Bury the Chains: The British Struggle to Abolish Slavery by Adam Hochschild (2005)

In all of human experience there was no precedent for such a campaign. (p.97)

Executive summary

The abolition of slavery took place in two parts:

  1. abolishing the slave trade (1807)
  2. abolishing slavery itself (1834)

1. Abolishing the slave trade 

After a whole century when anybody suggesting that African slavery be banned would have been considered a mad eccentric, the issue suddenly exploded into public consciousness in the years 1788 to 1793 when there was an extraordinary eruption of pamphlets, articles, petitions from every town and city in Britain, plays and polemics and debates in parliament, calling for the abolition of the slave trade.

It suddenly became the topic of the day and Hochschild is able to quote diarists and letter writers saying how heartily sick they are of every single dinner party or coffee house conversation being about nothing but abolitionism.

And then, just is the cause of abolition had become so unstoppable that it seemed poised to succeed in Parliament, the French Revolution broke out which led to two major events which set back the cause of abolition by a decade:

  1. The outbreak of the largest slave rebellion anywhere, in the French sugar colony of St Domingue, led by Toussaint L’Ouverture, in November 1791. This is a long story, in which both the French and the British sent armies which were eventually defeated or, more accurately, abandoned the war in the face of deaths from tropical sickness and the slaves’ successful guerrilla tactics. But reports of the brutality on both sides of the conflict had undermined the image which abolitionists tried to foster, of slaves as helpless, saintly victims.
  2. The French revolutionaries executed Louis XVI in January 1793 and declared war on Britain in February 1793. War always halts reforms. A nationwide outburst of patriotism was accompanied by repressive laws banning seditious writings and political meetings. Abolitionism became ‘tainted’ by association with some of the wilder English Jacobins, who included it in general calls to overthrow the monarchy, the House of Lords, please for universal male suffrage and so on.

The movement which might have led to the end of the slave trade in just four or five years from its inception in 1788, because of the interruption of the French revolutionary wars, ended up taking nearer to 20 years.

The movements’s representative in parliament, the short, correct and conservative MP William Wilberforce, introduced an abolition bill into each new sitting of parliament from 1788 onwards, but they were always swamped by the pressing urgency of measures to deal with the war and the eruption of other crises throughout the British Empire.

It was only after the Peace of Amiens of 1802 led to a pause in the war with France, that the abolitionists were able to rally. Although war with France resumed in 1803, a new burst of campaigningy led to the final abolition of the slave trade in 1807. It became forbidden for British ships to carry slaves. Soon the Royal Navy was instructed to stop all ships carrying slaves of whatever nation, and confiscate them.

2. Abolishing slavery

There was then a long lull as Britain focused its energies on defeating Napoleon, first in 1814, then all over again in 1815 after he escaped from St Helena. The period 1815 to 1820 was characterised by immense social unrest in Britain caused by the mass unemployment of huge numbers of men who’d been serving in the army and navy simply being dumped back on the market, and also the social disruption of the industrial revolution.

The government responded with a whole series of repressive measures. Paul Foot’s biography of the poet Percy Shelley is a surprisingly thorough account of the repressive laws enacted during this period, as well as a doleful record of the many working class activists who were arrested, convicted, hanged or shipped off to the new penal colony in Australia.

It was only in the 1820s with a new government in place, with better harvests damping down rural protest, with working people finding more work, that the sense of crisis eased, and a new wave of young abolitionists took up the struggle, this time to abolish slavery altogether.

In 1823, the Anti-Slavery Society was founded in London, its members including Joseph Sturge, Thomas Clarkson, William Wilberforce, Henry Brougham, Thomas Fowell Buxton with the women Elizabeth Heyrick, Mary Lloyd, Jane Smeal, Elizabeth Pease, and Anne Knight.

The most interesting aspect of the story, in Hochschild’s telling, is that most of the running of this second phase was made by the women. William Wilberforce was still there in Parliament. Thomas Clarkson was still the great collector of facts and information. The Quaker networks provided the basis of publicity and campaigning. But they all took a cautious, gradualist approach. By contrast, a number of the women and women’s groups pressed for immediate abolition. Most notable was Elizabeth Heyrick.

During the 1790s the first generation of abolitionists had organised a sugar boycott i.e. they stopped buying and using sugar. Heyrick went one further and went to grocers shops asking them not to stock it at all.

