Slave Trade in Unblinking Detail

Image of the Week: A 19th-century French artist depicts the atrocities wrought by European colonial expansion.

Auguste-Fran├žois Biard, The Slave Trade, ca. 1840, oil on canvas, 162.5 by 228.6 cm. (Wilberforce House, Kingston-Upon-Hull)
Auguste-Fran├žois Biard, The Slave Trade, ca. 1840, oil on canvas, 162.5 by 228.6 cm. (Wilberforce House, Kingston-Upon-Hull)

The painting appeared at a propitious time for the abolitionist cause in Britain. Its potent condemnation of slavery coincided with the first meeting of the World Anti-Slavery Convention. A major victory against the practice had been won in 1834, when its abolition in the British Empire took effect by decree of Parliament. This milestone in the struggle for human rights spurred the efforts of reformers to end the institution of slavery in all remaining places.

A motivating force behind the convention was Thomas Fowell Buxton, the successor of William Wilberforce for anti-slavery legislation in Parliament. Before the meeting was over, its delegates had bought Biard’s painting and presented it to Buxton as a token of their esteem. Their choice was especially appropriate, given that in the previous year Buxton had advocated the signing of treaties between Britain and African leaders to abolish the slave trade. Four years later the image was circulated in the form of a high-quality engraving. A later edition of 1853 was dedicated to “the Admirers of Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s popular Work of ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin.’ “

Modern critics have responded to the painting with a variety of fascinating insights of their own, consistent with the concerns of a new age. Most recently, the British art community has carried the re-examination of the painting forward, this time including significant black voices. In his digitally based work Unrecorded, Keith Piper employs the black bodies in Biard’s painting as an indictment of the British material culture and global dominance made possible by the exploitation of slavery.

In his film The Attendant, on the other hand, Isaac Julien imagines the painting coming to life as a sadomasochistic fantasy involving white and black men alternately beating each other. In each case the original anti-slavery intention of the painting is used as a touchstone for the exploration of the lasting effects of slavery on Diasporic identity.

The Image of the Black in Western Art Archive resides at Harvard University’s W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research. The director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute is Henry Louis Gates Jr., who is also The Root’s editor-in-chief. The archive and Harvard University Press collaborated to create The Image of the Black in Western Art book series, eight volumes of which were edited by Gates and David Bindman and published by Harvard University Press. Text for each Image of the Week is written by Sheldon Cheek.