statement. Why condemn a crime after it had already been committed? Why condemn something of the past? Perhaps precisely because the crime is not yet of the past… The Atlantic Slave Trade was a fragment of history, racial capitalism is not. Slavery was clearly inhuman, its brutality, evident.Racial Capitalism isn’t. It begins with laborer exploitation, grows into a progressive habituation to death (of nature, of people), spreads a venomous ideation of wealth and power. Soon enough, it is ubiquitous. Its principles so deeply engrained in the international economic system, in the global consciousness, that its presence becomes imperceptible…

Whilst slavery is abolished, the Western exploitation of Africa persists to this day. The vicious cloak of ‘Western financial Aid’ to Africa disguises ‘trade misinvoicings’, a disproportionate (sometimes, undocumented) extraction of resources and capital outflowing to the West through the international trade system. (Hickel, Aid in Reverse, 2014) If Turner’s intention was to subtly present racial capitalism through art, his depiction of it is extraordinary. The idea of an underwater sea monster sketches a perfect picture of the artful camouflage of systemic racism. It’s omnipresent, it’s gigantic, yet it’s imperceptible. Capitalism treats race as a social category, (Cottom, Hustle Economy, 2020) one whom is imposed sociopolitical disadvantages. This systemic injustice lingers in the form of exclusive bureaucratic processes. Red lining housing policies, predatory terms of loans and credits, the school-to-prison pipeline… The list goes on. Look at the Black Lives Matter movement, wasn’t this international outrage but a reaction to an outstanding accumulation of injustices, which coincidentally ended up reaching the surface, through social media, to be seen by the public? Police brutality towards radicalized people had existed for some time. Yet, it wasn’t seen… Just like Turner’s Leviathan, which one can only distinguish upon meticulous observation of the painting.

« Aesthetic man is a concept as false and dehumanizing as economic man » Ruskin

J.W.M Turner’s Slave Ship isn’t a painting to adorn walls, it is a beacon of hope. Surprising to hear one coil the term ‘hope’ to such a bleak, violent piece… isn’t it? Well, Art is a realm of subtlety. It is for those who can see, decrypt. Or perhaps more so, for those who live, breathe, exist, for the mere sight - not of color or beauty- but of a possibility. The possibility of something different. So why hope? Because I see Turner’s Slave Ship as an honorable token of honesty. An ignominious staging of his own bloody hands. The painting is a warning against the dissimulated persistence of racism amidst a capitalist age. Turner reveals the true face of British history, of himself, capturing their disfiguring immorality, inhumanity. Revealed, not in an attempt to acquire forgiveness, but rather, to advise his audience from a crime he himself committed.

The crime of ignorance.

Of Choosing to be blind, of choosing Silence.

For this, The Slave Ship’s roar shall never fade.


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