Wednesday, April 29, 2009

A Most Amazing Group of Drawings

(Above) The slave named Pona.

(Above) The slave girl named Marqu.

(Above) The slave named Little Kale.

(Above) The slave named Kimbo.

(Above) The slave named Kezzuza.

(Above) The slave named Grabo.

(Above) The slave named Saby.

(Above) The slave named Bar.

(Above) The slave named Bana.

(Above) The slave named Suma.

IN 1839, THE SPANISH SLAVE SHIP AMISTAD SET SAIL FROM HAVANA to Puerto Principe, Cuba. The ship was carrying 53 Africans who, a few months earlier, had been abducted from their homeland to be sold as slaves. The captives revolted against the ships crew, killing the captain and others, but sparing the life of the ships navigator so that he could set them on a course back to Africa. Instead, the navigator surreptitiously directed the ship north and west. After several weeks, the Amistad was seized by the U.S. Navy off the coast of Long Island and the Africans were transported to New Haven to await trial for mutiny, murder, and piracy.

Slavery advocates held that the Amistad prisoners were slaves and thus they should be punished for their uprising and immediately returned to Cuba. Abolitionists, on the other hand, argued that though slavery was legal in Cuba, the importation of slaves from Africa had been outlawed; thus, they claimed, the prisoners were not slaves, but freemen who had been kidnapped and thus had every right to escape their captors and even to use violence to do so. The case was important to the proslavery-abolitionist debates that were raging in the U.S., and to the international debates about treaty obligations with regard to slavery and the legality of the international slave trade.

After two years of legal battles, their case was successfully argued before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1841 by former President John Quincy Adams and the Amistad captives were freed. They returned to Sierra Leone in 1842.

History of the Collection

New Haven resident William H. Townsend made pen-and-ink sketches of the Amistad captives while they were awaiting trial. Twenty-two of these drawings were given to Yale in 1934 by Asa G. Dickerman, whose grandmother was the artists cousin. Townsend, who was about 18 years old when he made the drawings, is buried in the Grove Street Cemetery.

The Collection includes 22 pencil drawings by William H. Townsend (1822-1851), varying in size, 18.3 x 14 cm. and smaller

© All images copyright Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

4 comments:

Maureen said...

What is remarkable is how African they look, a lot of the artwork by Caucasians of the Negro features got whitened up until very recently. And they're beautiful drawings as well.

John Foster said...

You are so right Maureen.I love the insight these drawings give us... these were human beings, kidnapped, and sold. These drawings show their humanity. How "civilized" people could participate in this is beyond imagination.

Styln said...

It is fact that during and after the US slave trade, Africans and Negros (yes there is a difference) were usually depicted as grotesque caricatures in White art, entertainment, advertising, literature, childrens cartoons and product design.

It is only a twisted perception that all Africans and African Americans have extreemly large liver lips, big bulging eyes, unkempt hair and vastly wide bulbous noses. The attached terms coon, uncle, mammy, zip coon, darky and pickaninny conjour the negative, outrageous and degrading images of white hatred toward Africans and African American slave ancestors.

It is erroneous to say "Negro features got whitened up until very recently", study the history of slavery and racisim in the US and you'll come to understand how the image of the African was shaped and molded in the hands of the White race.

By the way, my slave ancestors escaped slavery in the fall of 1836 (a family of 15 from 2 differnt plantations in Kentucky). They escaped to Canada over a six day period and went on to live in Buffalo New York, Kent County and Buxton Ontario and Detroit Michigan as fugitive slaves for 30 years as abolitionists, church pastors, school founders, and entrepreneurs (barbers, income property owners, physicians, poets, inventors, bank owners and more).

The fact of the matter is that Black is beautiful, intelligent and worthy no matter how degrading and distorted the historical images of African Slaves and American Negros are.

Ignorance won't erase the hate. There is nothing accidental or mysterious about it.

Venetian Red said...

Beautiful drawings that I think portray these slaves with some small measure of dignity. How different the artist's intention was from JT Zealy's now well-known photographs of naked and half-naked slaves in support of Louis Agassiz's theory that the races stemmed from different ancestors. (A theory thankfully proved very wrong by Darwin.)

Differentiating the tribal "us" from the "them" in terms of language is the first step toward debasing and oppressing a people. Regrettably, racial stereotyping isn't solely the province of Caucausian Americans. The words "barbarian" and "barbaric" originated from the Latin root word, barbarus, which means "foreigner," which itself derives from the Latin word "barba" or beard. Gauls (and other non-Romans) were often bearded, thus the distinction. BTW, not even we left-handers were exempt from ridicule in Roman times—the word for left in Latin is "sinister."

Liz Hager
Venetian Red

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