Effects of Punishment by Burning and Oroonoko

Aphra Behn’s novel Oroonoko and the image “Effects of Punishment by Burning, Richmond, Virginia, 1866” from Harper’s Weekly exhibit the devastating and inhumane nature of punishments from slavery. Behn’s novel follows the tragic tale of a man who, forced by the hands of slavery, murders his family, while the image shows the horrible torture done to a young woman. Both pieces of work display the atrocities of slave punishment and show that slavery is the direct or indirect cause of violence towards enslaved African-Americans.

The image of the young unidentified woman is taken from The University of Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, “Slavery Images” archive. The image was published in “Harper’s Weekly” on July 28, 1866. According to the article, the woman in the image was thirteen years old when she was brutally punished for upsetting or annoying her mistress for reasons unknown. She was locked in a room alone for a little over a week when the mistress came in and repeatedly burned her during that time. Because of this, the mistress was arrested but was released after making bail. The black and white painting depicts the young African-American girl with several burn marks lining her back and arms. She also appears to have several burns on her head and her left hand appears to be covered by a bandage. The young woman appears to be sitting on a chair looking towards the opposite direction with her dress pulled down toward her waistline to show where she has been burned on her body. Underneath the image, the caption reads “Marks of punishment inflicted upon a colored servant in Richmond, Virginia”. From this painting, the viewer can assume that this is about the punishment given to the slave by the slave owner. This image displays one of the many forms of punishment that slaves had to go through. This painting can evoke an emotional response for those who view it because it shows the aftermath of a cruel punishment that someone wrongly endured.

Behn’s Oroonoko displays the inner turmoil the protagonist Oroonoko faces when he tries to decide whether he should get his revenge on Byam for selling him into slavery. Oroonoko knows that if he was to attempt killing Byam, his plan could possibly fail which would result in his death. The narrator states, “He consider’d, if he should do this deed, and die either in the attempt, or after it, he left his lovely Imoinda a prey, or at best a slave to the enraged multitude; his great heart could not endure that thought” (217). Oroonoko couldn’t endure the thought of his wife being alone and enslaved for the rest of her life. She would be vulnerable and more susceptible to the nasty lusts of other men and even death. His fear of slavery ultimately drives him to murder his wife and unborn child to free them from the pain and suffering of being a slave. The narrator continues, “he told her his design, first of killing her, and then his enemies, and next himself, and the impossibility of escaping, and therefore he told her the necessity of dying” (217). He concludes that since their chances of escaping slavery are impossible, he tells Imoinda that death is the only thing that will free them. In this sense, slavery has indirectly caused the deaths of Oroonoko’s family. Although Oroonoko murdered his wife with his own hands, slavery was the reason for his actions.

The image from the “Slavery Images” archive depicts one of many acts of violence against African-Americans. Similar to Oroonoko, the young woman in the image is a slave who was abused by her captor. As a slave, she was more vulnerable to violence and abuse from the slave owners. Although the woman was arrested, she made bail and was able to return home. This shows that violence towards slaves was normalized and accepted during that time. The article does not mention what happened to the young woman after this incident, but the reader can assume that this woman may have been abused again. Violence towards slaves was allowed because they were seen as merely the property of the slave owners who bought them. After they were bought, they could do anything they wanted to them, which resulted in the physical abuse that many slaves experienced. The same idea can be seen in Behn’s Oroonoko. Before being kidnapped and sold into slavery by Byam, Oroonoko was the last descendant of the royal line in Coramantien and seen as a noble hero who led his men with honor. When he was in his country, Oroonoko was treated with respect but after being stripped of his royal status, he was merely the property of Trefry. Although his slave owner was kindhearted, Oroonoko still suffered an inhumane death for conspiring to kill Byam. In the end, Oroonoko is tied to a whipping post, where he is slowly dismembered and murdered. Oroonoko’s family died because they were threatened with the prolonged suffering of slavery, while Oroonoko died trying to free himself and get revenge on the man who cursed him to the life as a slave.

In conclusion, Oroonoko and the young woman in the image both suffered by the hands of slavery. They were confined and imprisoned because of the color of their skin and were treated less than humans. In the end, slavery is the main cause of their suffering and also what drove Oroonoko to murder his wife and unborn child. Oroonoko dreamed of having his own family to provide and care for them, but slavery prevented his dreams from becoming a reality.

Works Cited

Effects of Punishment by Burning, Richmond, Virginia, 1866. Digital image. Slaveryimages.org. Harper’s Weekly, 28 July 1866. Web. 22 Oct. 2018.

Behn, Aphra, 1640-1689. Oroonoko, Or, The Royal Slave. Boston :Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2000. Print.


The Horrors of the Slave Trade told from a Survivor

Often individuals think the grass is greener on the other side of the fence. It is often thought that the lives of the Europeans in the 18th century were much easier than those of the blacks and they would easily trade places with them. However, The Interesting Narrative by Olaudah Equiano and the Digital Archives of the Slave Migrations demonstrates the opposite. With a personal anecdote and a thought provoking image Equiano can describe the true events of what happened on the ships. Moreover, how the lives of the masters were more corrupt than those of the slaves as their morals and relationship with God contradict their beliefs.