Again the cause became entangled with a much bigger issue – in the 1790s it had been the French Revolution, in the late 1820s it was the titanic struggle to pass the Reform Act of 1832 to reform Britain’s ludicrously out-of-date electoral system.

Abolitionists realised this was their cause too, and put their energy into this struggle, and it was only after a reformed parliament had been elected in 1833, that direct campaigning for abolition continued and almost immediately was a success.

The Slavery Abolition Act 1833 abolished slavery throughout the British Empire BUT even then, it was in two phases: as of 1834 only slaves below the age of six were freed, all adult slaves had to continue working for their masters as ‘apprentices’.

Full and complete abolition – i.e. full and complete emancipation of all British slaves – had to wait until midnight on 1 August 1838. Hochschild amply describes the celebrations.


Bury the Chains

This is a long, detailed, very readable and profoundly moving account of the movement to abolish slavery in Britain.

Some of Hochschild’s most interesting points are made in the introduction, namely:

  1. In the 1780s, when the abolition movement got going, not just African slaves but maybe as many as three quarters of the world’s population was unfree.
  2. The abolition movement was the first mass civil society movement, not the product of a particular class or particular special interest group or trade – it joined all classes, all genders, all ages and all occupations across all the regions of Britain (‘Something new and subversive was making its first appearance: the systematic mobilisation of public opinion across the class spectrum.’ p.138)
  3. It was the first such campaign in human history that was not motivated by self-interest; none of the campaigners stood to gain anything and they, and the British population as a whole, stood to lose out economically – but nonetheless the righteousness of the cause outweighed self-interest.
  4. The abolition movement invented, or brought to perfection, a whole range of campaigning tactics which are still used around the world.

An unfree world

The first stirrings of the abolitionist movement occurred during the American War of Independence (1775-1783), around 1780. This is where Hochschild begins his narrative (although some strands require stepping back a bit in time to explain the background and development of slavery, and of specific elements in the story, such as a brief history of the Quakers.)

Anyway, I found it riveting that the first few pages are devoted to explaining that most human beings in the world at that age, in 1780, were not free.

When native Americans fought each other they often took captives prisoner as slaves. The Aztec and Inca empires had seized conquered peoples as slaves. Then the Spanish turned the entire population into peons to work for their European masters. But slavery was widespread in African kingdoms, too, and existed long before the Europeans touched the coast in the late 1400s.

For centuries before that there had been a) a slave trade taking African slaves north to serve in Muslim countries of the Mediterranean, and particularly to the heart of the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East, and b) victorious African rulers routinely enslaved their defeated enemies.

The condition of slavery, selling of slaves, slave trails and slave entrepots were established well before the Europeans arrived.

The enormous landmass of Russia was characterised by serfhood where illiterate peasants were tied to land, and bought and sold along with it. In most of the rest of Europe illiterate peasants were similarly virtually the property of their lords and masters. In India and other parts of Asia, tens of millions of people were in outright slavery (‘tens of millions’, p.2), while tens of millions more lived in a form of debt bondage which tied them to specific owners.

Hochschild doesn’t mention China, but millions of Chinese peasants lived in various forms of servitude.

Even in the most ‘civilised’ parts of Western Europe and north America, there was a deeply engrained social hierarchy, by which everyone deferred to those above them, and the aristocracy and landowners could use, whip, beat, punish and abuse their servants and staff, almost at will.

It is chastening, sobering, terrifying to read Hochschild’s convincing account of how most people for most of the past, have not been free. Count your blessings.

18th century violence

Not only were most people either not-free, or lower down the pecking order of deferentiality, but the 18th century world was one of quite staggering brutality. When you don’t know much you sort of think that the disgusting brutality meted out to slaves was uniquely bestial. But violence of every sort existed quite freely far beyond the slave world. Ordinary men and women could be punished for simple misdemeanours with public whipping or even the death penalty. As James Walvin’s book on slavery highlights, and as Hochschild repeats, deaths among the crew members of slave ships were, proportionately higher than deaths among the slaves.

And then there was the British tradition of press-ganging. Any halfway fit man walking the streets of London, Portsmouth, Bristol and any other major port city was liable to be bought drinks till he was legless, or simply seized by the notorious press gangs, carted off to serve on a slave or Royal Navy ship, for years at a time, with no legal redress.

Alan Taylor, in  American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750-1804, describes some atrocity happening in the 1700s and ironically remarks, ‘all this took place in the supposed “Age of Enlightenment”‘.

