The transatlantic slave trade: portraits of abolition

Learning objectives

  1. Consider how interpretations of the history of the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade have been constructed.
  1. Examine the cultural, social and historical context of portraits and the National Portrait Gallery’s Collection.
  1. Use knowledge of rebellion, resistance to enslavement and abolition campaigns to discuss gaps in the Gallery’s Collection.
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    Olaudah Equiano ('Gustavus Vassa'),    by Daniel Orme, published by  Olaudah Equiano ('Gustavus Vassa'), after  W. Denton,    published 1 March 1789,    NPG D8546,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Olaudah Equiano ('Gustavus Vassa')
by Daniel Orme, published by Olaudah Equiano ('Gustavus Vassa'), after W. Denton
stipple engraving, published 1 March 1789
6 1/8 in. x 3 3/4 in. (156 mm x 95 mm)
NPG D8546
© National Portrait Gallery, London
On display in Room 12 on Floor 3 at the National Portrait Gallery

Between the 1500s and 1800s, millions of African people were kidnapped, sold, and forced to work on Plantation A large area of land, especially in a hot country, where crops such as coffee, sugar and rubber are grown. in the Caribbean and the Americas, as part of the Transatlantic slave trade The buying and selling of African people as slaves between the 1500s and 1800s, using trade routes that crossed the Atlantic Ocean. . Nations, including Britain, grew extremely rich from enslaved people’s labour. Plantation A large area of land, especially in a hot country, where crops such as coffee, sugar and rubber are grown. owners and slave traders in Britain and other countries also grew extremely rich.

Generations of enslaved people resisted and rebelled against their enslavement and brutal treatment. In the 1800s, laws were passed in Britain to end the trade and then slavery itself.

Before you start this resource, it is important that you understand how Britain built its trade, and how the trade worked. If you need more information, here are some good places to start:

This is a traumatic part of our history. Its legacy still affects our lives today. Learning about the history of the Transatlantic slave trade The buying and selling of African people as slaves between the 1500s and 1800s, using trade routes that crossed the Atlantic Ocean. you will encounter descriptions of violence against men, women and children, and offensive language and attitudes. You will also encounter stories of Resistance The act of using force to oppose somebody/something. and extraordinary resilience. We recommend you learn about this topic with support from your teacher.

The memory of slavery still meets with strong resistance. 
Olivette Otele, 2020

Collecting portraits

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The outside of a large white Victorian building, with a grand entrance and many windows.
The National Portrait Gallery, London
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The inside of the National Portrait Gallery. The photograph shows many rooms, each with lots of portraits on brightly coloured walls.
Portraits on display at the National Portrait Gallery

Whose faces do you expect to see in the National Portrait Gallery?

Since it opened in 1856, the National Portrait Gallery has aimed to collect portraits of the people who are key figures in British history and culture.

The Gallery’s Collection includes portraits of people involved in the enslavement of African people and those involved with the Abolition The ending of a law, a system or an institution. of the Transatlantic slave trade The buying and selling of African people as slaves between the 1500s and 1800s, using trade routes that crossed the Atlantic Ocean.

It is important to look at the portraits that have been collected by the Gallery and also to consider the people who are not represented in the Collection. Thinking about whose stories have been chosen can help us understand how our history has been told.

The Anti-Slavery Society Convention, 1840

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    The Anti-Slavery Society Convention, 1840,    by Benjamin Robert Haydon,    1841,    NPG 599,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
The Anti-Slavery Society Convention, 1840
by Benjamin Robert Haydon
oil on canvas, 1841
117 in. x 151 in. (2972 mm x 3836 mm)
NPG 599
© National Portrait Gallery, London
On display in Room 12 on Floor 3 at the National Portrait Gallery

This painting shows the World Anti-Slavery Society Convention of 1840. The Anti-Slavery Society was formed in 1838, after laws were passed in Britain to ban the trade and the ownership of enslaved people. Its members wanted to end slavery around the world. Campaigner Thomas Clarkson is giving a speech to an international audience. Several other people who had campaigned for Abolition The ending of a law, a system or an institution. in Britain are in the portrait, but many more had died long before it was painted.

The painting is enormous, close to 4 metres wide and 3 metres tall – almost as tall as a double-decker bus.

  1. Why do you think this portrait was made? What do you think it tells us about Britain, the transatlantic slave trade, and its abolition?
  1. The Anti-Slavery Society chose to have this portrait painted. They hired the artist and told him who to include. Why do you think so many people wanted to make sure they were in the picture?
  1. Measuring nearly 4 m wide by 3 m tall, it takes up a lot of space on the gallery wall. How might this affect how visitors to the gallery understand this part of British history?
  1. Why do you think this portrait hangs in the National Portrait Gallery?