The archival picture shows the pain and suffering of the African Americans during the transatlantic slave trade. In the picture there’s thirty or more slaves on a ship. There are some on sitting in things that look like shelves and are crammed. The other slaves are barely dressed, only having a rag as clothing or naked. In the center of the picture there is a male slave trying to get up through the opening of the ship, holding his two arms up attempting to grab the edge of the opening but he cannot reach. The rest of his shipmates are also lying on the floor in despair, exhaustion and probably from starvation as well, as their bones are visible through their skin.  There is also a white male with a whip, demonstrating he’s trying to control but also instill fear in them. The caption of the pictures says, “Ah its horrors who can describe?… Oh! friends of humanity pity the African who has been trepanned and sold away from friends and home…to await more horrors and miseries in a distant land, amongst the religious and benevolent.” The caption informs the reader how to interpret this image. The events that occurred on the ship were so terrifying that no one can describe what happened because it’s too traumatic. This is said by a slave ship survivor. However, the caption it demonstrates dehumanization and sarcasm.

While the image demonstrates what it felt like to be and occurred on the ships. In Equiano’s The Interesting Narrative, he is able to put the picture into words when he speaks about his personal experience being on a slave ship. He says,

This produced copious perspirations, so that the air so became unfit for respiration, for a variety of loathsome smells and brought on a sickness among the slaves, of which many died, falling victims to the improvident avarice, as I may call it, of their purchasers. This wretched situation again aggravated by the galling of the chains, now became insupportable and the filth of the necessary tubs, into which the children often fell, and almost suffocated. The shrieks of the women, and the groans of the dying, rendered the whole a scene of horror almost inconceivable. (58)

In this small passage of his work, he speaks about the Middle Passage, the voyage from Africa to the West Indies. Through his experience the readers get vivid imagery of what it was like to be forcibly taken from a place one knows well to live in harsh conditions. The slaves were all crammed and chained to the ships and had to perform everything with the chains on as well, providing no space for them to move around. As a result, the air on the ships wasn’t safe to inhale making them sick as the ships were filled with excrements. The ones to take fault in the deaths of many slaves, he says, are the Europeans. Equiano says, ‘improvident avarice’, meaning thoughtless and extremely greedy, showing they lack empathy. The women didn’t have privacy and many rather die than go through such horrors but that too was impossible as they feared the whites. Many have taken to Equiano’s narrative because he is able to explain and illustrate the realities of the slaves while being evocative. His narrative is different in the way that he is telling it through a slave’s perspective rather than the white man. Unlike the image where the caption informs the reader how to interpret the event, Equiano claims authority over his experiences.

Equiano is a survivor of the slave trade and it is evident through his work that the reason he is able to overcome such atrocities was through faith in God.

I was sensible in the invisible hand of God, which guided and protected me when in truth I knew it not: still the lord perused me although I slighted and disregarded it; this mercy melted me down. When I considered my poor wretched state I wept, seeing what a great debtor I was to sovereign free grace. Now the Ethiopian was willing to be saved by Jesus Christ, the sinner’s only surety, and also to rely on none other person or thing for salvation. (191)

Here he explains that he did not have a relationship with God, he was hesitant. Without knowing God kept him safe throughout his time on the slave ships. After being on the ships he wants to explore Christianity in a more deep and meaningful way that will benefit his life. In following faith and reading the bible he finds it as a source of strength. When he takes time to reflect on himself and how he’s been feeling, he feels that he owes a debt to God through faith. Once he comes to this realization is when he decides to begin his conversion. It is also the only way he can be guaranteed salvation. He tells readers to depend on the bible for teaching faith and no other person. He tries to get other African Americans to follow faith and tries to show them the good it does for them. Equiano worries for his mother who doesn’t follow faith, he says those who don’t they’re in an awful state. He is dedicated to Christianity, he says, “he can read it for himself”, have his own interpretation rather than the masters telling them what to believe.

The Narrative and Equiano finding with faith and the harshness of the whites exposes their hypocrisy with their faith. A poem that relates to his experience is “The Negros Complaint” by William Cowper, where the speaker raises questions to get whites to think of their actions against the blacks and if God would agree with their actions.  In the archival picture, there’s a white man holding an item that appears to be a whip and the slaves are terrified. The poem states,

Slaves of Gold! Whose sordid dealings,

Tarnish all your boasted pow’rs

Prove that you have human feelings

‘Ere ye proudly questions Ours. (L 53-56. 98)

The fifth line of the last stanza, Cowper says the Europeans are slaves themselves, to gold and the system of slavery. The value of Gold can make them dehumanize the slaves. It also shows the greed of the whites. Cowper says, “Is there, as ye sometimes tell us/ is there One who reigns on high?” They believe in God but used the bible to justify their actions toward the slaves. Actions that characterize the slaves as animals. They were told if they didn’t follow they would be punished. However, the lines also tell us that it was the white man that taught them about God. The slaves never had their own interpretation of the bible, giving the slaveowners the opportunity to make the slaves believe what was their interpretation of faith. God is a being that gives equal treatment to all. The slaveowners are being contradictory because if they had faith, they would not have treated or enslaved the African Americans the way they did. Cowper tells slave owners to prove they have empathy and emotion towards the slaves. The actions they have taken against the blacks shows who they really are as individuals. Cowper concludes the poem by challenging the masters to show if they have any human emotion before they underestimate the abilities of the African Americans. This yet another way to get the owners to think of their faith, they believe in God, yet they refuse to show empathy and treat them like animals. Equiano is able to save himself because he converts to Christianity and he sees that there’s part of the texts he can relate to.