But the whole point of the Age of the Enlightenment is that it was a movement to try and reform a fundamentally brutal, backward, obscurantist and reactionary society. It was light amid darkness, profound darkness. Of course the Age of Enlightenment was often brutal; that’s precisely what the relatively small number of philosophers, thinkers, poets, writers, artists and enlightened citizens were struggling against.

Execrable Human Traffick, or The Affectionate Slaves by George Morland (1789)

Execrable Human Traffick, or The Affectionate Slaves by George Morland (1789), according to Hochschild, the first painting depicting the slave trade

The Quakers

This makes Britain’s 20,000 Quakers stand out all the more remarkably from all the other social and belief systems of the Western world. For the Quakers believed that all people are equal – and put their belief into practice. They didn’t use any linguistic forms of deference, refused to say Mr or Sir or Your worship, insisted on only saying ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ since these were the non-deferential versions. They refused to fight in wars. They refused to take vows to any monarch or magistrate. They insisted their only allegiance was to God the Creator of All. (p.107)

And they believed not only that all men, but that all people are equal. Thus, with ramrod logic, Quakers were the only one of the countless religious denominations anywhere in the New World who spoke out against slavery in the 18th century. They refused to own slaves. If they came into possession of slaves through land deals, they promptly liberated their slaves and, in some cases, Hochschild says, paid them compensation.

Compare and contrast with the Church of England which not only failed in its duty to speak out against slavery, but was itself a large owner of slaves through various companies and committees, notably the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts.

Among other properties the Church owned the Codrington estate, the second largest slave estate on Jamaica. On the governing board of the Society for the Propagation etc, and therefore aware of their slave profits, were the Regius Professors of Divinity at Oxford and Cambridge and the Archbishop of Canterbury.

All slaves working for the Society had the word SOCIETY branded into their chests with a red hot iron. Disgusting, eh?

It was Quakers who, in 1783, set up the first committee to lobby for the end of slavery. They got nowhere because they were ignored as cranks. It was only when Anglican luminaries came on board that the powers that be were inclined to listen. The most important was the Divinity student Thomas Clarkson, who, at the age of 25, underwent what amounted to a religious conversion, deciding to devote his life to the abolitionist cause.

Still, it was symptomatic that when a new committee for abolition was formed in 1787, nine of the twelve members were Quakers.

Thomas Clarkson

For Hochschild the central character of the entire story is Thomas Clarkson, 6 feet tall, red haired, who was converted to the evils of slavery aged 25 and became an indefatigable campaigner and investigator.

It was the investigations that mattered. In London, Bristol and Liverpool Clarkson spent months befriending slave ship captains, crews and merchants (where possible – many became firm enemies; on more than one occasion Clarkson’s life was threatened). He visited all the main posts gathering eye witness accounts of the brutality of the trade.

Using figures freely available from the authorities of the slave ports, Clarkson assembled statistics showing the appalling loss of life among the white crews of slave ships. As a proportion, more white sailors died on a slave journey, than slaves.

His aim was to refute one of the central the pro-slavery arguments, that the crews of slave ships provided a kind of rough apprenticeship for the Royal Navy. On the contrary, Thompson proved that most slave ship crews were press ganged, desperate to flee the ships, and only kept in place by punishments every bit as savage as those meted out to the slaves. He assembled copious testimony testifying to the way white sailors were flogged, sometimes to death, put in chains, tied to the deck or thrown into tiny spaces belowships, and died like flies on these long voyages.

Clarkson aimed to assemble the broadest possible case, showing that the slave trade degraded and brutalised everyone who came in touch with it. When he came across ship’s chandlers in Bristol or Liverpool openly selling chains, shackles and thumbscrews – implements of torture – he bought them as exhibits to show on his lecture tours, he sent accounts of them to the Times and to Parliament.

All this testimony and equipment, all the statistics existed and were publicly available, but nobody had ever set out to assemble all the evidence, to buy and display the implements of torture, to assemble all the statistic, to do the basic investigative groundwork which could then be recycled into articles, pamphlets, books and speeches.

Clarkson and colleagues listed the negative arguments against slavery, but also tried to formulate arguments emphasising the positive results that would stem from ending it.

One of these was the attempt to prove that free trade with African nations and peoples would yield larger profits than slavery; that the slave trade was not only morally reprehensible, degrading, lethal to ships crews, but that it was preventing the development of more profitable free trade with African countries.

