Gang of Negro Slaves Shipping Cotton from a Plantation on the Alabama River, by torchlight - on a Steam Boat for Mobile. U.S
BROOKE, William Henry (1772–1860) - BUCKINGHAM, James Silk (1786–1855). Gang of Negro Slaves Shipping Cotton from a Plantation on the Alabama River, by torchlight - on a Steam Boat for Mobile. U.S. London: 1842.
Single sheet (8 6/8 x 11 inches). EXCEPTIONALLY FINE, EARLY, EVOCATIVE, AND IMPORTANT ORIGINAL WATERCOLOUR DRAWING OF SLAVES LOADING COTTON ABOARD THE STEAM BOAT 'ATALANTA', NEAR MOBILE, IN 1839, pen and ink and watercolour wash on paper.
An extremely detailed depiction of a once typical scene along the rivers of the southern states of antebellum America, showing the steam boat Atalanta being loaded with cotton bails by gangs of negros, who have brought the cotton bales from the nearby plantations down the surrounding Cypress-wooded bluffs of the Alabama River. Captioned by the author beneath the image: "Gang of Negro Slaves Shipping Cotton from a Plantation on the Alabama River, by torchlight - on a Steam Boat for Mobile. U.S.", with the number "8" written upper left (laid down on archival tissue).
THE ORIGINAL DRAWING FOR THE ENGRAVING PUBLISHED AS "SLAVES SHIPPING COTTON BY TORCH-LIGHT - RIVER ALABAMA", BY W. FLOYD, AFTER WILLIAM HENRY BROOKE, IN JAMES SILK BUCKINGHAM'S SEMINAL WORK: "THE SLAVE STATES OF AMERICA", London, 1842.
Buckingham describes this extraordinary scene from page 471 in volume I of his "The Slave States of America": "In the course of our voyage up the river, we made several halts at the landing-places of estates, to discharge supplies brought up as part of the cargo, and to take in wood. One of these halts was rendered peculiarly interesting, from the romantic and picturesque scene which it exhibited. The place of our halt was under a high bluff, or perpendicular cliff, of 200 feet in height, above which rose many lofty and full-foliaged trees; and at the foot of the whole was a portion of unequal and broken ground, with here and there the appearance of cavernous openings in the cliff itself. The negroes, from the plantation above, had come down to assist in landing their master's goods; and these, added to the crew, made the whole number employed, from fifty to sixty persons. The night was cloudy and dark, but myriads of fireflies spangled the air, yet not a solitary star was to be seen. Strong torchlight was therefore necessary, to enable the labourers to do their work. The pitch-pine of the woods, so full of resinous matter, was accordingly used for this purpose; and the glare of several such torches moving from spot to spot, without any visible agent—the persons of the negroes, who carried them as high as they could elevate them in the air, being hidden in the shade—the occasional waving of these torches to and fro, the bright lights on some parts of the cliff, and the deep shadows on others, with occasional flashes of forked lightning, rolling of thunder, and shouting of the men, when they hailed from the summit of the bluff above, or responded from the beach below—formed altogether a scene worthy the pen of Mrs. Radcliffe, of cave-and-bandit-loving memory, or of the pencil of Salvator Rosa, and quite worthy the terror and the grandeur of his style" (Buckingham "The Slave States of America", London, 1842, volume I, pages 471-472).
The scene features a majestic steamboat, The Atalanta, very similar to the boat that Buckingham describes a few pages earlier: "The steam-vessel in which we were now embarked, differed from any that I had previously seen; and was constructed in the following manner. Her lower part, from the water's edge to about three feet above, was devoted to the engine, which was in the centre, the piston working horizontally fore and aft, instead of perpendicularly, as in our English boats, while an immense fly-wheel in the centre of the boat, turned the axles of the side-wheels or paddles. The engine was a high pressure one; and gave out a burst of steam from a tall chimney, at every revolution of the wheels, the sound being like the hard breathing of some huge mastadon labouring under the asthma; while the two chimneys vomiting forth volumes of black smoke, with the third breathing forth at momentary intervals its blasts of white curling steam, made both the sight and the sound peculiar. The whole margin of the engine-deck was open all around, and this was the part devoted to the reception of cotton bales, as cargo in freight, which is taken in at the landing-places of the several plantations along the river, for Mobile" (ibid, page 262).
