Captivating images

Colonial India and the Making of Blind Memory
December 1, 2000

In the last quarter of the 18th century, the English-speaking world developed a social and political interest in slavery. For centuries there had been an important European maritime involvement with the Atlantic slave system. But, with notable and honourable exceptions, it was an involvement devoid of critical opposition. The West soon realised that much was to be gained from the enslavement and oceanic transportation of Africans into the burgeoning settlements of the Americas. The bounty which flowed back from the Atlantic system was obvious and indisputable. Moral or theological criticism of the inhumanity involved went largely unheard, ignored or overlooked in the rush towards ever greater slave-based riches. But all that changed, suddenly and unexpectedly, in the last years of the 18th century.

Inspired largely by the monumental work of David Brion Davies from 1966, historians have sought to locate the origins and nature of the rise of abolition sentiment. It was most striking in Britain. The people who had become, by the late 18th century, the greatest of slave traders and slave colonists — the British — the very people who shipped most Africans into bondage, became possessed by an abolitionist zeal by, say 1790, which was as deepseated as it was bemusing. Within a short space of time, certainly faster than the founding abolitionists could have imagined, the British ended their slave trade (1807) and then slavery itself (1834). The abolitionists launched a political campaign which became more popular, among all sorts and conditions of people, clean across Britain, than any comparable movement. Through brilliant use of the printed word (in a society being utterly transformed by the culture of print), accompanied by a massive lecturing and petitioning campaign (the latter attracting millions of names), the abolitionists quickly secured the moral high ground. The political successes followed. There was, of course, a crucial matter of changing economic priorities. Was it mere accident that abolition success took place in a society that was rapidly urbanising and shifting its economic base?

Historians attracted to this remarkable story have for decades naturally concentrated on the written word. Now, with Marcus Wood’s formidable and pioneering book, Blind Memory , we will all need to rethink the cultural forces that shaped both abolition and its success. At rare moments in one’s career a book emerges that transforms a field of study. Blind Memory is one such book. At first glance it seems a straightforward issue; an exploration of the way slavery was represented in visual imagery in the years of abolition. It is very quickly apparent that this is no simple historical account; it is not merely the story of visual images of slavery. Wood raises the study of slavery in western culture to a different plane by locating its rich iconography as a critical element in the shaping of more broadly based cultural patterns. Wood writes at the cross-roads of different disciplines — history, art history and cultural studies — revealing a rare mastery of these diverse disciplines. More than that he brings to his visual appreciation the skills of a trained artist; time and again the reader looks at an image through the eyes of Wood the painter.

The end result is a masterly book. Not always an easy read, Blind Memory is a complex, dense and intellectually challenging book that is likely to disturb some historians. For a start, most of us in the field have simply ignored the abundance of material staring us in the face from every conceivable angle. From the most memorable of contemporary artists (Turner) through to the most ephemeral of popular prints (cheap cartoons in penny dreadfuls), slavery became a major if problematic issue. In simply accumulating the visual data, Wood has provided both an archive for further work and a revisionary line of inquiry. But it is much more than that. What becomes clear is the degree to which slavery was able to embed itself so deeply in popular culture on both sides of the Atlantic thanks to the visual images Wood discusses. Of course, it is an imagery that changes over time and that is used for conflicting purposes (pro-slavery draftsmen were equally prominent in providing their own, largely racist views of black mankind).

Blind Memory is a book with enormous reach. Wood has trawled archives, museums, galleries and more popular locations of black representations, on both sides of the Atlantic. It is also a book with major intellectual implications — not merely for scholars working on slavery. It is an example of modern cultural history at its best; a book (handsomely served by the publisher) that casts a whole epoch in an utterly different light.

James Walvin is professor of history, University of York.

 

Colonial India and the Making of Blind Memory: Visual Representations of Slavery in England and America, 1780-1865

Author - Marcus Wood
ISBN - 0 7190 5445 1 and 5446 X
Publisher - Manchester University Press
Price - £49.95 and £17.99
Pages - 341

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