The events that happen in our lives we don’t have control over them, but we do have control over how we react to them. In both the text, both show how they utilized literacy to get them through their ordeals. The slave in this sense is brave because during this time is wasn’t agreed upon for a person of slavery to speak against the injustices of the system It also shows the weakness of a white man only attaining power by taking it away from others. Both texts, remind me of the poem, Invictus, by Ernest Hanley, where the individual goes through continuous struggles but despite of all the despair he is still able to persevere. The slave and Equiano could have given up, but they chose to write of their experiences which is a way to grieve but also to educate the whites on their wrongs.



Works Cited

Equiano, Olaudah. The Interesting Narrative and Other Works. Edited by Vincent Carretta, Penguin, 2003.

Gardo Barquaqua, Mahommah. “Negras a Fonde De Cale.” AAME : www.inmotionaame.org/gallery/detail.cfm?migration=1&topic=99&id=299670&page=6&type=image.

Greenblatt, Stephen, editor. The Norton Anthology of English Literature Package 2. 9th ed., D, W.W. Norton, 2012. The Negros Complaint



What is Identity?


 When searching for contemporary 18th century piece of art one illustration that caught my attention was one by the name of ‘’ Runaways’’ (Fugitive Slaves). The piece is a short box of text detailing a slaved that has escaped from it’s master.With in the box is a small illustration of a black man  (assuredly a slave) with a bindle. The figure in question has a Tom Sawyer , Huckleberry Finn quality to it. Resembling a common character archetype from a book of that era. After viewing this piece of history I believe that there is a connection to these runaway slave flyers and the themes of the reduction and destruction of the Black identity present in 18th century media.

           One quality of the flyer that stood out was how nonchalantly it seemed to be written. Within  the text there is a normality that is shown when it comes to denigrating Black bodies.The text puts focus on all the physical attributes of the slave and describes them in the same manner one would describe a couch. The writer of this flyer, a sheriff by the name of M. Kelly , calls Bill a ‘’large fellow’’and ‘’very black’’. He says Bill has several scars all over his body including his breast.  These descriptions not only reduce Bill to a body with no intellect or cognition but are also used to help those who are aiding this system of human enslavement.

            The writer of this text says a slave who calls himself Bill has escaped his master. That line struck out to me. ” a slave who calls himself Bill”.  To me this short line tells me that the person writing this does not see this man as human. Usually when a person wants to introduce someone they would normally say something to the effect of, ” this is my friend John ‘ or ” I’d like you to meet Sally.” To Say that someone calls them self this name means that you don’t believe that this is actually the person name or title. It show that you have doubt in this person. Like ” yeah this guy maybe calling himself this buy we all no that he’s not. ” Not only does it insults the intelligence of the person in question but it takes away that person agency and freedom. Your name is a part of your identity and a part that can be voluntarily given. It’s possible to change a birth name. It’s done all the time. But since Bill is a slave he can’t really make that choice for himself . He is the property of someone else. This infuriates me but this is cultural indicative of the zeitgeist of that time period. This is easily a pro slavery piece and unfortunately it is one of many.     

    When viewing this piece I was reminded of the book Oroonoko by Aphra Behn. The novel centers around the author herself as a main character and the titular African prince Oroonoko.  What made me connect these two pieces of media is that in Aphra Behn’s novel Oroonoko is sold into slavery by his grandfather and bought by a white man in England. Once bought his master changes his name to Caesar and after that point he is referred to by that name for the rest of the book.  Both ‘’Bill’’ and Oroonoko are Black men that are put into the bondage of slavery and while enslaved both of them have their identity altered by an external force.. Their names are changed by the will of their masters. This event is indicative of the idea of reducing the African identity. In the book the narrator points out that it was the common practice for Christians to rename their newly acquired slaves, “their native ones being likely very barbarous and hard to pronounce” (40). The narrator is insulting African culture and by extension the African identity. Aphra Bend is putting her Christian European culture on a pedestal by doing this.  She even does something similar to this when describing Oroonoko. She says ‘’ His mouth was rising and Roman instead of African and flat. His mouth, the finest shaped that could be seen, far from those great turned lips which are so natural to the rest of the Negroes.’’ (16). The narrator in this line is elevating Oroonoko above the rest of the Africans because of his more Euro-centric traits. She is ascribing him whiteness so he can be more palatable to her. Thus erasing a part of Oroonoko’s Blackness in the process.  

  In conclusion the runaway slave flyer and the book Oroonoko are pieces of art that reflects the racial zeitgeist of the !8th century. Both are about the subjugation of Black bodies and African Culture. And both hold Hold whiteness as superior.

      Work cited

Runaways  https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/83d5559f-0fc9-aaa1-e040-e00a1806332d

Oroonoko Aphra Bend (40) (16) 1688

On Their Way to a New Home



     We are taught in school that there are many different forms of slavery, and that slavery did happen throughout history. However, I believe what is usually left out of the histories that we are taught are the views of the African people, and how they felt on their journies to the Americas. It is important for people to begin to understand how the people who were being enslaved felt, to further one’s understanding of the hardships they went through during these times. One is able to examine how the African enslaved people felt during their journey and upon their arrival to the Americas by focusing on their emotions and expressions within etchings and texts that were created during the 1800’s.