To prove his point, on his visits to the slave ports, Clarkson came across products from Africa and began collecting them into what became known as ‘Clarkson’s box’. These included carved ivory and woven cloth, along with produce such as beeswax, palm oil and peppers.

Clarkson could see the craftsmanship and skill that went to produce many of the items and used them to refute the notion that blacks were savages, little more than animals. Quite clearly they were not, they were craftsmen and women of great skill. The idea that such imaginative and talented designers and craftsmen could be kidnapped and enslaved was horrifying.

Official Medallion of the British Anti-Slavery Society (1795) by Josiah Wedgwood and William Hackwood

Official Medallion of the British Anti-Slavery Society (1795) by Josiah Wedgwood and William Hackwood

Campaign tactics

How did the abolitionists achieve all this?

It’s a long story which first of all requires a good sense of the nature of British society in the 1770s and 1780s, which is why it takes a book to tell how various strands of social, religious and moral thought came together.

But Hochschild also points out how the abolitionists pioneered campaigning techniques which have endured to this day:

  • posters
  • pamphlets
  • lecture tours
  • investigative journalism designed to stir people to action
  • books and book tours
  • mass petitions
  • targeting individual MPs
  • lobbying parliament
  • organising boycotts of sugar

Hochschild devotes a couple of pages to the origin of one of the most powerful icons of the movement and what he calls ‘one of the most widely reproduced political graphics of all time’.

The chairman of an abolitionist branch Clarkson had set up in Plymouth sent Clarkson a diagram of the slave ship Brooks which he had come across at the owners’ offices. It showed the optimal way to cram the ship full of African slaves. Clarkson seized on the diagram’s importance and worked with the committee’s publisher and designer to expand and fine tune it.

Diagram of the slave ship Brooks (1814 version)

Diagram of the slave ship Brooks (1814 version)

The slave packing diagram quickly began appearing in newspapers, magazines, books and pamphlets. The abolitionists and thousands of other supporters around the country hung it on their walls as a constant reminder. To this day it has the power to harrow and shock.

Morality trumped self interest

The British decision to abolish slavery was taken against the economic interest of Britain.

Not only this, but many communities and economic sectors which stood to be specifically damaged by the decision, nonetheless supported abolition. Towns whose wealth was based on slave imports nonethless produced lengthy petitions against slavery. It was, therefore, a decision taken on moral and religious principles, and these trumped economic self interest.

Scholars estimate that abolishing the slave trade and then slavery cost the British people 1.8 per cent of their annual national income over more than a century, many times the percentage most wealthy countries today give in foreign aid. (p.5)

Why 1788?

Hochschild lists the precursors, describes the events leading up to the formation of the abolition committee and gives accounts of the personal conversions to anti-slavery of key personnel. But it might still have remained an eccentric fringe group. Why did the cause suddenly catch fire, and become a country-wide phenomenon in 1788-89?

In 1780, if you had suggested banning slavery, everyone would have thought you were mad. Nobody discussed it, it didn’t appear in newspapers, magazines, parliamentary debates or coffee house conversations.

By 1788 Britain was aflood with a tsunami of anti-slavery propaganda. Petitions flooded Parliament as never before, thirteen thousand signed one in Glasgow, 20,000 one in Manchester; books and pamphlets flooded from the press, lectures and sermons were given about it, newspaper and magazine articles poured forth – it was everywhere, the burning topic of conversation, it was like the Brexit of its day.

But why? Why did the campaign to abolish slavery spread like wildfire and unite all classes, regions, towns and cities so suddenly? And why in Britain and Britain only? After all, France, Spain, Portugal, Denmark, Holland and Sweden all owned colonies in north or south America which employed large numbers of slaves. There was no movement to abolish slavery in any of those six other European nations. Why not?

Hochschild gives a list of secondary causes, before he unleashes what he thinks is the prime and main cause (pp. 213-225).

The secondary causes amount to a thorough profile of British late-eighteenth century society and indicators of it economic, technological, social and political advancement beyond all its European neighbours.