The renowned artist of this dramatic scene is Irishman William Henry Brooke, F.S.A., celebrated for his paintings, and numerous illustrations to travel accounts such as the one in which his "Slaves shipping Cotton by torch-light-River Alabama' appears opposite page 472 in Buckingham's "The Slave States of America". He and Buckingham collaborated on many works, including Buckingham's "Travels in Assyria, Media and Persia", London, 1830. Buckingham described their working relationship in volume 20 of his own "Oriental Herald" of 1829: "To the kindness of my friend, Mr. James Baillie Frazer, the intelligent author of a Tour in the Himalya Mountains, and a Journey in Khorassan, I owe the two interesting views, of the Ruins of Persepolis seen under the aspect of an approaching storm, and the Ruins of Ormuz with its sweeping bay of anchorage. With these exceptions, the Illustrations of the Volume, to the number of twenty-six, are from original sketches of the scenes and objects described, taken in the course of the journey, and completed from descriptions noted on the spot. The manner in which these have all been drawn on wood by Mr. W. H. Brooke, and in which the greater part of them have been executed by the respective engravers whose names appear in the list, is such as, I hope, will confirm the established reputation of the artists themselves, at the same time that they cannot fail to gratify as well as to instruct the reader".
As a youth Brooke "worked briefly in a bank but within a short period became the pupil of the history painter Samuel Drummond. He made rapid progress and soon established himself as a portrait painter, first in Soho and later in the Adelphi, London, and in 1810 he showed his first works at the Royal Academy. However, between 1813 and 1823 he did not exhibit, but in the latter year sent a portrait and two Irish landscapes with figures for exhibition. In 1826 he showed Chastity, and this was to be the final work which he sent to the academy.
"In 1812 Brooke began drawing for The Satirist, a monthly publication which changed ownership several times during its short life, expiring finally in 1814. He contributed satirical illustrations to this paper until September 1813, and was then succeeded by George Cruikshank. His drawings for this somewhat obscure periodical seem to have brought him a certain critical appreciation and presumably as a result he was commissioned to illustrate several popular books. Among the more important were Thomas Moore's Irish Melodies (1822); J. Major's edition (1823) of Izaak Walton's The Compleat Angler, for which he supplied some vignettes; T. Keightley's The Mythology of Ancient Greece and Italy (1831); an edition of Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels; Nathaniel Cotton's Visions in Verse for the Entertainment and Instruction of Younger Minds (1786); and Fables in Verse for the Female Sex by E. Moore and his uncle, Henry Brooke (1825). He also drew for William Hone's Every Day Book (1826–7) and W. H. Harrison's The Humorist (1832). Many of his non-humorous designs display a rather winning simplicity and sincerity and the influence of Thomas Stothard is clear. His portraits were evidently popular, as they were frequently engraved. Two of the best-known were of Angelica Catalani, the celebrated soprano, and Catherine, countess of Essex.
"Brooke was an associate of the Royal Hibernian Academy in Dublin and exhibited there on several occasions between 1827 and 1846... Examples of his portraiture are in the National Portrait Gallery, London, and Leeds City Art Gallery; some of his watercolours and drawings are in the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. His engravings, including some woodcuts and etchings, are in the department of prints and drawings of the British Museum" (Ernest Radford, rev. Paul Goldman, for DNB).
