The Slave Ship

Last updated

Slavers Throwing overboard the Dead and Dying—Typhoon coming on
Artist J. M. W. Turner
Year 1840
Medium oil on canvas
Dimensions 90.8 cm× 122.6 cm(35.7 in× 48.3 in)
Location Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The Slave Ship, originally titled Slavers Throwing overboard the Dead and Dying—Typhoon coming on, [1] is a painting by the British artist J. M. W. Turner, first exhibited in 1840. Measuring 35 3/4 x 48 1/4 in. in oil on canvas, it is now in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. In this classic example of a Romantic maritime painting, Turner depicts a ship, visible in the background, sailing through a tumultuous sea of churning water and leaving scattered human forms floating in its wake.

J. M. W. Turner 18th and 19th-century British painter, water-colourist, and printmaker

Joseph Mallord William Turner, known as J. M. W. Turner and contemporarily as William Turner, was an English Romantic painter, printmaker and watercolourist. He is known for his expressive colourisations, imaginative landscapes and turbulent, often violent marine paintings.

Oil painting process of painting with pigments that are bound with a medium of drying oil

Oil painting is the process of painting with pigments with a medium of drying oil as the binder. Commonly used drying oils include linseed oil, poppy seed oil, walnut oil, and safflower oil. The choice of oil imparts a range of properties to the oil paint, such as the amount of yellowing or drying time. Certain differences, depending on the oil, are also visible in the sheen of the paints. An artist might use several different oils in the same painting depending on specific pigments and effects desired. The paints themselves also develop a particular consistency depending on the medium. The oil may be boiled with a resin, such as pine resin or frankincense, to create a varnish prized for its body and gloss.

Canvas Extremely heavy-duty plain-woven fabric

Canvas is an extremely durable plain-woven fabric used for making sails, tents, marquees, backpacks, and other items for which sturdiness is required. It is also popularly used by artists as a painting surface, typically stretched across a wooden frame. It is also used in such fashion objects as handbags, electronic device cases, and shoes.



J.M.W. Turner was inspired to paint The Slave Ship in 1840 after reading The History and Abolition of the Slave Trade [2] by Thomas Clarkson. In 1781, the captain of the slave ship Zong had ordered 133 slaves to be thrown overboard so that insurance payments could be collected. This event probably inspired Turner to create his landscape and to choose to coincide its exhibition with a meeting of the British Anti-Slavery Society. Although slavery had been outlawed in the British Empire since 1833, Turner and many other abolitionists believed that slavery should be outlawed around the world. Turner thus exhibited his painting during the anti-slavery conference, intending for Prince Albert, who was speaking at the event, to see it and be moved to increase British anti-slavery efforts.[ citation needed ] Placed next to the painting were lines from Turner's own untitled poem, written in 1812:

Thomas Clarkson English abolitionist

Thomas Clarkson was an English abolitionist, and a leading campaigner against the slave trade in the British Empire. He helped found The Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade and helped achieve passage of the Slave Trade Act of 1807, which ended British trade in slaves.

Slave ship cargo ship carrying slaves onboard from Africa to the Americas across the Atlantic Ocean between the 16th and mid-19th centuries

Slave ships were large cargo ships specially converted for the purpose of transporting slaves. Such ships were also known as "Guineamen" because their trade involved trafficking to and from the Guinea coast in West Africa.

Anti-Slavery Society everyday name of two different British organisations

The Anti-Slavery Society was the everyday name of two different British organisations.

"Aloft all hands, strike the top-masts and belay;
Yon angry setting sun and fierce-edged clouds
Declare the Typhon's coming.
Before it sweeps your decks, throw overboard
The dead and dying – ne'er heed their chains
Hope, Hope, fallacious Hope!
Where is thy market now?"


The first impression that the painting creates is of an enormous deep-red sunset over a stormy sea, an indication of an approaching typhoon. [3] Upon closer inspection one can discern a ship sailing off into the distance. The masts of the ship are red, matching the blood-red colour of the sky and the sickly copper colour of the water, which serves to blur the lines between various objects in the painting. [2] The ship's sails are furled, revealing that it is preparing for the typhoon. In the foreground can be seen a number of bodies floating in the water; their dark skin and chained hands and feet indicate that they are slaves, thrown overboard from the ship. Looking even more carefully, one can see fish and sea monsters swimming in the water, possibly preparing to eat the slaves, and sea gulls circling overhead above the chaos.

