Images of Slavery as Visual Evidence 2

For the most part, anti-slavery advocates defined the visual image of slavery before its abolition. Confident of the persuasive power of imagery, they created some of the most widely circulated images in the North Atlantic world before the invention of photography and other media we now associate with mass culture. Once again, it is misguided to think of these images as somehow reflecting or illustrating an already existing reality. The images were a key element of an innovative public opinion campaign that helped to create a transnational anti-slavery movement. Some interesting questions for students to think about are: How did the images circulate in the pre-electronic era? What effect did they have? How did they set the terms of the debate?

Josiah Wedgwood, "Am I Not a Man and a Brother?" 1787 medallion copied from the seal of the Anti-Slavery Society.

Josiah Wedgwood, “Am I Not a Man and a Brother?” 1787 medallion copied from the seal of the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade.

One of the most ubiquitous images was the emblem of the kneeling slave in chains, surrounded by the provocative words, Am I Not a Man and a Brother? The image appeared initially in prints and ceramic medallions, then spread to an amazing variety of media and household objects.

It’s deceptively simple, and worth asking students to look at carefully. How does the image function as a call to action? Why is the figure of the slave in profile? Who is he addressing? Why is he on the ground, alone and seemingly helpless? What position does that put the viewer in? Does the image reinforce stereotypical notions of slave inferiority or contest them?

The slave ship Brooks of Liverpool, 1791.

The slave ship Brooks of Liverpool, 1791.

There are many images of cruelty and violence, which are often used in textbooks or courses to try to illustrate the horrors of slavery. Probably the most effective example, and the most self-consciously “documentary,” was the famous image of the slave ship shown in plan, with its hundreds of black bodies packed into the ship’s hold.

Marcus Rediker’s recent book The Slave Ship: A Human History (New York: Penguin, 2007) gives a wonderfully detailed account of how this image came into existence in its various forms. One appalling fact we learn is that the ship, the Brooks, actually carried even more slaves than the image showed! Beyond the facts, though, his analysis raises interesting questions about the technical format and language of the image and how it differed from the more emotional (sometimes “sentimental”) images of the anti-slavery movement such as the kneeling slave. A large part of the power of this image is that it represents slavery as a system, a modern capitalist system. It’s a great opportunity to prompt students to think about the complex web of economic relations that made the slave ship and its image possible. How did the various images of the Brooks educate their own viewers about slavery? While the image at one level is about the plight of the human cargo, how can we get our students to see it as a window into what Rediker calls the “cold, rational mentality of the merchant’s business”? Instead of seeing this simply as an image of suffering on the “Middle Passage,” how can we turn the image around and make it speak to us about the white world that organized itself around such horrors?


  1. Donna T Ray
    Posted April 15, 2009 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

    I know that many teachers use the first-person narratives of former slaves as one way to discuss the white world that organized the economics of slavery. The former slaves speak of themselves as “property” and discuss slave auctions and the constant fear of being sold.

    There are several examples of slave auction imagery that require contextualization to extract meaning from, such as Eyre Crowe’s, “The Slave Auction” (1862) found on the Picturing U.S. History site: (see Figure 9) I realize the image was produced in a later time period but its an example of the imagery that speaks to the economic network that defined the experience of slavery.

  2. Josh Brown
    Posted April 16, 2009 at 11:01 am | Permalink

    Following up on Donna’s comment, Eyre Crowe’s “Slave Auction” was one of a series of paintings he produced in the 1860s based on his visit to a Richmond, Virginia, slave market in 1853. The British artist served as the secretary to the celebrated novelist William Makepeace Thackeray and accompanied the latter on his tour to the U.S. during 1852-53. Crowe later described his experience in his memoir, “With Thackeray in America” (1893), and his description of the auction (and his expulsion from the site) can be found at

  3. Donna T Ray
    Posted April 22, 2009 at 9:53 am | Permalink

    Josh, Thanks for the reference to Crowe’s description of a Richmond, Virginia slave auction. The response from the auctioneer and attendees demonstrates the transformative power contained in visual evidence.

    When reflecting on Kirk’s post about the visual evidence circulated by abolitionists and how it helped set the terms of the debate, I think about the collection of photographs depicting Frederick Douglass as a self-realized man. I think it would be interesting to work with students on how the Douglass images add to or challenge the visual conventions deployed by abolitionists to demonstrate the horrors of slavery. There are some helpful reflective questions and a quote from Douglass about the use of portraits at the Picturing U.S. History site’s “White into Black: Seeing Race, Slavery, and Anti-Slavery in Antebellum America”:

  4. Kirk Savage
    Posted April 22, 2009 at 9:12 pm | Permalink

    Donna, I think that’s a good idea. Douglass thought a lot about visual culture and its impact in everyday lives.

    One of the problems with abolitionist imagery is that, by virtue of its ubiquity, it defined slaves as helpless, passive beings, waiting for white liberators. Historians over the past couple of decades have painted a very different image: slaves frequently resisted, fled, conspired, rebelled. Almost always, they were several steps ahead of the white emancipators like Lincoln who decreed their liberation. But the abolitionist images of chained, prostrate slaves deprive them of any agency and give no indication that they were involved in their own liberation. It’s important to talk with students about why there is so little visual evidence of slave resistance, and how these images of passive slaves perpetuated racial stereotypes long after slavery was officially abolished. That will also be the subject of a future post.