  • massive investment in well-kept toll roads which made widespread travel easier in Britain than anywhere else in Europe
  • the world’s best postal service
  • more newspapers than any other country, and more provincial newspapers which passed on developments and debates in the capital to the remotest provinces
  • the coffeehouse, a British institution in every city and town, which had up to date copies of all the magazines and newspapers, and where news and issues of the day could be debated
  • more than half the population of Britain was literate because Protestantism insists that each individual can read the Bible in their own language
  • libraries in every town and city, with over a hundred in London alone
  • well over a thousand bookstores, which often offered hsopitality while you sat and read
  • no censorship; anyone could set up a printing press and publish what they liked compare with, for example, the 178 censors who censored everything written in France before it was published
  • debating societies which became widespread during the 1770s

So although fewer than 5% of the population could vote, an extraordinary number of people knew what was being debated and discussed by parliament, read and understood the issues of the day, and created a ‘public opinion’ which couldn’t be ignored by the country’s rulers.

  • The rule of law. Unlike most continental nations, Britain had age-old common law which had been continually influenced and modified by trial by a jury. Obviously the law was weighted towards the rich, towards aristocrats and landowners. But in theory at least, a labourer could take a lord to court and win. After the Somerset case of 1772, the leading abolitionist Granville Sharp helped a number of slaves take their masters to court – and won.

These are all mighty fine aspects of British society circa 1790, but none of these by themselves amount to a sufficient cause.

The primary cause, Hochschild thinks, is the uniquely British institution of press-ganging.

He gives four or five pages describing in some detail the mind-blowing examples of the powers of the press gang to kidnap any man whatsoever between about 14 and 40 and whisk them off to a life of brutally hard work and vicious discipline aboard the Royal Navy’s vast fleet.

Grooms could be kidnapped at the altar, in front of bride, vicar and congregation, and whisked off. Some gangs were so large they fought pitched battles with customs officials or soldiers. The pages he devotes to press-ganging are quite an eye-opener.

But his point is that many Britons had experienced, or knew of, a form of slavery themselves; knew an institution whereby perfectly free young men could be kidnapped and sold into a life little better than slavery, subject to appallingly brutal punishments, with a fair certainty of death from disease, rotten food or combat.

Alongside all its positive aspects, British society also contained this brutal institution – and it had led over the decades to a widespread sense of grievance and resentment. It was this feeling (among others) which the abolitionists were able to tap into.

Personally, I find this theory a bit far-fetched. I would have thought there were several other social trends which Hochschild mentions elsewhere but not in his list of causes, which were far more important than press-ganging.

Chief among these would be the Great Religious Awakening from the 1750s onwards, which led to the rise of non-conformist sects, chief among them the Methodists. This movement converted people rich and poor to the belief that society at large only paid lip service to Christian values, and that individuals really had to experience the grace of God for themselves to be born again into a purer, more devout, more moral Christian life.

It was to these newly awakened consciences that much abolitionist propaganda appealed, and it is notable that non-conformists – building on the heroic work of the Quakers – were at the forefront of disseminating and spreading the movement.

Fascinating and eminently readable though his book is, I don’t think Hochschild quite drills down into the immense spirituality and religiosity of the era, and how that influenced every thought and feeling of millions and millions of Brits.

Summary

This is an absolutely vast subject, because the campaign, in total, stretched across fifty years, and was hugely affected by two great historical events: the French Revolution and the twenty years war it led to; and then the immense struggle to pass the 1832 Reform Act – not to mention acknowledging the huge social changes caused by the industrial revolution which was trundling along in the background throughout the period.

Vast as it is, this really brilliant book probably comes as close to doing the subject matter justice as one volume can.

Despite the horror of much of the content, Bury the Chains manages somehow to be a humane and uplifting story, because it shows how evil can be conquered, and it shows how even when a wicked system or institution is in place, millions and millions of good-hearted people can rise above their own self interest to organise and work for its overthrow. And succeed.

The British are often damned for perfecting the Atlantic slave trade and making vast fortunes from it. But they should also be praised for rising up in their millions and forcing their government to change its policies and then to spend a lot of money policing the seas to try and eradicate this truly evil trade.


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Thomas Cole: Eden to Empire @ the National Gallery

This is a fabulously enjoyable exhibition on numerous levels. It contains 58 works, the majority on loan from North American collections, focusing on a score of masterpieces by American landscape painter Thomas Cole – making this a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see so many of his works together in one place.

It also brings together some enormous paintings by Claude, Constable, Turner and John Martin to show how Cole studied and learned from them.

And, quite apart from the visually stunning impact of many of these huge works, it is rich in thought-provoking issues and ideas.

Four rooms and seven chapters

Thomas Cole is famous in the U.S. as the greatest American landscape artist of his generation, more or less founding the young republic’s tradition of landscape painting.

