Turner’s Slavers, Race, and the Ridiculous Human Fragment

J. M. W. Turner’s Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying (“The Slave Ship”) has been thoroughly analyzed as a Romantic and sublime meditation on the evils of the slave trade, which was still ongoing when the picture was exhibited at London’s Royal Academy in 1840. This essay goes beyond the question of slavery to take up the inter-related issue of race, situating the slavers’ depictions of the fragmented bodies of black slaves within a larger network of representations of the “negro” that were produced over the previous sixty years. This network includes an emergent anthropological discourse on human variety and a visual form that rose to commercial prominence at the same time—the art of caricature. Some contemporary reviewers responded to Slavers as though it were ridiculous or funny, and it is argued here that we have much to learn about Turner’s picture and about the construction of racial difference by taking seriously the comic as a register that naturalizes racial hierarchies.