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. 

George Morland. Execrable Human Traffick, or The Affectionate Slaves. 1789. Oil on canvas. 85.1 x 121.9 cm. 
George Morland. Execrable Human Traffick, or The Affectionate Slaves. 1789. Oil on canvas. 85.1 x 121.9 cm.  Menil Collection, Houston

This image is part of a weekly series that The Root is presenting in conjunction with the Image of the Black in Western Art Archive at Harvard University’s W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute, part of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research.

This scene of heart-wrenching separation occurs on a narrow beach along the West African coast. The lurid drama unfolds as the sky and surrounding mountains emerge in the early morning light. Two large sailing ships lie anchored in the left foreground, still bathed in the glow of the rose-colored dawn. On the left, two white sailors restrain a black African man who wrings his hands in despair. A sailor in the bow of the small rowboat behind this group watches half-interestedly as the drama unfolds. Already in the boat are two slaves being readied for transport.

To the right appear a black woman and a young child. She looks back  in alarm, as a well-dressed white man firmly motions to the waiting rowboat in the immediate foreground. In the mid-section of the boat sits a black man chained at the wrists. Giving into despair, he holds his hands up to his face.

Behind this group an older white man talks with a black figure wearing a pointed hat and earrings. A young assistant standing at his side holds a large flintlock musket. Here, at the confluence between the native and foreign elements of the slave trade, the fate of the couple and their child is sealed.

The painting is a remarkable document in the history of the early anti-slavery movement. It was painted by George Morland, a young genre painter of considerable talent whose career has been somewhat eclipsed by time. Couched in the high drama of personal human tragedy, it captures an episodic view of the African slave trade. The picture was exhibited at the prestigious Royal Academy, London, in 1788. The title given it, “Execrable Human Traffick,” left no doubt as to its intended effect on the viewing public. This was something new and significant in painting: the use of the medium not simply to please the eye, lionize the great of the world or extol the principles of religion. Here art was being used to arouse the indignity of the public to a great offense against humanity.

Today, Morland’s picture still has the power to move the viewer to alarm and pity. The effect is somewhat muted, however, by the enormous flood of related imagery subsequently produced in Europe and America. A measure of the novel, even jolting, effect on its first viewers at the Royal Academy exhibition can still be gauged by the consideration of its origin within the early stages of organized resistance to the slave trade.

In 1787 a Quaker-led organization, the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade, was formed with the resolve to end the practice by force of law. “Execrable Human Traffick” is the first image of a broader anti-slavery movement to be conceived beyond the level of the emblematic. Its emphatic message is developed in fully pictorial terms, in the form of a vivid human drama illustrative of a horrific episode of the slave trade on the African coast.

An already impressive body of literary works on the subject informed Morland’s fervent indictment of the slave trade. Inspired by the reigning philosophical notion of “sensibility” and its emphasis on the origin of benevolence in the realm of the emotions, a host of poems and other published works dramatically emphasized the horrors of the slave trade in stark, human terms. One of these, titled “The Slave Trade: A Poem,” composed in 1788 by the art dealer and poet William Collins, is directly linked with the painting. Rather than simply appeal to reason as the avenue toward moral enlightenment, Collins instead employed the quite different tactic of highly emotionally charged verse to recount the capture, sale and separation of a royal African family.

In his preface to the poem Collins states that he suggested the theme to his friend Morland, “a painter celebrated for his superior abilities in the beautiful simplicity of natural scenes.” The resulting picture was ready for exhibition during the same year. Morland’s scene corresponds with the text of six four-verse stanzas of “The Slave Trade.” Read together, word and image present a more complete evocation of the savage scene than either mode could create by itself. The first stanza of the relevant section relates the gist of the story: