The Slave Ship: J.M.W. Turner

J.M.W. Turner: The Slave Ship

The Slave Ship is an 1840 oil painting by J.M.W. Turner in the Romantic Maritime style, which Turner was well known for. On the surface, it looks like an innocent painting of a stormy sea with a ship middle left struggling to find its passage through.

Look closer. You will see bodies. You will see body parts. You will see shackles. You will see swarming fish and birds and other sea creatures. What is happening?

During the Atlantic slave trade slave ship, owners would take out insurance policies on their human cargo. Turner’s The Slave Ship depicts the practice of throwing cargo (again – Humans) overboard in stormy seas in order to collect the money from the insurance they have taken out, often when the men and women have become too sick from the appalling conditions to be of value in the slave markets. This is best documented by the British slave ship Zong in 1771 when 133 people were thrown overboard.

During the painting’s early days it was titled “Slavers Throwing overboard the Dead and Dying—Typhoon coming on” and the painting was exhibited to coincide with a meeting of the British Anti-Slavery Society where Prince Albert was speaking.

J.M.W. Turner: The Slave Ship is in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Massachusetts in the United States.

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