Consistent with Turner's emphasis on colour in many of his other works, the painting's central focus is on the interactions of various colours. Few defined brush strokes appear in the painting, and objects, colours, and figures become indistinct. Rather, objects are defined by their colours in the painting, and some objects (like the bodies of the slaves and the incoming storm) have no real border at all, being solely defined by the contrast with the pigments around them. The most prominent colours are the red of the sunset which encroaches into the water and ship as well, and the maroon of the bodies and hands of the slaves. [2]

Style and interpretation

Turner's emphasis on colour rather than design is typical of many Romantic works of the time. The indistinct shapes and the pervasiveness of the sunset's blood-red colour serve to convey a focus on nature and illustrate the idea that nature is superior to man. Other colours in the painting, such as the cool blue of the ocean and the black caps of the water, bring the ocean's hues to life and give the viewer a sense of the true emotions of the natural world. The fact that the figures in the painting are depicted as minuscule and that even the ship is shunted to the background in favour of the water and the sun further serve to decrease the emphasis on humanity and transfer it to nature. [2]

By placing the emphasis on nature rather than on figures or objects, Turner evokes the concept of the "sublime", coined by Edmund Burke. The idea of the sublime is of the utter powerlessness and terror of humanity in the face of nature; by dramatising the strength of the waves and sun, Turner uses The Slave Ship to encapsulate, perfectly, Burke's definition of the term. Turner's decision to paint the work with a series of quick, frenzied brush strokes rather than carefully defined lines adds to the intensity of the painting, serving to make the viewer feel even more overwhelmed. [2] Though the painting's size is relatively small compared to many Romantic landscape paintings, it still captivates the viewer in arguably a more powerful way.

Edmund Burke 18th-century Anglo-Irish statesman and political theorist

Edmund Burke was an Irish statesman born in Dublin, as well as an author, orator, political theorist and philosopher, who after moving to London in 1750 served as a member of parliament (MP) between 1766 and 1794 in the House of Commons with the Whig Party.

Some viewers have argued that The Slave Ship actually represents Turner's reaction to the Industrial Revolution. The painting might be viewed as an allegory against the exploitation of slaves and other human labour in favour of machines and economic advancement, represented by the coming storm engulfing the cruel captain. However, the storm could also be viewed as a representation of nature's dominance over man and of the ultimate futility in trying to industrialise and advance society. [2] [4] [5]


Mark Twain said, in A Tramp Abroad , Volume 1, Chapter XXIV: [6]

The art critic John Ruskin, who was the first owner of The Slave Ship, wrote, "If I were reduced to rest Turner's immortality upon any single work, I should choose this." [4]

The painting was the subject of an extended poetic sequence or verse novel by David Dabydeen, Turner (1994; reissued 2002).

Related Research Articles

Impressionism 19th-century art movement

Impressionism is a 19th-century art movement characterized by relatively small, thin, yet visible brush strokes, open composition, emphasis on accurate depiction of light in its changing qualities, ordinary subject matter, inclusion of movement as a crucial element of human perception and experience, and unusual visual angles. Impressionism originated with a group of Paris-based artists whose independent exhibitions brought them to prominence during the 1870s and 1880s.

Wassily Kandinsky Russian painter

Wassily Wassilyevich Kandinsky was a Russian painter and art theorist.

Middle Passage

The Middle Passage was the stage of the triangular trade in which millions of Africans were forcibly transported to the New World as part of the Atlantic slave trade. Ships departed Europe for African markets with manufactured goods, which were traded for purchased or kidnapped Africans, who were transported across the Atlantic as slaves; the slaves were then sold or traded for raw materials, which would be transported back to Europe to complete the voyage. The First Passage was the transportation of captives (slaves) to the African ports, such as Elmina, where they would be loaded onto ships. The Final Passage was the journey from the port of disembarcation, such as Charleston, to the plantation or other destination where they would be put to work. The Middle Passage across the Atlantic joined these two. Voyages on the Middle Passage were large financial undertakings, generally organized by companies or groups of investors rather than individuals.

Sea mark maritime navigation aid

A sea mark, also seamark and navigation mark, is a form of aid to navigation and pilotage that identifies the approximate position of a maritime channel, hazard, or administrative area to allow boats, ships, and seaplanes to navigate safely.

Slave Trade Act 1807 UK parliament act of 1807

The Slave Trade Act 1807, officially An Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, was an Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom prohibiting the slave trade in the British Empire. Although it did not abolish the practice of slavery, it did encourage British action to press other nation states to abolish their own slave trades.

<i>The Raft of the Medusa</i> 1818–1819 painting by Théodore Géricault

The Raft of the Medusa is an oil painting of 1818–19 by the French Romantic painter and lithographer Théodore Géricault (1791–1824). Completed when the artist was 27, the work has become an icon of French Romanticism. At 491 cm × 716 cm, it is an over-life-size painting that depicts a moment from the aftermath of the wreck of the French naval frigate Méduse, which ran aground off the coast of today's Mauritania on 2 July 1816. On 5 July 1816, at least 147 people were set adrift on a hurriedly constructed raft; all but 15 died in the 13 days before their rescue, and those who survived endured starvation and dehydration and practised cannibalism. The event became an international scandal, in part because its cause was widely attributed to the incompetence of the French captain.