Prejudices behind the portrait

There are problems and prejudices behind The Anti-Slavery Society Convention, 1840. Look again at the portrait.

In 1840, many of the male Abolitionist A person who is in favour of the abolition of something. did not want women to be allowed into the convention. Eventually they decided women could come and listen as spectators, but not speak in discussions. This is why the artist positioned women at the edges of the painting.

Some abolitionists complained about the artist’s choice to place Henry Beckford front and centre in the portrait because he was a formerly enslaved Black Jamaican.

What does this tell us about attitudes in Britain in the 1800s?

These attitudes were not unusual in the 1800s. The event, and this painting, celebrated the achievements of the Abolition The ending of a law, a system or an institution. movement from the 1780s up to 1840. These stories about the painting reveal that many people at the time – even abolitionists – wanted the history of abolition to be told with a focus on white men. This is not the whole story.

Looking back at the abolition campaign

The portrait Anti-Slavery Society Convention, 1840 was Commission A formal request made to an artist to create an artwork. to show Britain as an Abolitionist A person who is in favour of the abolition of something. nation, leading the campaign to Abolition The ending of a law, a system or an institution. slavery around the world. By doing this, it draws attention away from Britain’s 270 years as a leading slave trading nation.

Other portraits of Abolitionist A person who is in favour of the abolition of something. who campaigned between the 1780s and 1830s were made and widely shared in the years after Abolition The ending of a law, a system or an institution. .

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    Heroes of the Slave Trade Abolition,    by Unknown artist,    mid-late 19th century,    NPG D9338,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Heroes of the Slave Trade Abolition, by Unknown artist, mid-late 19th century

This print shows five of those campaigners including MP William Wilberforce, the anti-slavery campaign’s leading parliamentary spokesman. It was printed in a newspaper in the mid-to-late 1800s. It is likely that these men had died years before it was made.

Look carefully at the five portraits. Look at each man’s face, hair, Pose A particular position in which somebody stands or sits in order to be painted, drawn or photographed. and clothes. Choose one, and write down as many words and phrases as you can that describe the portrait.

  1. What do these abolitionists have in common?
  1. According to this print, who were the heroes of abolition?
  1. What stories might be missing from this view of abolition?
Black people have had their history written out – sometimes deliberately, sometimes systematically – of Britain’s story because it’s the history of slavery and empire and that doesn’t fit in with the comforting island story.
David Olusoga, 2021

Olaudah Equiano

Olaudah Equiano was a significant person in the campaign for Abolition The ending of a law, a system or an institution. . His autobiography The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano was published in Britain in 1789 when the campaign for abolition was being talked about in Parliament. In it, he wrote about his personal experience of being kidnapped and enslaved as a child and, after working on ships, how he bought his freedom and moved to England.

He aimed to write a book that could be used for the abolition campaign. It became a best-seller. When he toured the country, crowds of people came to hear him speak against the Transatlantic slave trade The buying and selling of African people as slaves between the 1500s and 1800s, using trade routes that crossed the Atlantic Ocean. . More and more members of the public started to put pressure on Parliament to change the law.

Equiano was famous in his lifetime, but after abolition, his book was mostly forgotten, until it was rediscovered in the 1960s.

  1. Why do you think Equiano’s autobiography was so powerful before abolition?
  1. Why might people have wanted to forget or ignore descriptions of slavery after abolition?
  1. Why do you think historians have become more interested in Equiano now?

Look closer at Olaudah Equiano's portrait

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    Olaudah Equiano ('Gustavus Vassa'),    by Daniel Orme, published by  Olaudah Equiano ('Gustavus Vassa'), after  W. Denton,    published 1 March 1789,    NPG D8546,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Olaudah Equiano ('Gustavus Vassa'), by Daniel Orme, published by Olaudah Equiano ('Gustavus Vassa'), after W. Denton, published 1 March 1789

This portrait of Equiano was printed on the first page of his autobiography. It was probably based on a painting that Equiano sat for, but the original painting has been lost.

Look carefully at the portrait. Look at Equiano’s face, hair, Pose A particular position in which somebody stands or sits in order to be painted, drawn or photographed. , clothes, and the Bible in his hand.

