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Ploughing the sea: Latin America observed

Surinam slave revolt

Engraving depicting a slave hung by the ribs to a gallows. With a skull and bones in the foreground and a small ship visible on the horizon in the background.'A negro hung alive by the ribs to the gallows.'African slave communities in the Americas lived in a complex relationship with other Africans who lived in freedom, sometimes in close proximity. For most of the 17th century the kingdom of Palmares in Brazil, which was founded by runaway slaves (known as ‘maroons’), functioned as a state within a state. Brazil also had a higher rate of manumission than most other slave societies.

Surinam’s slaves did not enjoy such hopes and the high rate of absentee ownership among the planters may not have helped matters. As an episode in Voltaire’s Candide (1759) indicates, Surinam had become notorious for its extreme ill treatment of slaves, though other parts of the Americas were not much better.

In 1773 the half-Scottish and half-Dutch John Gabriel Stedman (1744-97) first set foot in Surinam as part of a corps of 800 volunteers sent by the Dutch States-General to reinforce local soldiers fighting marauding groups of escaped slaves. Although in the early 1760s the two largest groups of maroons had concluded treaties with the Dutch which ratified their independence, newer groups of maroons began to desert their owners in great numbers and to wage guerrilla war on their plantations.

Engraving depicting three female figures with their arms wrapped around one another and holding a garland.'Europe supported by Africa & America'After a prolonged counterinsurgency the maroons were eventually defeated. Stedman’s graphic descriptions of the gratuitous brutality meted out by the planters to their slaves demonstrate very clearly why so many slaves deserted and why this work on its first publication in 1796 became so popular among antislavery advocates (although Stedman was not an abolitionist himself).

The poet and artist William Blake, with whose political and social attitudes and unconventional behaviour Stedman had much in common, was responsible for sixteen of the engravings in this book, which were based on Stedman’s original drawings. Stedman’s work appears to have influenced several of Blake’s poems, including Visions of the daughters of Albion.

According to Geoffrey Keynes, Blake’s plates for this book ‘have long been recognised as among the best executed and most generally interesting of all his journeyman work.’  

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