Tag Archives: 19th century art

Overboard, less than ekphrastic, it was for the insurance

J.M.W. Turner’s “Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead & Dying – Typhon Coming on” (aka, “The Slave Ship”) [Museum of Fine Arts, Boston] was first exhibited at the Royal Academy in London in 1840 with lines from a poem that Turner had written in 1812:

“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?”

In spite of John Ruskin’s ekphrastic description in Modern Painters (1843), which culminated in an allusion to the stain of Duncan’s blood in Macbeth (II,2):

It is a sunset on the Atlantic after prolonged storm; but the storm is partially lulled, & the torn & streaming rain clouds are moving in scarlet lines to lose themselves in the hollow of the night.  The whole surface of the sea included in the picture is divided into two ridges of enormous swell, not high, nor local, but a low, broad heaving of the whole ocean, like the lifting of its bosom by deep-drawn breath after the torture of the storm….
Purple and blue, the lurid shadows of the hollow breakers are cast upon the mist of the night, which gathers cold and low, advancing like the shadow of death upon the guilty [Ruskin’s note: She is a slaver, throwing her slaves overboard.]  The near sea is encoumbered with corpses. ship as it labors amidst the lightning of the sea, its thin masts written upon the sky in lines of blood, girded with condemnation in that fearful hue which signs the sky with horror, and mixes its flaming flood with the sunlight, – and cast far along the desolate heave of the sepulchral waves, incarnadines the multitudinous sea.

insurance on slave-cargoes covered only those drowned at sea & not slaves who perished from brutality, disease, or conditions on board, thus profit-minded captains cast the dead & dying into the ocean.

John Ruskin, Modern Painters in The Complete Works of John Ruskin, eds. E.T. Cook & Alexander Wedderburn  (London: George Allen, 1903-1912), 3:571-2.