About Turner's Slave Ship

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My first impression of the artwork is that it depicts a stormy sea with raging waves that seem to destroy everything in its path. My initial reaction to the image is that it depicts the challenges that the slave traders faced while traveling by sea to the slave market. The ship is overloaded, making the voyage in the choppy sea challenging. The slaves are being thrown into the water by the captain, probably in an effort to lighten the load on the ship and reach the slave market.The painting features the ship, the sea waves, and the sunset, a scene that is very beautiful and emotional to look at. The sky is filled with different colors and the ocean forces carrying the boat over the waves make it appear unstable. The slaves are thrown overboard and are falling prey to the hungry seas sharks.

The thing that captures my interest in the painting is the use of color in depicting nature and emotions. For instance, the use of orange color around the sun and blue and white for water reveals the power that nature has over humankind. Other colors include maroon, yellow, and red with the main focus being the maroon spots seen in the water, which represents bodies belonging to slaves thrown into the sea. The ship does not receive great attention since the most conspicuous features in the painting are the sun and the sea, which depict nature. The painting is the most admiral feature ever painted showing the slave ship and the powerful storm as the sun sets in the horizon.

Analysis of the Painting

The painting was made during the time, when most of the slave markets were being closed. Britain had abolished the slave trade in 1833, while France followed suit 15 years later. America was the only country that was left practicing slave trade and slavery. It was not until after the Civil War that slavery and slave trade were abolished in America. Turner made the painting to depict the actions that the slave traders took during the time. They went through a lot of trouble to deliver the slaves to the market (Stokes, 2013). The captain would throw the slaves into the waters, since there were insurances for such slaves, unlike those, who died due to diseases. The captain was interested in earning more money through compensation of the slaves that were lost in the sea. He would order any sick and dying slaves to jump into the water and Turner was angered by cruelty towards the slaves during transit. He expressed his displeasure by emotionally displaying the acts through painting. He was advocating for the abolition of the trade, as it led to inhuman activities.

The painter, William Turner was a landscape painter during the Romantic era known for love of watercolor in painting nature (May, 2014). From his biography, it is also clear that he had affection for humanity and nature since most of his paintings have people working on the foreground. Turner uses watercolors to give various messages such as power of nature and its beauty in this painting. Therefore, the storm in the painting portrays the powers of nature as depicted by the strong and fierce storm that seems to overpower the ship and the captain. The ship seems to sail in the open waters experiencing rough winds denoting the difficulties sailors experience during voyages. The right colors reveal emotions in the viewers due to the cruelty directed to slaves on voyage.

The work by Turner reflects the theme of struggle for human rights in the society.

Different people use various methods to depict their disgust and disapproval of the particular inhuman activities as Smith (2012) argues. Turner used the painting, while others used other platforms like poems and songs to call for better treatment of other human beings. People, needed to come forward, advocate, and fight for the rights of other human beings. The work depicts struggle to liberate human beings from different kinds of slavery by advocating for human rights in the society. No one should be exposed to violence, inhuman treatment, poverty, or other problems due to tribe, citizenship, or color.

The painting is relevant today as a symbol of social injustices that exist in the modern societies. The interpretation of the painting shows the extent, to which people can go to disregard the rights of others. For instance, some employers are discriminative and pay very little to their employees despite the latter working hard to ensure high profits. Politicians and other powerful individuals grab public property for investments leaving citizens struggling in poverty. The social injustices such as child labor and human trafficking are human activities that plague many societies (Smith, 2012). Turner represents humanitarians, who fight day and night to bring human injustices to the light and openly oppose them. Such individuals use different methods, be it the media or non-governmental organizations, to publicize them and help those affected by these social evils.

Thoughts and Feelings about the Work

The painting has influenced my thoughts and feelings about its meaning especially in the modern society. From the visible features, the painting portrays more than just the forces of nature, the sun, the storm, and the slave issue. When the author emphasizes nature instead of the figures seen, he incites the concept of sublimity. The concept focuses on showing the powerlessness and fear emanating from humanity in the face of nature (May, 2014). The painting can also be argued to show the reaction of Turner towards industrial revolution. The argument can be interpreted as an allegory against people taking advantage of others such as the slaves and promoting economic advancement that is represented by the strong wave that subdues the cruel captain.


May, S. J. (2014). Voyage of the Slave Ship: JMW Turner's Masterpiece in Historical Context. McFarland.

Smith, R. (2012). Learning from the abolitionists, the first social movement. BMJ, 345, e8301.

Stokes, A. (Ed.). (2013). Painting and the inner world (Vol. 3). Routledge.

May 24, 2023

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