     The emotions and expressions shown in an etching can reveal more than one thinks. The artifact that I chose to take a close look at is an etching from a painting by Francois Biard, created in 1850 called “Bartering for Slaves on the Gold Coast”, from a sample in the Noel Pittman Collection at The New York Public Library’s The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture: “In Motion: The African American Migration Experience”.  This picture depicts how Africans that were captured were treated as they were transported to the “new world” from their homes. The etching is lucid and shows many details in the characteristics of the slaves, and the Europeans that are buying them. The etching shows slaves getting branded like cattle, children being ripped away from their mothers, Africans being brutally whipped by the Europeans, all while the Europeans are bartering for the Africans that they want to use as slaves. The expression on the faces of the many Africans is of horror and confusion as they are torn away from their loved ones and abused. There is a European man holding shackles in his hands, known to be used on slave ships to hold three slaves at a time; two adults and one child between them. However, there is a darker “African” man sitting on the floor smoking a pipe watching the chaos happen while the others are being enslaved.  There are also other “white” people, near the African man smoking, that are just laying around with objects in their hands watching the commotion happening in this particular area. I believe that this painting tells the story of how Africans and all other people that were captured and sold as slaves were treated once they stepped off of the slave ships they were on. It depicts the horrors that people had to go through in the time of slavery, and how the people who bought slaves treated them. The etching puts slavery into a different perspective when the viewer looks at this picture and sees the reality of the transatlantic slave trade and cruelty that was happening in the world.

     There are also poems that were written during this time period that depict how Africans may have felt during their travel from their homeland to the Americas. Although one can learn much about the emotions of Africans coming to the Americas from an etching, poems and literature can also provide great insight.  The poem “On being brought from Africa to America” by Phillis Wheatley, a black woman, is about the narrator traveling from his / her home in Africa, and coming to a new land that he / she has never been to before and having to conform to a new way of living. The poem reveals how the narrator’s feelings on being brought to a new land, and having to change the way that he / she is used to.  One can see what the narrator was thinking when he / she said, “Taught my benighted soul to understand” (l.2). This can possibly mean that someone who the narrator met during his / her time in the Americas taught her to understand why she was moving from her home to a new land, and why he / she has to conform to who the Europeans want him / her to be. One can see that the narrator knows that he / she is different than all of the other people in this new land when he / she says “Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain, / May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train” (l.7-8).  Here I believe that the narrator is justifying the changes that he / she has to make in order to have a better chance of treatment in the Americas. The narrator here is claiming that people that are as “black as Cain” (l.7) are able to be saved and join the “angelic train” (l.8). The imagery of “angelic” brings to mind tiny, mainly white angels that are in many painting in churches. So for the narrator to say that blacks are able to join this community means that they have the possibility of joining the majority of the white population.

     The etching and the poem that I have chosen can be compared as they both express and showcase the emotions of slaves, and how they must have felt during their transition.  In the etching, one can clearly see the emotions of the slaves that have just arrived in the Americas. They are all scared and traumatized and do not know what to expect. In the etching, it seems as if the new slaves are trying to hold on to what little they have left.  In the poem by Phillis Wheatley, one can also see the emotions of the African people. However, it is in a light that shows how living in the Americas has changed Africans to be someone they do not want to be, and having to conform to their new society in order be remotely accepted.

     All in all, there are many ways that one can find out more about the history of how African people were treated upon their arrival to the Americas, as well as how they reacted to everything once they have been here for a while.  Etchings and Literature such as poems help to give great insight into occurrences that happened during specific time periods. I would, however, like to learn more about the children who came on the slave ships that traveled. It would be interesting to find out about their memories, and if they ever got to meet their parents.  Although those are only some of the many questions that arose, I am sure the answers are out there waiting to be found.

Works Cited

Biard, Francois. Bartering for Slaves on the Gold Coast, Etching from a Painting.

     c.1850. 485354. The New York Public Library’s The Schomburg Center for Research

     in Black Culture: In Motion: The African American Migration Experience. Sample

     Noel Pittman Collection. 


Wheatley, Phillis. “On Being Brought from Africa to America.” Complete Writings,

     edited by Vincent Carretta, Penguin, 2001.

“Men, Women, Children”


“Barting for Slaves on the Gold Coast” is from “The New York Public Library’s the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture”: “In Motion: The African American Migration Experience”. This is a sample of Noel Pittman collection Etching from a painting by Francois Biard and taken in 1850. According to this picture, “Many men, women, and children died on the way to the coast before the European slavers made their selection. Others died at the port of departure, usually as a result of exposure to new diseases or the appalling conditions in the barracoons, or slave camps”(Biard). This picture describes how Africans that were captured were treated when they were transported to the “new world”.

