Horror of Slavery Turns Art Into Protest

Image of the Week: George Morland’s depiction of human trafficking was one of the early documentations of the anti-slavery movement. 

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The subsequent verses tell of the emotional anguish of the family so brutally torn apart. Mother, father and child appear as the epitome of the noble savage, “void of shame,” while the slavers exceed their usual level of baseness through the lust of one of them for Ulkna, the chief’s wife. To emphasize the natural nobility of the Africans, the words “The Affectionate Slaves” were added to the title when first exhibited.

While well-received in its original form as a painting, "Execrable Human Traffick" gained wider circulation when issued to the public in the form of a finely made reproductive engraving. Morland’s original painting is lost, and the painting seen here seems to have been made a year later as a guide for the engraver. The print was issued in 1791 with a reproduction of a related painting Morland had exhibited the year before. This work, later called "African Hospitality," represented a group of Africans rescuing Europeans shipwrecked upon their shores. The scene relates to another passage from the same poem by Collins, and even more emphatically stresses the virtuous nature of black Africans.

After an arduous 20-year campaign, the goal of the society and it allies was finally attained. The passage of the Slave Trade Act by Parliament in 1807 abolished the trafficking of slaves in the British colonies. The efficacy of Morland’s prints for reform still remained relevant, however. Both were reissued in 1814 as part of an effort to outlaw the practice of slavery itself within British overseas possessions, an initiative that came to fruition with the passage of the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833.

The appeal in Morland’s works to the inherently human qualities of compassion and benevolence also provided the vital aesthetic mainspring for the crusade against slavery in Britain’s former American colonies. The combined power of word and image is nowhere better exemplified than in the illustrated editions of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s enormously popular novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

The Image of the Black in Western Art Archive resides at Harvard University's W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute, part of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. The founding director of the Hutchins Center 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.

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