Slavery Museum acquires painting of abolition icon

You’d think paintings of an enchained slave asking “Am I Not a Man and a Brother?” would be plentiful. The image of a kneeling enslaved African appealing to our shared humanity appeared on everything from jewelry to snuff boxes to broadsides since its inception as the seal of the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade in England in 1787. Potter and member Josiah Wedgwood had the idea of making jasperware cameos of that image and slogan as medallions to promote the Society’s goal of abolishing the slave the trade. He manufactured hundreds of them and gave them to his fellow members to distribute. They had an immediate impact, creating one of the first wildly successful political logos and slogans with worldwide reach.

Society co-founder Thomas Clarkson wrote in the second volume of his History of the Abolition of the Slave Trade (published in 1807):

“Wedgwood took the seal of the committee, … for his model; and he produced a beautiful cameo, of a less size, of which the ground was a most delicate white, but the Negro, who was seen imploring compassion in the middle of it, was in his own native colour. Mr. Wedgwood made a liberal donation of these, when finished, among his friends. I received from him no less than five hundred of them myself. They, to whom they were sent, did not lay them up in their cabinets, but gave them away likewise. They were soon, like The Negro’s Complaint, in different parts of the kingdom. Some had them inlaid in gold on the lid of their snuff-boxes. Of the ladies, several wore them in bracelets, and others had them fitted up in an ornamental manner as pins for their hair. At length, the taste for wearing them became general; and thus fashion, which usually confines itself to worthless things, was seen for once in the honourable office of promoting the cause of justice, humanity, and freedom.”

Even after the trade and slavery itself were abolished in Britain, the abolitionist icon continued to thrive in countries like the US where ending slavery was still a distant prospect. And yet, the symbol was converted into an actual painted subject surprisingly seldom. In the UK, there are only two known. One is in the Wilberforce House Museum in Hull. The other was in a private collection but has now been acquired by the National Museums Liverpool for the International Slavery Museum.

Am Not I A Man and A Brother was painted around 1800 and depicts the enslaved man kneeling against a background of a Caribbean sugar plantation. It was purchased for £50,000 funded by grants from the Art Fund and the Heritage Lottery Fund’s Collecting Cultures program.

Stephen Carl-Lokko, Curator, International Slavery Museum said:

“This acquisition represents the first painting ever to be acquired by National Museums Liverpool to depict the powerful and resonant iconography of abolition and we are very pleased to add it to our collection.

“Resistance is a key part of the history we bring to life in the International Slavery Museum and abolition is a very important part of this wider narrative.

“The painting is a remarkable surviving product of the early phase of the British movement to abolish the Transatlantic Slave Trade during the 18th and 19th century.”

The work is not going on display yet. It needs to undergo conservation first. Conservators expect it will be cleaned up and ready for exhibition by the end of the year.