Title: "Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying - Typhon coming on" (1840)

Size: 3' x 4'; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The first impression this picture makes is that of an enormous, deep red sunset over a stormy red-brown sea.


First exhibited at the Royal Academy in London in 1840, at the same time as a meeting of the Anti-Slavery League.

"Aloft all hands, strike the top-masts and belay;
Yon angry setting sun and fierce-edged clouds
Declare the Typhon's coming.
Before it sweeps your decks, throw overboard
The dead and dying - ne'er heed their chains
Hope, Hope, fallacious Hope!
Where is thy market now?"


The coming storm might symbolize the downfall of slave society, and it might cast doubt on Turner's belief in the "free market" society as a radically better society.

General symbolic level.
The small ship tossed about by the elements water, wind and fire.

The ship in a storm symbolized the Catholic Church in medieval times;
later the "ship of life" was an allegory for human life.

An allegory of the fight of humankind with the elements, the desperate fight between nature and civilization.

The sinking sun, the brooding storm, the whipping, devouring waves: transcendental powers;
replaced the anthropomorph image of God.

Philosophical concept of the "sublime" coined by Edmund Burke

Sublime: heightened sensation through terror especially in face of nature. Overpowers the senses.

Contemporary critic William Thackeray:
wasn't sure if he found the painting "sublime or ridiculous" -- little objects floating around.

Level of concrete political symbolism

Slave trade, in which English active since 1500s
British ships transport more slaves than any other country

1713: English break French monopoly of supply Spanish colonies in Americas. (Asiento Clause)

1787 Anti-Slavery-Committee founded

1807 Parliament prohibits British participation in slave trade

1833 British Law prohibits slavery in British Empire

1850 England forces other countries to stop slave trade
popular topic in England, strong in the early workers' movement

Criticism of industrial society: "Where is your market now?"
No hope for improvement in future.

Turner neither uses the seascape as a backdrop for contemporary event,
nor does he use the "event" of the Zong as an excuse to paint nature.

The event itself is transformed into nature. The elements are the actors, not people.

A great drama in which the fate of humanity unfolds.

Back to enlightenment: different relationship humanity & nature.