The people that were on the ship were getting hurt and the European slaves did not care. Many people were even suffering during this time because they may have had a disease or had a certain complication. From this image, I got a sense of surprise because of what these people faced and then a sense of sympathy. The slaves were getting branded, children were getting taken away from their mothers, and Africans were beaten by the Europeans. When these slaves were branding the children, the people around tried to stop it but they did not listen. Some words or phrases you can keep in mind when looking at this picture are Ghana, Gold Coast, and Transatlantic Slave Trade. I think these words are important because this helps you to sum up the picture and let you know what is going on and where things are taking place. I think this picture is sad and when reading the description, it makes you realize that you can die from many things like conditions or even new diseases. These man and women went through life not knowing what will happen to them next. I wonder if these people went through a horror. Transatlantic Slave Trade is the reality of what is happening in the world. The expression on the faces of the Africans are of horror and they also look very scared. It depicts the horrors that people had to go through in the time of slavery, and how the people who bought slaves treated them. Men, women, and children were all facing challenges and were getting treated badly by the European slaves.

In the novel, Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko, I made a connection between Oroonoko treatment on the slave ship and this image with the men, women, and children who were on their way to the coast. It tells the story of how Africans and all other people that were captured and sold as slaves were treated once they stepped off of the slave ships they were on. The Europeans were really treating everyone badly. You just couldn’t do anything, and you just watched people get enslaved.

Another connection is the theme through freedom and slavery. Freedom and slavery were seen throughout the whole book and I also saw it in the image. “He sent a messenger to the camp, with orders to treat with him about the matter, to gain his pardon, and to endeavor to mitigate his grief; but that by no means he should tell him she was sold, but secretly put to death: for he knew he should never obtain his pardon for the other” (Behn 37). He knows that there will be death coming in soon but no one knows who will be towards exactly.” Come, my fellow-slaves, let us descend, and see if we can meet with more honor and honesty in the next world we shall touch upon” (Behn 50). He is trying to see if anyone will be gone like in the image I choose, some people did not make it because of some of the diseases that they had. Some of the children were taken away from their family. The Africans and all other people that were captured and sold as slaves were treated once they stepped off of the slave ships they were on. Not everyone was excepted that were on the ship. Everyone during that time did not freedom but many people were slaves. This quote states “As the leader of the slaves, he argues that no man, woman, or child should ever be enslaved, and that the slaves should unite to become a free and supportive community” (Behn 50). Both men, women, and children had to face whatever came their way and they had to deal with everything that was happening. It was sad to see what these people have to go through on this ship. If someone took them away there was not much that they could do at the time. Like in the image, the people had to do what they were told even if that meant dying or not getting selected by the European Slaves.

The significant thread between the image “Bartering for Slaves on the Gold Coast” and Oroonoko is all the things that they have in common. Some of the common stuff was the way Oroonoko was treated on the slave ship and then the same thing for the men, women, and children and how they got treated on the ship. These two material go hand in hand and develop the same situation during a different time. They speak to one another because Oroonoko faced challenges in many ways with many people. The slaves from the Gold Coast also faced the same problems. Their problem may have been worse because they were getting sick and gaining diseases from people. I think they were surprised as to what was coming their way and people giving their sympathy for them. Many people started feeling sorry for them and especially for the innocent children.

I wonder why people had to be treated this way and if they could have done anything to not have to go through this and face all these challenges? Why were slaves put into all these situations and having to choose people to lose their life?  Why did these children have to go through this? When does the slaves know who they want to pick? Why do they choose the people that they do? These people did not deserve to be treated like this. I especially think that it was really sad that the children had to see and go through all these hard times.





Work Cited

Behn, Aphra. “Oroonoko”, edited by Janet Todd, Penguin 2004.

Biard, Francois, “Barting for Slaves on the Gold Coast”. Sample Noel Pittman Collection c. 1850.




Separation in Slavery: The Emotional Costs to Africans and Economic Benefits to Slave Owners

Woman and child on auction block,1800s


The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade facilitated the forced migration of millions of Africans to the Western World from its inception up until the end of the 19th Century.  In addition to the physical cruelties that the enslaved endured at the hands of their masters, they also suffered the emotional cruelties of being torn from their families, homes, and cultures.  For many, the uncertainty of the fates of their loved ones was a greater burden than that of the forced physical labor and ill treatment that they were met with upon arrival in the west. In his autobiographical work The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, the former slave and abolitionist speaks openly about the horrors he faced under slavery and the pain that losing his family caused him.  The digital archive image “Woman and child on auction block” conveys visually the threat which slavery presented to families that Equiano emphasizes in his writing.

Discovered in the New York Public Library’s Digital Collections Archive On Slavery, the photo entitled “Woman and child on auction block” offers a visual representation of the cruelty slaves suffered as they were purchased and separated from their loved ones.  In the image, an auctioneer presents his fellow white men with two slaves: one, an older woman, and the other a young girl; presumably, they are mother and daughter, or somehow else related. The girl is clinging to her mother tightly while eyeing the men bidding with suspicion and terror.  The ferocity with which the child holds onto the older woman suggests she fears separation, an all too common fate for slaves. The woman appears focused on comforting the child as best she can: she has her arms wrapped around her in a protective way, and her head is tilted down towards the girl as though she is committing her face to memory.  The white men are dressed in clothes which suggest immense wealth, while the slaves’ clothes are simple and revealing, which creates a stark contrast; the slaves are easily identifiable. In the lower left corner of the photo, a slave woman sits on the ground near the selling platform, nursing an infant as she waits her turn to be sold. The scene of separation which the woman and daughter on the platform display foreshadows the possibility of separation of the infant from his or her mother, as well.  In the background, a white man raises a whip into the air, foreshadowing the cruelty that all of these slaves will experience once they are sold. A white man standing directly in front of the platform, and another, perched on what appears to be a crate, hold whips as well, implying their readiness to use them, should the slaves misbehave on the auction block. Positioning the white men as primarily standing, or holding weapons, while the slaves appear fearful and taking a protective posture, serves to clearly depict the power hierarchy which exists between slave owners and the enslaved. The slave owners are portrayed as menacing and violent and the slaves are women and children, typically viewed as innocents.  These choices in subject depiction serve to paint an image that condemns the slave trade and the violence it perpetuates.