    • Equiano is wearing smart clothes and holding a book.
    • This portrait shows him as a typical English gentleman of the late 1700s. 
    • The book tells us that he was educated and hints at the fact he was a writer.
    • Equiano is sitting upright. His Pose A particular position in which somebody stands or sits in order to be painted, drawn or photographed. is formal.
    • He is looking directly out at the viewer.
    • He appears confident and dignified.
    • His name is written underneath the portrait: Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassar the African. 
    • Although he was renamed Gustavus Vassar when he was enslaved, his African name was Olaudah Equiano.
    • The writing at the bottom says: ‘Published March 1 1789 by G. Vassar’. 
    • Equiano was one of the first Black people to publish a book in Europe.
  1. Write down as many words and phrases as you can that describe this portrait of Equiano.
  1. Compare your words to the words you noted down for the Heroes of Abolition portrait. Are there more similarities or more differences? Why might this be?
  1. Why do you think Equiano chose this portrait for his book?
  1. The book tells his life story, why do you think he chose not to show himself when he was enslaved, or a scene from his life before he came to Britain?

Sons of Africa

Equiano formed an Abolition The ending of a law, a system or an institution. organisation called ‘Sons of Africa’. It was a group of Black British people who had experienced slavery, or whose parents were enslaved. They worked to end the slave trade. They went to Parliament and wrote persuasive letters to politicians and the newspapers. They held public meetings and spoke about their experiences.

Ottobah Cugoano led Sons of Africa alongside Equiano. Cugoano had also written an important book about his experiences of slavery that shocked British readers. King George III had a copy.

These portraits are the only portraits of Equiano and Cugoano in the National Portrait Gallery’s Collection – or anywhere. There are no known portraits of any other members of the group, which included Boughwa Gegansmel, Jasper Goree and Cojoh Ammere.

In this portrait, Cugoano is shown working for his employers Richard and Maria Cosway. He was their servant.

Compare the portrait of Equiano to the portrait of Cugoano.

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    Olaudah Equiano ('Gustavus Vassa'),    by Daniel Orme, published by  Olaudah Equiano ('Gustavus Vassa'), after  W. Denton,    published 1 March 1789,    NPG D8546,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Olaudah Equiano ('Gustavus Vassa'), by Daniel Orme, published by Olaudah Equiano ('Gustavus Vassa'), after W. Denton, published 1 March 1789
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    Richard Cosway; Maria Louisa Catherine Cecilia Cosway (née Hadfield); probably Ottobah Cugoano,    probably by Thomas Rowlandson, formerly attributed to  Richard Cosway,    1784,    NPG D34151,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Richard Cosway; Maria Louisa Catherine Cecilia Cosway (née Hadfield); probably Ottobah Cugoano, probably by Thomas Rowlandson, formerly attributed to Richard Cosway, 1784
  1. Do you think Cugoano would have chosen to be shown like this?
  1. Do you think Equiano chose to be shown like this?
  1. How much control do you think Cugoano and Equiano had over their portraits?
  1. Why is having control over how you look important?
  1. Do you think these portraits tell the whole story? What else might you want to know?
  1. Why do you think the other Sons of Africa are not as famous as Equiano?
Unlike other abolitionists, for these men [abolition] was not a pastime, but a calling inspired by their own survival instincts.
Afua Hirsch, 2020
To remember abolitionists without remembering hundreds of thousands of people who physically shed their blood to free themselves seems a little hypocritical to me.
Akala, 2015

Who is missing?

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    Toussaint L'Ouverture,    by John Barlow, published by  James Cundee, after  Marcus Rainsford,    published in An Historical Account of the Black Empire of Hayti, 1805,    NPG D15719,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Toussaint L'Ouverture
by John Barlow, published by James Cundee, after Marcus Rainsford
etching, published in An Historical Account of the Black Empire of Hayti, 1805
10 1/4 in. x 8 in. (259 mm x 204 mm) paper size
NPG D15719
© National Portrait Gallery, London

Enslaved and formerly enslaved people

General Toussaint L’Ouverture was a leader in an important slave rebellion against French Plantation A large area of land, especially in a hot country, where crops such as coffee, sugar and rubber are grown. owners in Haiti.

Thousands of enslaved people – women, men and children – found ways to resist slavery. They broke tools, disrupted work, and used art, food, language and culture to rebel. There were many rebellions on Caribbean islands, but only a very small number of historical portraits of the former enslaved people who fought exist in any British museums or galleries. Portraits like this one of L’Ouverture are rare.

Although we have few portraits from the 1700s and 1800s of enslaved and formerly enslaved people who rebelled and resisted, modern artists such as Lubaina Himid, John Akomfrah, Faith Ringgold, Hew Locke and Steve McQueen have made artworks inspired by, imagining and celebrating them.

Women

The National Portrait Gallery has a small number of portraits of British women who supported the Abolition The ending of a law, a system or an institution. campaign. They are writers, who used their fame to draw attention to the campaign.