In fact he was British, born in Bolton, Lancashire in 1801 to a middle class family in reduced circumstances. So reduced that young Thomas was sent out to work while still school age, among other jobs working as an assistant to an engraver.

The story of his life, achievement and influence is told in the four rooms of the National Gallery’s ground Floor Galleries, which have been divided into seven sections or ‘chapters’. There’s also a handy timeline of his life on one wall, to give a sense of the flow and development of his career before he was struck down tragically young, dying aged 47 in 1848.

Chapter 1. Industrial England

Cole was born in Bolton near Manchester as the industrial revolution reached its first flood of development.

The first section includes a vivid depiction of the impact of this new coal and iron technology in Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg’s painting Coalbrookdale by Night, painted in 1801 the year of Cole’s birth. Note the enormous abandoned cogs and crankshafts at the bottom left and their resemblance to the ruined columns in paintings of Roman and Greek ruins i.e. the way older aesthetic forms lingered on in the new world.

Coalbrookdale by Night (1801) by Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg © The Science Museum

Coalbrookdale by Night (1801) by Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg © The Science Museum

Not only was the physical landscape being devastated, but so were the people too, the old cottage-based artisan economy eroded by mass production in the new manufactories where people were reduced to ‘hands’, working 12 hours a day, seven days a week, to serve the machines.

This prompted a backlash. Nearby hangs a contemporary lampoon of a Luddite, one of the gangs of workers who smashed up the machinery in a bid to halt ‘progress’ and to keep work human.

When his father’s business failed, Cole, a sensitive well-educated teenager, was forced to take work engraving printing blocks in a local cotton mill. He had, quite literally, hands-on experience of the way industrial ‘progress’ was making work mechanical and alienating.

In 1817 the family moved to Liverpool where Cole got a job working in an engraver’s shop where he would have seen prints by the leading artists of the day.

Chapter 2. American Wilderness

When he was 17 Cole’s parents decided to emigrate. His family sailed to America and settled in Philadelphia. Cole was now determined to become a painter, borrowing all the textbooks he could find and taking lessons from an itinerant artist. In 1825 he moved to New York City and that summer took a steamboat trip up the Hudson river into the Catskill Mountains.

He made numerous sketches of this picturesque landscape, rich in hills, valleys, small rivers, abundant wildlife and forests stretching as far as the eye could see. Already it was a tourist destination for New Yorkers but Cole removed all human traces from his sketches and especially from the finished paintings he worked up from them, depicting the landscape as a virgin wilderness.

View of the Round-Top in the Catskill Mountains (Sunny Morning on the Hudson) by Thomas Cole (1827) Photo © 2018 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

View of the Round-Top in the Catskill Mountains (Sunny Morning on the Hudson) by Thomas Cole (1827) Photo © 2018 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Although there are a few tiny sailboats on the river in the far distance of this painting you’d be forgiven for not seeing them. What you are meant to see is the wild and storm-battered trees and the outcrop of rock, highlighted in the foreground and set against the ominous dark shape of the mountain (Round Top) rising behind it.

In these paintings Cole was seeking, in his own words, ‘a higher style of landscape’. He was influenced by the prints he’d seen of the magnificent sprawling light effects achieved by J.M.W. Turner and the grandiose melodramatic effects of ‘end of the world’ John Martin. What makes this exhibition even more visually stunning than it would have been is the inclusion of some wildly dramatic works by Turner and Martin of the sort which inspired young Cole.

A classic example of Cole’s literary or melodramatic embellishment of landscape is this fantastical scene from James Fenimore Cooper’s classic novel of the wilderness north of New York, Last of the Mohicans, published just the year before, in 1826.

The humans are obviously dwarfed by the setting, an improbably fantastical circular ledge of rock on the right of the picture, allowing the left half to reveal a ‘sublime’ receding vista of successive rugged mountains, lakes, and more mountains. The very human passions of Cooper’s novel have been translated into an image of almost cosmic significance.

Scene from The Last of the Mohicans, Cora Kneeling at the Feet of Tamenund (1827) by Thomas Cole © Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut / Allen Phillips

Scene from The Last of the Mohicans, Cora Kneeling at the Feet of Tamenund (1827) by Thomas Cole © Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut / Allen Phillips

These paintings attracted buyers, and word of mouth led Cole to be taken up by some very wealthy patrons. It was one of these patrons, Luman Reed, who paid for Cole to return to Europe and undertake a tour of Italy in order to improve his technique and his life drawing.

