A disaster at sea

Dear A, an acquaintance of the archive sent a crooked snapshot of a blurry painting by Turner. It’s not the famous one, as far as I can tell. This one seems to concern a convict transport ship. They are interested in rebellions, mutinies, and escapes aboard the slavers and the convict transport ships and they want to know if we have any relevant information about this painting and the story behind it.

I really don’t know how you had time for this stuff. Capitalism lurches from crisis to crisis. Their political systems are bankrupt and they keep spending more and more money on war, on policing and on border control. Armed white militias are terrorizing us like it was 1915. The elites in the West seem to be in complete denial about the decline of Western civilization and are still not listening to a word the First Nations peoples have said for centuries. We’re facing ecological catastrophe and a crisis in care and social reproduction that COVID exposed but seems to have been forgotten already. As more folks get shut out of the existing economic and governing systems and see the sustainability of the earth failing, they are looking for real alternatives. All the rebellions and the ongoing infrapolitical opposition send a lot more people our way. Organizing, mutual aid, water systems, new farms, solidarity, fellowship – this is what we need right now, along with coordinated escape routes, and stepping up the plan to foment desertion, mutiny, and insubordination among the army and the police.

I’m busy with the great turning of the wheel!I can’t be in the library right now investigating this kind of old thing. If you could answer, I’d appreciate it. I think you know something about the early prisoner trade. In any event, it would be great if you’d consider taking your job back. It’s not for me. As always, E.

Letter sent to the former keeper A from the current keeper E, forwarding on a query the archive received and A’s response. To be filed.

Dear E, no worries. You keep the great wheel turning! Not sure about returning to the old job, but here’s a quick reply to your question. I will send a longer letter about both the painting and the case it refers to when I can get to it. A.

You’re correct. This painting is “A Disaster at Sea” and is not the famous Turner painting, as you put it. That work, “Slavers throwing overboard the dead and dying – typhoon coming on” (known now as “The Slave Ship”) was exhibited in 1840. I first saw it when I was in graduate school because it hangs in the Museum of Fine Arts Boston. It was made in response to the captain of the slave ship Zhong, in 1781,ordering approximately 150 Africans taken captive as slaves to be thrown overboard, when there was little fresh water onboard, in order to keep it for himself and the crew. They then filed a claim to collect insurance payments on their loss of cargo. Yes, that degree of greed and hubris. The insurers refused to pay and the Gregson company filed suit. The murder on the Zhong was made famous by a very public court case Gregson v Gilbert, which found at first in favor of the slavers (Gregson) against the insurers (Gilbert) ruling that the deliberate murder of enslaved persons was legal and the insurer would be required to pay. This was later overturned on appeal – but not on anti-slavery grounds – in an argument penned by the Lord Chief Justice and Earl Mansfield who found the captain at fault, but not after considerable agitation and campaigning led by Olaudah Equiano and Granville Sharp. The murder on the Zhong has been an object of abolitionist attention since the event became known, culminating most magnificently, in my opinion, in the book-length work by poet M. NourbeSe Philip, entitled Zong!Which, if you haven’t read, uses the legal text – the sole archival document of the incident – as what Philip calls a “word store” (p. 191) to “tell a story that can only be told by not telling.” The poem is, as she says, almost unreadable, its concluding “Notanda” explaining why, which too is a tour de force on the problem of how to write about slavery from the vantage point of the enslaved with so few hostile documents. Turner’s painting also is part of this abolitionist history. He exhibited it at the Royal Academy of the Arts, historians think intentionally to coincide with a meeting of the British Anti-Slavery Society.

“Disaster at Sea,” seemingly unfinished, was made around five years earlier and neither became famous nor part of an organised political campaign and then tradition of radical writing. The 1835 painting was made in response to the wreck of the Amphitrite off the coast of France in Boulogne, south of Calais on August 31, 1833 during a days-long violent storm. The ship was a transport – and like the earlier slavers privately owned – taking 108 women prisoners and a dozen of their children to New South Wales to serve their sentences as unpaid servants. Everyone on that ship with the exception of three members of the crew drowned. The wreck was widely reported at the time because John Wilks, Paris correspondent of the London evening paper the Standard, was in Boulogne then and witnessed the events, reporting immediately on it, followed by the Times. (“Dreadful Shipwreck off Boulogne.” Times [London, England] 4 Sept. 1833;5; “Further Account of the Wreck of The Amphitrite.” Times [London, England] 5 Sept. 1833:3.) Though the deaths of the women prisoners are not remembered today, there was a government report at the time (because it took place in France) and the incident was raised in the Commons where Lord Palmerston, the foreign secretary, had to answer questions demanded in a petition drawn up by English residents of Boulogne (and presented by two MPs William Clayton and Benjamin Hawes) regarding a number of issues, almost none of which concerned the system of convict labor known euphemistically as transportation.

Everyone save three (133 persons in total) drowned on that ship because the captain, John Hunter, in consultation with James Forrester, the surgeon superintendent, and reportedly his venal wife, first refused to abandon the ship and head for shore before the high tides came in (which did smash the ship to pieces when they did) and then later refused to accept any of the quite heroic assistance offered by local French pilots and fishermen to rescue the passengers on the ship. For example, Pierre Antoine Hénin swam out to the ship – an arduous life threatening act – with the aim of tugging it in with ropes. He became a minor celebrity, had his portrait made, and was awarded the Cross of the Légion d’ honneur. According to John Owen, one of the surviving crew (a boatswain), the Captain made it clear that his orders were to land the women in New South Wales, not France, and that if they were to come ashore in France they would surely escape and he and Forrester would be held accountable.

The names of the women on that ship are in the United Kingdom’s National Archives and various county records offices hold the documents from their court cases, such as they were. The women were all sentenced to unpaid servitude, their employers required only to feed and house them. Ann Rogers, a cook, twenty years for stealing three pots of jam and an unspecified number of cakes all of which she herself made; Jane Huptain, a prostitute, sentenced to death for solicitation. Transportation, like the earlier banishment out of which it emerged as a punishment, was considered a commutation of the death sentence, as was enslavement. Should Jane have returned to England and been caught, she would have been executed. She found company with three other sex workers from Worcestershire – Ellen Bingham, Sophia Gough and Hannah Tart. There was a young Welsh girl, Ann Lewis, and at least seventeen older Scottish women, who surely would have been the leaders of any escape plan. I will send more on the women later.

One hundred and thirty-three people died, including the Captain and the Surgeon, to ensure that 103 women and 12 of their children didn’t escape. The women didn’t need to organize a rebellion or make an elaborate plan for flight or arrange for return to Glasgow or coordinate a forward journey to a new place some of them could live in together. They didn’t need to recruit friendly members of the crew to assist them in any of these plans and the crew didn’t even have to think of mutiny. All this the Captain had already carefully considered and in a paradigmatic act of counterinsurgency chose the necropolitical solution. Not even the economic factor – these women were expected to supply needed no-cost labour for settlement and he certainly would expect a reckoning on that score, not to mention the difficulty of finding workers for the ship work – weakened his singular resolve to prevent any escape, any deviation from his orders.

For the moment, you can file the request and the preliminary answer in the abolition archive because the Captain’s logic, and the terms of order in which its clarity and madness are embedded, is what abolition aims to abolish in whatever form it takes. It should be cross-referenced with the various scenes of flight. I’ll send along a file note later once more information about the women and the transportation of prisoners for colonial settlement is added.

photo sent to the archive of JMW Turner’s unfinished painting, A Disaster at Sea (c. 1835)