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    Hannah More,    by Henry William Pickersgill,    1822,    NPG 412,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Hannah More, by Henry William Pickersgill, 1822
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    Elizabeth Barrett Browning,    by Michele Gordigiani,    1858,    NPG 1899,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Elizabeth Barrett Browning, by Michele Gordigiani, 1858
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    Mary Wollstonecraft,    by John Opie,    circa 1797,    NPG 1237,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Mary Wollstonecraft, by John Opie, circa 1797

Many more women in Britain were involved in the campaign. They organised meetings, wrote and handed out information, and supported sugar and rum Boycott The act of refusing to buy, use or take part in something as a way of protesting. . It is very likely that many of the free Black women living in Britain at the time got involved, but their stories were not recorded.

Mary Prince, who had been born into slavery in the Caribbean, later came to Britain and published her autobiography. Her description of her experiences as an enslaved woman had a huge impact on the British public. The National Portrait Gallery does not have a portrait of her, and no confirmed portraits of her exist anywhere.

Enslaved women on Plantation A large area of land, especially in a hot country, where crops such as coffee, sugar and rubber are grown. in the Caribbean and America fought slavery too. They held onto and celebrated their identities, taught their children about their culture and heritage, helped people to escape slavery, and shared coded information. Although several enslaved women have been included in portraits, their names were not usually recorded. One rare example is a portrait of Nancy Burns, in the American Museum in Bath.

Why are some people missing?

The National Portrait Gallery collects portraits in different ways: we fundraise money to buy portraits, people and organisations donate portraits to us, and sometimes, we Commission A formal request made to an artist to create an artwork. portraits.

It is important to consider why people might not have been included. It is probably a mixture of several reasons, but it is impossible to be certain.

Consider some of the possible reasons – you may also have your own ideas to add.

    • There are very few portraits of Black Abolitionist A person who is in favour of the abolition of something. in any museums and galleries in the UK. Having a portrait painted in Britain in the 1700s and 1800s was expensive. Most people could not afford to have their portraits painted. They worked long hours so did not have time to sit for hours and be painted or did not have connections to artists who would paint them. It is likely that some of the key figures in the Abolition The ending of a law, a system or an institution. campaign never had their portrait made.
    • The National Portrait Gallery mostly collects portraits of people who are seen as significant. Portraits of some Abolitionist A person who is in favour of the abolition of something. from the 1700s might not have been collected after the Gallery opened in 1856 because these people were not thought to be significant enough.
    • This may be because historians in the past often focused on influential British white men in telling the story of Abolition The ending of a law, a system or an institution. . More recently, this has changed, and history is being researched and told from many different viewpoints.
    • In museums and galleries around the country, there are many portraits from the 1700s and 1800s that include sitters whose identities are unknown. Well-known, wealthy people sometimes displayed their money and status by including servants or enslaved people in their portraits. Their names were not recorded because they weren’t seen as important. We may never discover who they were.
    • It is possible that portraits of other people who fought to end slavery were made, but were simply lost. Sometimes missing portraits are found again in unusual places such as people’s attics, car boot sales or hidden in frames behind other portraits.

What next?

  • What happens when the names, faces and histories of the people who shaped our past are forgotten or erased?
  • How have the portraits that have been made and the portraits that have been collected affected our understanding of our history?

Tackling this problem is difficult. The National Portrait Gallery recognises that there are gaps in the Collection. Not all people who fought slavery and worked to end the Transatlantic slave trade The buying and selling of African people as slaves between the 1500s and 1800s, using trade routes that crossed the Atlantic Ocean. are represented by the portraits on the Gallery's walls. Over recent years the Gallery has been working to research and highlight stories of people who have been previously overlooked so we can address these gaps. There has been a lot of progress, but the work is ongoing.

Whose stories do you think are missing from the Gallery’s Collection? What do you think the National Portrait Gallery should do to acknowledge and represent them?

  1. Hold a class or group discussion to share your views on what the National Portrait Gallery should do about the people who are underrepresented in its Collection.

    How might these gaps be addressed?

    And what do think might be done to represent people whose names, images and identities were not recorded and have been lost?
  1. Remember that the Gallery has limited money to spend. Of all the ideas you have discussed, choose the one you think would be most effective.

    Write or record your proposed plan for the National Portrait Gallery: who do you think should be included, and how should they be represented?

Reflections

  • You have focused on a complex and brutal part of our shared history. It can bring up strong reactions. How are you feeling?
  • Do you have any questions? You could discuss them with a teacher or an adult you feel comfortable talking to.
  • You could use the links in this resource to find out more or explore more portraits that link to this history from the National Portrait Gallery’s Collection.