This image is part of a weekly series that The Root is presenting in conjunction with the Image of the Black Archive & Library at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research.
In the coming year, one of the more nuanced anniversaries of the enduring struggle against slavery is slated to occur. Set prominently within London’s Westminster Abbey, the imposing monument to the great parliamentarian Charles James Fox will soon attain the two-century mark.
Though of purely symbolic importance, the occasion nevertheless gives us pause to evaluate the contribution of this ardent defender of popular liberty to his nation’s struggle with the thorny issue of slavery. Of central importance to the success of this vital undertaking was the willingness of Fox and his contemporaries to fully comprehend the humanity of those whose cause they championed.
Despite his conventional pose, the sturdy figure of the black man kneeling in the foreground of Fox’s monument embodies this necessary state of resolve, even as it leaves other aspects of his future unaddressed.
During his long political career, Fox was instrumental as a leader of the liberal Whig faction. He introduced enlightened legislation that transformed contemporary politics with the active spark of idealism. His committed struggle against slavery began with the passage of the Regulated Slave Trade Act in 1788. His ultimate contribution to the cause of freedom took this half-measure to its logical conclusion. In 1806 Fox introduced a bill calling for the abolition of the trade itself. In declining health, he died six months before the passage of the bill in March 1807.
After Fox’s death, the project of erecting a monument appropriate to his stature began to take form. By 1810 a committee of wealthy Whig members of the House of Lords, supported by the future King George IV, had collected a large sum more than sufficient to begin the work. The commission was given to Richard Westmacott, one of the foremost sculptors of funerary monuments in Britain. His fashionable neoclassic style, based on the heritage of ancient Greek and Roman sculpture, suited the public taste for elevated subjects while endowing them with an affecting mood of romantic pathos.
Westmacott’s design envisioned a dramatic, slightly larger than life-size tableau of the ardent foe of the slave trade just as he expires in the arms of a female figure symbolizing liberty, the virtue to which he had devoted his entire career. At his feet, the similarly conceived figure representing peace has collapsed in despair over Fox’s passing. Before this noble scene kneels a black man, his arms clasped together as he resolutely gazes at Fox.
His presence on the monument, however, seems not to allude to his liberation from captivity and forced removal from the African coast but to the very avoidance of this dreadful fate by virtue of the passage of Fox’s last great measure against the slave trade. Those familiar with the early imagery of the anti-slavery movement will recall the compact image of the kneeling slave as it appeared on countless materials produced by the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade. Designed in 1787, the poignant device of a chained, supplicant black slave appeared above the caption “Am I not a man and a brother?” After a long struggle of nearly 20 years, the ultimate goal of the society had been met, and its highly effective image of the captive slave is here replaced with that of a free African man, making the presence of restraints irrelevant.
However clichéd or controversial it may seem today, the compact pose of Westmacott’s marble figure is rendered as heroically as that of any subject taken from Greco-Roman mythology. Westmacott was the first artist to expand the abbreviated emblem of the pleading slave into a robust, monumental figure occupying three-dimensional space. His massive, well-proportioned figure was described by the sculptor himself simply as “an African Negro.” Antonio Canova, generally regarded as the greatest sculptor of his generation, declared the figure to be among the most moving he had ever seen.
The transformation of the original emblem of the society into such a vivid evocation of the human form reflects the emergence of a new awareness of the black body in Britain. As the nation’s leaders slowly worked toward resolution of the slavery question, remarkable people of African descent—such as Saartjie Baartman, the so-called Hottentot Venus, and the American boxer Tom Molineaux—made an indelible impression on London society with their remarkable physical presence.
Another such celebrity may even have gained entree to Fox’s monument itself. The body of the kneeling African man closely resembles that of the popular artist’s model Wilson, a black sailor from Boston who had recently arrived in London. The perfection of his physical form is well-documented in sketches and paintings by some of the most significant artists of the time.
As much as his body held these artists spellbound, Wilson as a man suffered under the common racial prejudices of his day. The artist Benjamin Robert Haydon, Wilson’s most ardent recorder, apparently felt that his model’s lower jaw deviated too far from the canon of antique beauty to be considered worthy of attention. Haydon’s opinion may have reflected the general consensus, since no careful study of Wilson’s face exists, with the possible exception of Westmacott’s figure of the kneeling African man. Appropriately for a monument erected to honor a great champion of liberty, the features of the marble effigy may reflect the inner consciousness of a living person.
The figure of the African spared from the slave trade can also be regarded as the harbinger of full emancipation for those already in captivity. In 1833, just over a decade after the belated installment of the monument, slavery itself was abolished by an act of the British Parliament. The entrenched nature of the colonial order persisted, however, delaying a fuller degree of enfranchisement until well into the next century.
Today the more personal, unrecorded experiences of Wilson and his companions of the black Diaspora are being given long-overdue expression. With London as his base, the British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare has critiqued the long history of various types of exploitation in both lands. In his photographic tableaux, the role of the African in colonial settings has taken on an ironic twist, with the servant becoming the master amid conventional trappings of power.
The Image of the Black Archive & Library resides at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. The founding director of the Hutchins Center is Henry Louis Gates Jr., who is also chairman of The Root. 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.