<i>Zong</i> massacre killing of approximately 142 enslaved Africans by the crew of the slave ship Zong

The Zong massacre was the mass killing of more than 130 African slaves by the crew of the British slave ship Zong on and in the days following 29 November 1781. The Gregson slave-trading syndicate, based in Liverpool, owned the ship and sailed her in the Atlantic slave trade. As was common business practice, they had taken out insurance on the lives of the slaves as cargo. When the ship ran low on drinking water following navigational mistakes, the crew threw slaves overboard into the sea to drown, in part to ensure the survival of the rest of the ship's passengers, and in part to cash in on the insurance on the slaves, thus not losing money on the slaves who would have died from the lack of water.

Blockade of Africa

The Blockade of Africa began in 1808 after the United Kingdom outlawed the Atlantic slave trade, making it illegal for British ships to transport slaves. The Royal Navy immediately established a presence off Africa to enforce the ban, called the West Africa Squadron. Although the ban initially applied only to British ships, the UK negotiated treaties with other countries to give the Royal Navy the right to intercept and search their ships for slaves. A notable exception was the United States, which refused such permission. The 1807 Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves technically abolished the intercontinental slave trade in the United States but the ban was not widely enforced and many of the slave ships which escaped the blockade were destined for the southern United States.

Aerial perspective effect the atmosphere has on the appearance of an object as it is viewed from a distance

Aerial perspective or atmospheric perspective refers to the effect the atmosphere has on the appearance of an object as it is viewed from a distance. As the distance between an object and a viewer increases, the contrast between the object and its background decreases, and the contrast of any markings or details within the object also decreases. The colours of the object also become less saturated and shift towards the background colour, which is usually blue, but under some conditions may be some other colour.

<i>Theory of Colours</i> book by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Theory of Colours is a book by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe about the poet's views on the nature of colours and how these are perceived by humans. It was published in German in 1810 and in English in 1840. The book contains detailed descriptions of phenomena such as coloured shadows, refraction, and chromatic aberration.

Typhoon Cobra Pacific typhoon in 1944

Typhoon Cobra, also known as the Typhoon of 1944 or Halsey's Typhoon, was the United States Navy designation for a powerful tropical cyclone that struck the United States Pacific Fleet in December 1944, during World War II.

<i>The Gulf Stream</i> (painting) painting by Winslow Homer

The Gulf Stream is an 1899 oil painting by Winslow Homer. It shows a man in a small dismasted rudderless fishing boat struggling against the waves of the sea, and was the artist's last statement on a theme that had interested him for more than a decade. Homer vacationed often in Florida, Cuba, and the Caribbean.

Marine art form of figurative art that portrays or draws its main inspiration from the sea

Marine art or maritime art is any form of figurative art that portrays or draws its main inspiration from the sea. Maritime painting is a genre that depicts ships and the sea—a genre particularly strong from the 17th to 19th centuries. In practice the term often covers art showing shipping on rivers and estuaries, beach scenes and all art showing boats, without any rigid distinction - for practical reasons subjects that can be drawn or painted from dry land in fact feature strongly in the genre. Strictly speaking "maritime art" should always include some element of human seafaring, whereas "marine art" would also include pure seascapes with no human element, though this distinction may not be observed in practice.

<i>The Monk by the Sea</i> painting by Caspar David Friedrich

The Monk by the Sea is an oil painting by the German Romantic artist Caspar David Friedrich. It was painted between 1808 and 1810 in Dresden and was first shown together with the painting The Abbey in the Oakwood in the Berlin Academy exhibition of 1810. On Friedrich's request The Monk by the Sea was hung above The Abbey in the Oakwood. After the exhibition both pictures were bought by king Frederick Wilhelm III for his collection. Today the paintings hang side by side in the Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin.

<i>Light and Colour (Goethes Theory) – The Morning after the Deluge – Moses Writing the Book of Genesis</i> painting by William Turner

Light and Colour – The Morning after the Deluge – Moses Writing the Book of Genesis is an oil painting by the English painter Joseph Mallord William Turner (c.1775–1851), first exhibited in 1843.

African Slave Trade Patrol

African Slave Trade Patrol was part of the suppression of the Atlantic slave trade between 1819 and the beginning of the American Civil War in 1861. Due to the abolitionist movement in the United States, a squadron of U.S. Navy warships were assigned to catch slave traders in and around Africa. The operations were largely ineffective as after 42 years only about 100 suspected slave ships were captured.

<i>Sunrise with Sea Monsters</i> painting by J. M. W. Turner

Sunrise with Sea Monsters is an unfinished oil painting by English artist J. M. W. Turner.

<i>Snow Storm: Steam-Boat off a Harbours Mouth</i> painting by J. M. W. Turner

Snow Storm, or Snow Storm: Steam-Boat off a Harbour's Mouth, is a painting by English artist Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851) from 1842.


  1. Turner's title, with period spelling of typhoon.
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Kleiner, Fred S. Gardner's Art Through the Ages A Global History, Volume II. Belmont: Wadsworth, 2008, p. 795.
  3. "Early warning signs of an approaching tropical cyclone".
  4. 1 2 "Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On)". 25 March 2017.
  5. George P. Landow, J.M.W. Turner, The Slave Ship