Chapter 3. London – Imperial Metropolis

So at the age of 28 Cole returned to Europe, stopping in London, where he visited the newly opened ‘National Gallery’ to study Old Masters. Here he actually met Constable and Turner. He was invited for a personal tour of the latter’s studio, where he admired the remarkable painting, Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps.

Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps by Joseph Mallord William Turner (1812) © Tate 2018

Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps by Joseph Mallord William Turner (1812) © Tate 2018

You can see how this kind of thing played to Cole’s interest in depicting absolutely massive natural landscapes, enormous cosmic or geographical motifs which dwarf their puny human characters.

But like everyone else who met him, Cole was disappointed by the contradiction between the sublimity of Turner’s paintings and the man himself, who was dirty, smelly, abrupt and inarticulate, having the appearance and manners, as Cole put it, of ‘the mate of a coasting vessel’.

At the Royal Academy Cole exhibited some of his own landscapes, such as the striking Distant View of Niagara Falls, which he actually completed in London from sketches taken at the scene, and which he deliberately painted with a view to wowing the London public. He was disappointed when they didn’t make much impact.

Distant View of Niagara Falls (1830) by Thomas Cole © The Art Institute of Chicago

Distant View of Niagara Falls (1830) by Thomas Cole © The Art Institute of Chicago

Chapter 4. The Grand Tour

Cole travelled quickly through Paris, which held no interest for him, and on to Florence, where he spent eight months getting to know the town’s close-knit artistic community, painting the city and going out into the surrounding countryside to paint landscapes and especially all and any remains of the once-great Roman Empire.

In 1832 he moved on to Rome itself, studying and sketching all the famous sites and also venturing out into the surrounding countryside, much loved by the French painted Claude Lorraine whose work he had admired in London.

This part of the exhibition displays figure studies Cole did in Italy, as well as oil paintings of Florence and of picturesque Roman ruins embedded in the tranquil Italian countryside.

Chapter 5. The Course of Empire

Cole returned to the States in 1832 and became a citizen in 1834. It was now, after all this training and preparation, that he began work on the ambitious cycle of five massive paintings designed to portray the rise and fall of an imaginary civilisation which he was to call The Course of Empire.

Visually, the ‘civilisation’ – i.e. the buildings, clothes and trappings of all the inhabitants – are based on ancient Rome, with its vast classical buildings, all pillars, porticoes and domes. But the landscape, the natural setting of the rise and fall, are recognisably the America of Cole’s Catskill paintings.

In this, the first of the sequence, a ‘savage’ dressed in a loincloth in the middle foreground on the left is chasing a deer he has wounded with an arrow, at the bottom and slightly to the right of middle. In the distance on the right is a circle of Indian teepees with a fire burning. Looming up out of the John Martin-style, over-arching clouds, is a sloping mountain topped by a distinctive boulder, which appears in all five paintings.

The Course of Empire: The Savage State by Thomas Cole (1834) © Collection of The New-York Historical Society, New York / Digital image by Oppenheimer Editions

The Course of Empire: The Savage State by Thomas Cole (1834) © Collection of The New-York Historical Society, New York / Digital image by Oppenheimer Editions

The sequence as a whole can be quickly taken in on Wikipedia.

The five paintings are:

  • The Savage State
  • The Arcadian or Pastoral State
  • The Consummation of Empire
  • Destruction
  • Desolation

As you can see, the paintings combine epic scale and deep perspective with a beguiling attention to minute detail. For example, in the second painting, look for the old man tracing geometric shapes in the sand with a stick, the first tremors of the ‘science’ which will give rise to ‘industry’.

The Consummation of Empire is in some ways the most visually pleasing. It’s physically the biggest of the five, but I think a lot of its success is due to the importance of light in bringing an unexpected sense of air and spaciousness to what ought to be a ridiculously crowded and crammed composition.

The Course of Empire: The Consummation of Empire (1835–6) by Thomas Cole © Collection of The New-York Historical Society, New York / Digital image by Oppenheimer Editions

The Course of Empire: The Consummation of Empire (1835–6) by Thomas Cole © Collection of The New-York Historical Society, New York / Digital image by Oppenheimer Editions

It adds to your appreciation to learn that the five paintings are conceived of taking place at different times of day: Savage at dawn, Arcadia in mid-morning, Consummation in the full light of a Mediterranean noon, Destruction in the late afternoon, and Desolation at moonrise.

