Through a comprehensive selection and growing from historical and artistic images, the archives of slaveryimages.org allow us a look into the daily life and cruel reality of African slaves in the Americas.
Annaberg Plantation, St. John, en: Slavery Images: A Visual Record of the African Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Early African Diaspora, 3D model (point cloud) data collected/compiled byTrimble Inc., 2019.
Anne-Louis Girodet, Jean-Baptiste Belley, Saint Domingue (Haiti), 1797 or 1798, in: Slavery Images: A Visual Record of the African Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Early African Diaspora, NW0225, metadata by Jerome Handler and Michael Tuite, 2019.
Jean Boudriot, Sleeping Positions of Captive Africans on the French Slave Ship Aurore, 1784, in: Slavery Images: A Visual Record of the African Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Early African Diaspora, Image E010, metadata by Jerome Handler and Michael Tuite, 2019.
William Berryman, Pounding Cassava, Jamaica, 1808-1815, in: Slavery Images: A Visual Record of the African Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Early African Diaspora, Berryman128, metadata by Jerome Handler and Michael Tuite, 2019.
Carlos Juliao, Market Woman or Hawkers, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, ca. 1770, in: Slavery Images: A Visual Record of the African Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Early African Diaspora, juliao09, metadata by Jerome Handler and Michael Tuite, 2019.
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.
The first deputy of African origin in France was Jean-Baptiste Belley, born in Senegal and enslaved in Gorée at the age of two. In this painting he appears casual, dressed as a member of the National Convention after the triumph of the French Revolution. The bust on which he rests his elbow is of the philosopher Guillaume Thomas Raynal, an abolitionist like other leading figures from the French school of enlightenment. However, contemporary French-Catalan philosopher Louis Sala-Molins (in his book Dark Side of the Light: Slavery and the French Enlightenment, 2006) rightly accuses them of being accomplices of the transatlantic trade in the French overseas colonies.
In 1984, architect Jean Boudriot made this drawing of the positions in which African slaves likely traveled aboard the French ship Aurora. The drawing is a visual interpretation based on calculations of the loading declarations for the ship from Nantes, which in 1784, transported approximately 600 men, women and children from the Kingdom of Loango (now Angola) to Santo Domingo. Boudriot’s drawing is not simply a plastic abstraction; the demographics of slave trade in America has been calculated based on measurements of this kind.
Mortars to macerate produce such as cassava, sorghum, millet, and, mainly, rice, are part of the Afro-American material culture. Together with the baskets and hampers made of plant fibre, these pieces of wood appear in rural clothing style in both continental America and the Caribbean as well as on African west coast.
In this watercolor by the British artist William Berryman we can observe a type of mortar and basket from Jamaica, comparable to those illustrated in 19th century Sierra Leone, Nigeria or Senegal. Unlike other scenes depicting domestic slave work, this one captures an uncommon moment of loneliness.
Apart from the colorful clothes in which these women are dressed, the dog lurking between them, the two children on their backs, as well as the merchandise that they carry on their heads, the woman on the right draws the attention of the spectator: her pipe, the tattoo on the back of her hand, the bags fastened at the waist; especially the mandinga bag hanging from her chest. These amulets usually contain powerful substances from the natural world: leaves, hair, teeth, powders, etc. and each bag contains its own power. During the seventeenth century, the Catholic court of the Inquisition persecuted and condemned those who manufactured the mandiga bags. Mostly, they were women of African descent initiated in the arts of good will syndicated as sorceresses.
Nicolás Vizcaíno Sánchez, artist, writer, curator, political scientist and / or historian in training. Nicolás lives in Colombia.
Translation from Spanish by Zarifa Mohamad Petersen.