Introduction | Somerset Case | The Zong Case  | Abolishing the Slave Trade | Ending Slavery | "Time of the Ancient Mariner | Blake's Plates for Stedman | "To Toussaint L'Ouverture"

Blake's Plates for Stedman

Europe Supported by Africa and AmericaWilliam Blake's "Europe Supported by Africa and America," which appeared in Stedman's Narrative of a Five Year's Expedition against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam. Of particular note is the centrality of the vine linking the three together, which doubles as both a natural image and a chain linking the peripheral figures in bondage to the central European figure.
In 1791, Captain John Gabriel Stedman asked the Romantic poet William Blake to complete a number of engravings to accompany his narrative (Narrative of a Five Year's Expedition against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam). Blake consented, and designed a number of engravings which, while serving as illustrations of Stedman's descriptions, often subverted the message Stedman was trying to impart by bringing up questions about the humanity and position of blacks in relation to whites. Indeed, nearly all of the plates Blake engraved double each other, many containing mirrored images of white and black people, which sought to undermine the assumed superior position of the white man. In the case of Blake's image "Europe Supported by Africa & America," on one level the natural vine which spreads across the women imparts a natural feel to the picture, but it is also representative of a chain, the arm bands on the women changing to representations of shackles. Debbie Lee argues that Blake's main motivation in designing these plates was to force readers to see slavery, as "slavery's proximity came directly through the eye" (Lee 66). More particularly, Lee argues that Blake's images allowed the image of the negro to stare back at the viewer, forcing a confrontation between the two. Mario Klarer claims that pictures created within the viewer a unique feeling of attraction and repulsion, leading to the formation of empathy for the slave. However the images were responded to, though, the forcing of a response that wasn't strictly emotional - as much sentimental literature used by abolitionists would attempt to appeal to - was Blake's goal.

John Stromski

Select Bibliography

Klarer, Mario. "Humanitarian Pornography: John Gabriel Stedman's Narrative of a Five Years Expedition Against
      the Revolted Negroes of Surinam (1796)." New Literary History 36.4 (2005): 559-587. Web. 5 April 2012.

Lee, Debbie. "Intimacy as Imitation: Monkeys in Blake's Engravings for Stedman's Narrative." Slavery and
     the Romantic Imagination.
Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. 2002. Print.