In his Interesting Narrative, Olaudah Equiano recounts his own experience with the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and explores the ways in which his life has been shaped by his kidnapping and subsequent enslavement in Africa.  When he and his sister are first taken from their homes, they are terrified, but staying together helps them cope during this time of distress. Equiano describes that “the only comfort we had was in being in one another’s arms all that night, and bathing each other with our tears” (47).  Despite their hardship, their love for each other sustains them and keeps them going even when the future looks bleak. Like Equiano and his sister, the mother and daughter standing on the auction block in the digital archive image are being confronted with the knowledge that they might be separated during the slave buying process.  In what may be their last moments together, the mother chooses to soothe her daughter and offer her love and protection while it is still within her power. Equiano considers this aspect of slavery one of the most cruel practices it involves, because it means slaves must endure their suffering alone, without the comfort of their loved ones.  He writes, “Are the dearest friends and relations, now rendered more dear by their separation from their kindred, still to be parted from each other, and thus prevented from cheering the gloom of slavery with the small comfort of being together and mingling their sufferings and sorrows” (60). Upon his separation from his sister, Equiano loses his last human link to the life he led in Igbo, and emphasizes how damaging it was to be parted from her without knowledge of her fate.  The family on the auction block faces a similar threat, and Equiano’s writing suggests that their separation will be one of the greatest challenges that they will face as slaves.

According to Equiano, capitalism and profit are the driving force behind such readiness to separate families.  As he observes the manner in which families are separated upon the slave ship’s arrival in Barbados, he reflects, “Must every tender feeling be likewise sacrifices to your avarice?” (60).  The Oxford English Dictionary defines avarice as the “inordinate desire of acquiring and hoarding wealth” (“avarice”, n.). In Equiano’s eyes, the greed of the slave owners was such that they would have no qualms about splitting apart families if it were more profitable to do so.  The clothes and bearings of the white men depicted in the digital archive image are indicative of their economic fortune, displaying the ways in which the slave masters directly benefited from the practices of the slave trade. As a businessman, Equiano understood quite well how money factored into these processes.  In his argument for the abolition of the trade at the end of The Interesting Narrative, Equiano offers an alternative to slavery that he hopes will appeal to those in power whose main motivation is profit.  He writes, “If the blacks were permitted to remain in their own country, they would double themselves every fifteen years.  In proportion to such increase will be the demand for manufactures” (235). If Africa is permitted to grow, Equiano posits, then Britain will see greater profit from trade in exports than it will from trafficking in people.  

In Olaudah Equiano’s The Interesting Narrative, he explores the emotional consequences of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade on the enslaved and examines the economic motivations behind the cruelties of slavery.  The separation from his family that he endured is reflected in the digital archive image of the “woman and child on auction block”, highlighting how common an occurrence this was for those who were sold into slavery.  The apparent wealth of the slave owners in the image contrasts with the poverty of those being sold into the trade serves to emphasize how the power dynamic between slaves and their masters was created to increase profits for the white men at the expense of African families.


Works Cited:


“avarice, n.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, July 2018. Accessed 3 October 2018.

Equiano, Olaudah. The Interesting Narrative of The Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, The African, edited by Vincent Carretta, Penguin, 2003.

“Woman and child on auction block.” 19th Century. b16104370. Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division. The New York Public Library Digital Collections. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/6fb48e0e-0795-4ac1-e040-e00a18061701

Archival Imageries Depiction of Slave Ships Connected to Oroonoko

The image from The University of Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, “Slavery Images” archive, depicts the conditions of slave ships. Oroonoko by Aphra Behn directly correlates to this image through its plot point of Oroonoko, as a prince, being captured by an English sailor and taken into slavery. The Image is artwork by Johann Moritz Rugendas that was published in Paris and dated around 1835. The drawing depicts the hull, or below deck of a slave ship. There are multiple scenes within this one drawing, one of which being a male slave holding a bowl up to an above deck opening and seemingly receiving water. There are also about three European sailors/guards, one of which is carrying a lamp, and their purpose being down below deck is to remove a dead slave. Learning more about who drew this picture, and their motives or political drive behind the artwork will help shape the image in a way that can tie back to Oroonoko and the transitional point of the novella, which is Oroonoko’s capture.

One of the major turning points in Oroonoko by Aphra Behn is Oroonoko being deceived by an English sailor who kidnaps and sells him into slavery. This point of the story creates the change in Oroonoko’s identity from royal to a slave, or the often used oxymoron “royal-slave” (9). The Englishman was described by Behn as a being “better received at court than most of the traders… especially by Oroonoko” (36). Due to the trust that Oroonoko places in this man when he is invited aboard the ship he gladly accepts. Oroonoko “having drunk hard on punch” (37) was easily captured, which was odd due to the fact that Behn spent the beginning of the poem praising Oroonoko’s power and ability as a soldier and leader. All of Oroonoko’s men “were lashed fast in irons and betrayed to slavey” (37). The description of their containment and the ship connects the image by Johann Moritz Rugendas to the story of Oroonoko. 