Buckingham travelled extensively from a very early age, and was a voluminous writer, supporting himself on his travels, including those described in his "Slave States of America", by giving public lectures describing his travels in the east while touring: "He published numerous books on his foreign travels—which are especially notable for the information they provide about social conditions in the many countries he visited—and wrote a large number of pamphlets on social and political subjects. He was probably best known, however, as a lecturer, undertaking speaking tours in both Britain and North America. His enthusiasm for campaigns of reform was unrestrained; in his own words, he could ‘never find anything in a defective state without feeling an instinctive desire to improve it’. The sheer variety of his undertakings was not perhaps well calculated to ensure him immediate success in any one of them individually; indeed, his many critics judged him capricious and shallow. His seemingly eclectic political creed has puzzled historians as much as it infuriated his opponents. In sum, the remarkable range of his travels, the diversity of his interests, and the extent of his writings testify to a life of energy if not of achievement" (G. F. R. Barker, rev. Felix Driver for DNB).
Greatly concerned with the welfare of the enslaved in America, Buckingham does not shrink from expressing his often controversial opinion: "In the same spirit of impartiality, I have endeavoured to describe the state of Slavery in the Southern States, of which these volumes will contain a full account. I shall perhaps be blamed by some English readers for the admissions which I make, if not in favour, at least in palliation, of the conduct of manv slaveholders in America, as well as in the confessions which truth demands, of the well-being, and even comfort, of some of the domestic slaves. On the other hand, I expect my full share of censure from a large section, at least, of the people of America, for daring to speak, as truth compels me to do, of the wretched condition of the great body of the African race throughout the South; and of the reckless indifference to human life, and human obligations of every kind, which the very system of Slavery engenders in nearly all the white population who live beneath its influence. To the censures of both these parties I shall be willing to submit, and console myself with the belief that I have served the cause of truth and justice, better than by attempting to please either" (Preface).
The modern world had never seen such a vast and powerful slave society as existed in antebellum America: "the fundamental tragedy of this time, this era of revolutions in politics, transportation, and reform was also a period when an empire for slavery extended across a quarter of the new nation. Slavery, propelled by the same territorial expansion and technological innovation that drove so much else in the new country, spread like a hemorrhage. Over 300,000 slaveowners held nearly 4 million people in bondage by 1860. Slavery, contrary to the expectations of virtually everyone in 1815, grew stronger with each passing decade, embracing an ever larger part of the continent to the South and West, holding more people within its bonds, accounting for a larger share of the nation's exports. Cotton and slavery created a per capita income for white southerners higher than that of any country in Europe except England.
"The discussions in the churches, the reform organizations, and the political parties turned repeatedly, if fitfully and sometimes obliquely, to the morality of slavery and the sectional conflict it bred. Rivalry and distrust between the North and the South came to infect everything in public life. Each section viewed the other as aggressive and expansionist, intent on making the nation all one thing or another. The North claimed that the slaveholder South would destroy the best government on earth rather than accept the results of a fair election. The white South claimed that the arrogant and greedy North would destroy the nation rather than tolerate a labor system the Constitution itself had acknowledged. Both sides were filled with righteous rage, accepting violence to gain the upper hand, whether that involved capturing fugitive slaves or applauding John Brown's failed insurrection. Americans could not stop the momentum they themselves had created.
"What most Americans thought of as progress brought on the Civil War. Had the nation not expanded so relentlessly, the elaborate compromises of 1820, 1850, and 1854 might have held. Had the nation not been made so aware of itself through newspapers, novels, and sermons; through political parties and reform organizations; and through railroads and telegraphs, the bargains and evasions of the Revolutionary generation might have endured. Had cotton not been so in demand and so crucial to the prosperity of the nation and Europe, slavery might have faded rather than growing stronger. No one sought a war that would kill 630,000 Americans, but the killing came on the heels of many changes people did desperately seek. The war that broke out, suddenly and irrevocably defining this era, bore the marks of the emerging modern world. It would rage with terrifying efficiency and far-reaching consequences, forever, changing the way Americans thought of the years that had come before" (Edward L. Ayers for ANB).