'Barbarities in the West Indias [Indies]'

© National Portrait Gallery, London

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'Barbarities in the West Indias [Indies]'

by James Gillray, published by Hannah Humphrey
hand-coloured etching, published 23 April 1791
9 7/8 in. x 13 5/8 in. (250 mm x 347 mm) paper size
Purchased, 1947
Reference Collection
NPG D12417

Artistsback to top

  • James Gillray (1756-1815), Caricaturist. Artist or producer associated with 887 portraits, Sitter in 7 portraits.
  • Hannah Humphrey (circa 1745-1818), Publisher and printseller. Artist or producer associated with 720 portraits, Sitter in 1 portrait.

This portraitback to top

This is a historical work of art which reflects the attitudes and viewpoints of the time in which it was made. Whilst these may differ from today's attitudes, this image is an important historical document.

The 1780s and 1790s saw the anti-slavery debate gather strength and support. This shocking print depicts an infamous incident described during William Wilberforce's motion for the abolition of the slave trade in 1791. 'Among numberless other acts of cruelty daily practised, an English negro driver, because a young negro through sickness was unable to work, threw him into a copper of boiling sugar juice, and after keeping him steeped over head and ears for above three quarters of an hour in the boiling liquid whipt him with such severity, that it was near six months before he recover'd of his wounds and scalding'. On the wall behind a selection of rodents and the body parts of black slaves are nailed, thus suggesting slaves were treated like vermin. Gillray executed a number of prints with pro-abolition themes, including 'Anti-saccharrites, - or - John Bull and his family leaving off the use of sugar' (1792). Wilberforce's campaign for the abolition of the slave trade achieved success in 1807 but it was not until the 1838 Slavery Abolition Act that all slaves in the British Empire were granted their freedom.

Placesback to top

Events of 1791back to top

Current affairs

Thomas Paine publishes his inflammatory and widely read Rights of Man in response to Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France of the previous year. The work advocates radical revolution and prompts a trial for seditious libel that takes place in his absence.
The Catholic Relief Act is passed, repealing the most severe penal laws.

Art and science

Robert Burns publishes Tam O'Shanter, combining the Scottish vernacular with the formal traditions of classical English poetry and exploring radical ideas of freedom.
The Observer newspaper is founded.
The Ordnance Survey is set up to prepare detailed maps of the country.


Mozart composes The Magic Flute.
The Declaration of the Rights of Man establishes liberal freedoms in France
The French Constitution is passed by the National Assembly.
Louis XVI flees Paris with his family but is captured at Varennes.
William Pitt declares Britain will remain neutral in any war against France.

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