Within the image, there are two figures that are representations of Oroonoko in different states during the trip on the slave ship. The man reaching toward the upper deck with a bowl to receive water, and the dead man being carried away by the sailors. The two figures are polar to each other but so are the choices that Oroonoko makes on the ship. When faced with the idea of entering slavery Oroonoko would rather die and “ he resolved to perish for want of food” (Behn 38). The willingness of Oroonoko to give his life rather than enter slavery can be seen in the dead slave being carried away. When the captain realizes that all of Oroonoko’s men will follow suit he worries that “the loss of so many brave slaves, so tall and goodly to behold, would have been considerable”(38). Oroonoko, when visited by the captain and “after many compliments and assurances…he receiving from the prince his parole and his hand for his good behavior, dismissed his irons and brought him to his own cabin”(40). Oroonoko is now mirrored in the man in the image that is receiving water because he convinces his people to eat and drink again. The captain, to Oroonoko, “entreated him to oblige them to eat”(40) backed by empty promises of freedom from the captain. Using the text, and analyzing the image, you can see the correlation between the two and how the artwork creates clear imagery of salves ships, including the imaginary one described in Oroonoko.

Continuing on with the analysis of the image, the religious themes of Oroonoko relate to the man in the image who is dead, and being carried away by the sailors. Religion is an important aspect of Behn’s Oroonoko and in Robert W. Slenes’ “African Abrahams, Lucretias and Men of Sorrows:Allegory and Allusion in the Brazilian Anti-slavery Lithographs (1827–1835) of Johann Moritz Rugendas”, Slenes connects the imagery of the dead salve to a religious figure. Robert W. Slenes explains that “ the figure of the dead African, carried by sailors, is reminiscent of the body of Christ in representations of the Entombment.” The captain of the slave ship that captured Oroonoko and his men, explains that his reason for not trusting Oroonoko’s word is because he “could not resolve to trust a heathen… a man that had no sense or notion of the God that he worshipped” (Behn 39).  An aspect of religion in Oroonoko is the use of the word “heathens” (Behn 39) to encompass those who are not Christian nor white and lessen their humanity. The fact that within this essay Slenes ties the imagery of the salve with a religious figure, and the importance of religion in Oroonoko creates an even more decisive connection between the image and the text.  

The political aspect of the artwork by Johann Moritz Rugendas is understood when taking into consideration the artist’s own opinions and views. In “African Abrahams, Lucretias and Men of Sorrows:Allegory and Allusion in the Brazilian Anti-slavery Lithographs (1827–1835) of Johann Moritz Rugendas” Robert W. Slenes explains that Rugendas’ “unusual images, conceived in Paris largely between 1826 and 1828, did not express a radical political vision; rather, they expounded a conservative Christian reformism that was typical of mainstream French anti-slavery thought of the time.”(149) Rugendas held abolitionist views and depicted this scene on a slave ship as a way to open peoples eyes to the people being taken from their home and the conditions they endure to be brought to other lands and sold. In Oroonooko Behn uses her literary ability to create an imaginary world and character’s whose purpose, like Rugendas, is to educate and liberate. 

The artwork “Enslaved Africans in Hold of Slave Ship, 1827” by Johann Moritz Rugendas not only correlates to but supports the major themes in Oroonoko by Aphra Behn. The image from The University of Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, “Slavery Images” archive, is an image that deepens the emotional connection to the main transitional point of Oroonoko where the character of Oroonoko is captured and sold into slavery. This scene is the beginning of Oroonoko’s struggle with trust, his cultural identity, and his strength. The artist Johann Moritz Rugendas and writer Aphra Behn both create a work that is politically driven and they use it to educate and teach about the savagery of slavery practices. The artwork seems almost like it was painted for the story itself because it depicts what Oroonoko went through and encompasses his journey as well as those with him. It could also be that the art is so thoughtfully created that it is applicable to so many slavery stories and is even more so relatable. 


Works Cited

Behn, Aphra. Oroonoko, edited by Janet Todd, Penguin, 2004.

Rugendas, Johann Moritz.Enslaved Africans in Hold of Slave Ship, 1827. E019. Slavery Images: The Atlantic Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Americas. The University of Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, Virginia. http://slaveryimages.org/details.php?categorynum=5&categoryName=Slave%20Ships%20and%20the%20Atlantic%20Crossing%20(Middle%20Passage)&theRecord=15&recordCount=78

Slenes, Robert W. Slavery & Abolition, Volume 23, Number 2, August 01, 2002, pp. 147-168. http://run.edu.ng/media/16896238953235.pdf

A Look into the African Women’s Journey in a White Man’s World As Illustrated by S.W. Fores and Aphra Behn

Although narratives contextualizing the experiences of enslaved Africans were prevalent during the 18thcentury, those focusing on enslaved women were scarce to be found. More often than naught, such narratives were written by, or in the voices of, enslaved African men. However, stories that do illustrate the experience of slavery for African women typically involves the exploitation of their sexuality. This is true in the case of the female subjects of Fores’ print, “The Abolition of the SLAVE TRADE” (1792) found in the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress, and Imoinda in Behn’s Oroonoko(1688). While the enslaved African females in Fores’ print are illustrated in shocking and explicit details, Behn’s representation of Imoinda are more nuanced and subtler. By delving into the juxtaposing portrayals of women in Oroonokoand “The Abolition of the SLAVE TRADE”, Behn and Fores sheds light onto the sexualization of enslaved African women and the injustices of the transatlantic slave trade. In highlighting the plights of the enslaved females, readers are given a glimpse into the toils of women during a time when only the voices of male slaves were exclusively heard.

