On the run-down walls of a small cell in what used to be the Annaberg plantation in Saint John, a sailboat and a building are engraved by hand. The pair of drawings was probably made by an enslaved Afro-descendant woman such as the one known by the name of Venus, condemned to confinement there when accused of rebellious and criminal behavior in the Danish colony of the Caribbean island of Saint John. In a census conducted on the plantation in 1835, it is documented that Venus was sentenced to one hundred lashes with a tamarind stick and that she was to be chained and locked away for two months. Since the plantation in the Virgin Islands was later turned into an archaeological park, we can get an idea of the space in which the events occurred. And perhaps, thanks to the drawings in the dungeon we understand what this woman, and with her innumerable enslaved others, experienced during that nightmarish time. The image bears testimony to the unspeakable.
Reflecting today on the historical images of slavery is an urgent and indespensible necessity in order to combat the incessant and wave of racist representations that seems to thrive in these both reactionary and hypervisual times. Hence, the importance of the Slavery Images website (slaveryimages.org), an archive of visual sources on the slave trade and the lives of African people and their descendants on the American continent.
The project began in the late 1980s at the University of Southern Illinois (USA), where anthropology professor Jerome Handler put together a series of images to accompany a course on the daily lives of slaves in the African Diaspora. That first collection of slides laid the groundwork for the archive. In 1997, at the Humanities Foundation in Virginia, Professor Handler met Michael Tuite, who as head of the digital media lab was responsible for the technical aspects of the project, which by the year 2000 already had its own web page. Slavery Images migrated to the domains of the University of Colorado in Boulder, and today, with multiple alliances and contributors, it includes 1280 images classified in 18 categories that privilege the illustrations produced by contemporary eyewitnesses (mostly Europeans). Today, the archive is headed by Henry Lovejoy, a specialist in digital humanities and creator of the Liberated Africans archive. Slaveray Images provides clear bibliographical references and brief descriptions; metadata that allow us to trace the sources and delve a little deeper into the significance of the images.
I wish to briefly explore the versatility of Slavery Images through a diverse selection of rather unique images: a neoclassical portrait of a revolutionary of African descent; an inhuman model of transportation by the so-called Middle Passage (the transport of African slaves to “The New World”); a bucolic watercolor in Jamaica; and a portrait of two street vendors in Brazil.