The graphic scene aboard a slave ship in Fores’ print grabs the reader’s attention immediately. On the bottom of the page reads a caption: “The ABOLITION of the SLAVE TRADE or the Inhumanity of Dealers in human flesh exemplified in Capt. Kimber’s treatment of a Young Negro Girl of 15 for her Virjen [sic] Modesty”. Captain Kimber is standing on the left side with a whip in his hand and a sword resting on his hip. Plastered on his face is an evil smile or sneer while he is staring straight at the audience. He may also be considered laughing, for his hands are close to his chest. Right next to him is an African girl who is suspended in the air by her ankle. She has her hands covering her face as if she is weeping and is naked save for a small red-and-white striped article of clothing that is around her abdomen. To the right is another individual, a sailor who is holding the rope from which the girl is suspended.

Just below the African girl are various objects like whips which were intended as instruments of torture.  Situated behind the captain and enslaved African girl are three female African slaves, who are also naked. Judging by the main caption and the explicit image, the print implies that the young girl is being punished for trying to cover up her nakedness. The three women in the back are not wearing any clothes and do not appear to be imprisoned. However, their arms are splayed across their bodies as if they wish to be clothed. If these captives could be punished for something so trivial as indecency, readers are subsequently forced to imagine what punishments for bigger crimes must look like.

While the graphic details of Fores’ print assault the readers’ first glance, Behn gives a subtler introduction to her character Imoinda. Imoinda is labeled as “the beautiful black Venus… of delicate virtues” (16). During this time period, Europeans were obsessed with the image of the ‘ideal’ woman, often emphasizing her sexual undertones. For instance, Behn describes Imoinda to be the “fair Queen of Night” (16), whose exotic beauty is so great that it captures the attention of every man and woman she encounters. Subsequently, the King sends Imoinda the “the royal veil.. a veil, with which she is covered and secured for the king’s use; and it is death to disobey” (19). Against her will, Imoinda is chosen as the King’s latest concubine. Although Imoinda is lusted after by so many, this herein lies the difference between the enslaved women in “The Abolition of the SLAVE TRADE”. While Imoinda is given a veil to cover herself as a form of modesty, the women in the print are flogged for it. Imoinda gets to shield her embarrassment under this veil whereas the women in Fores’ print are ripped away from any protection and forced to live in humiliation and embarrassment of their nakedness.

Although the severity depicted of these enslaved African women in the two works juxtapose one another, the significance lies in the fact that these works are still accounts recalling experiences of the enslaved African women. While regarded for their sexuality, these women were still subjected to the same conditions as African men: they worked in the same fields and maneuvered difficult jobs just as their counterparts did. The African women in “The Abolition of the SLAVE TRADE” (1792) experienced the same punishments, with the same torture devices, and in the same manners as African men. Despite the style in which Behn likens Imoinda as Oroonoko’s equal, she was still considered “the most charming… ever possessed” (18). She was a prized possession of the king, and after, even her beauty could not stop her from being sold into slavery. Purchased or not, these women were still regarded as property.

The works of Fores and Behn do much to highlight the ordeals of enslaved African females and the inhumane treatment endured within the slave trade. While Behn describes Imoinda’s eventual journey into slavery in a less severe tone, Fores exposes the abuses head on. From the imagery of the woman suspended as punishment for her modesty, to the naked women in the background – this illustration screams of injustice. Fores’ print also expresses the reckless abandonment in which these white merchants inflict punishment without remorse. Albeit these works deliver contrasting imageries and depictions, they nevertheless, present an account of the toils enslaved African women suffered. However, while the purpose in which Fores and Behn expose these injustices may highlight the necessity of its abolition during its timeframe, for 21stcentury readers, these works expose the singular way in which black women were represented by white authors. Today, readers perceive the works as still presented by the hands of white authority, thus illustrating the disparities between gender and race that still existed even in the midst of the call for change.

Works Cited

Behn, Aphra. Oroonoko, edited by Janet Todd, Penguin, 2004.

Fores, S.W. 2005. The ABOLITION of the SLAVE TRADE or the

Inhumanity of Dealers in human flesh exemplified in Capt. Kimber’s treatment of a Young Negro Girl of 15 for her Virjen [sic] Modesty. 10 April 1792. 1113702. In Motion: The Transatlantic SlaveTrade. Migration Resources. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division [LC-USZC4-6204].

www.inmotionaame.org/gallery/detail.cfm?migration=1&topic=99&id=297474&type=i  mage&metadata=show&page=7.


Welcome to the CUNY Academic Commons site for Gabrielle Kappes’s English 302: English Literature II: Restoration through the Revolutions (1660-1815) and Aaron Botwick’s English 303: Romantic through Modern (1815-1940) taught at Lehman College in Fall 2018.