A whole room is devoted to these five enormous paintings (with a handful of works from Italy on other walls so you can see where ideas of perspective, and especially of classical buildings and plant-covered ruins came from). It is a dazzling array of visionary genius.

Chapter 6. Cole’s Manifesto

Andrew Jackson was the seventh president of the United States, serving from 1829 to 1837, that’s to say at exactly the period when Cole came into his own as a professional artist, travelled to Europe and painted his epic Course of Empire series.

Jackson is controversial nowadays for the politically correct reasons that he was a slave-owner who also took a tough line with native Americans, leading the US Army in the First Seminole War (1814-19), and in 1830 signing an Indian Relocation Act which expelled native Americans from the South to the mid-West of America, causing an immensely destructive uprooting of peoples and cultures in which many died.

But contemporaries like Cole disliked Jackson not for these reasons, but because he was a demagogic populist who appealed over the heads of the Washington establishment to the broader electorate, claiming to speak up for ‘the common man’.

Several art scholars were on hand at the press view I attended and one of them said that Jackson was ‘the Donald Trump of his day’, claiming to stand up for the common man, but in reality paving the way for the spread of industrial capitalism into the West.

He said that if the figure in a red cloak riding in triumph across the viaduct in The Consummation of Empire can be seen as Jackson/Trump, then his empress, seated on a throne at the extreme right and bottom of the picture, must be Melania!

Why did Cole dislike Jackson so much? Because he objected to Jackson forcefully encouraging the opening up of the West for settlement and exploitation.

For Cole is seen by many as not only the first serious painter of landscapes in America, and founder of the Hudson River School of art, but also as one of the first American environmentalists.

Cole was deeply fearful that the Americans were about to repeat the mistakes he had witnessed at first hand in Britain, and were about to destroy their natural landscape in a misguided quest for industrialisation and ‘progress’.

This wasn’t just an opinion he expressed in painting. In 1836, while he was working on the Course of Empire paintings, Cole felt strongly enough about it to write an ‘Essay on American Scenery’ pleading for the preservation of the American wilderness.

Coincidentally and ironically, the same year saw construction begin on the Hudson Valley railway. In the final room, among other works, there’s a pairing of paintings Cole did before and after the railway was built through his beloved Catskill landscape.

View on the Catskill - Early Autumn (1836–7) by Thomas Cole © The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo by Juan Trujillo

View on the Catskill – Early Autumn (1836–7) by Thomas Cole © The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo by Juan Trujillo

The commentary very usefully pointed out the way Cole uses techniques borrowed from Claude Lorraine, namely the elegant trees framing the view, at the right, and the big eggshell blue sky, to convey a tremendous sense of openness and tranquility, against which his characteristically tiny people are framed.

The ‘after’ painting, made six years later in 1843, hardly depicts the end of the world; the changes are more subtle.

A moment’s attention shows that the trees have gone. The framing pair at the right of the earlier work, and the smaller one on the left, have disappeared, replaced by hacked-down stumps. Worse, where the entire lake was previously lined by an elegant sweep of trees, now these have all gone, replaced by low-growing bushes. Removing the trees eliminates the sense of depth and mystery from the view.

River in the Catskills (1843) by Thomas Cole © 2018 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

River in the Catskills (1843) by Thomas Cole © 2018 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The railway itself cuts across the middle distance and this also, once you focus on it, has a subtly undermining effect. Previously the view unfolded with a sense of limitless depths, a sense of mystery succeeding wooded mystery. Now, denuded of trees and bisected by this subtle but decisive line, the entire landscape now appears somehow more constrained and controlled.

The highlight of the last room is arguably Cole’s most famous painting into which he poured everything – his management of sheer scale and size, his sense for landscape, everything he had learned from Turner and Constable about clouds – all expressed in yet another realistic painting which lends itself to allegorical interpretation – View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm, generally known as The Oxbow.

View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm - The Oxbow (1836) by Thomas Cole © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm – The Oxbow (1836) by Thomas Cole © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

This is a huge and hugely enjoyable painting, with much to note and savour. Moving from left to right, up in the sky, we pass from a violent thunderstorm (with forked lightning at the extreme left), to the storm petering out, whiter clouds and then a clear blue sky appearing.

This movement is paralleled on the earth by a movement from violently broken trees in the left foreground and dense virgin brush in the middle-left, suddenly giving way with a great sense of release to a huge vista down over the river valley to the mountains beyond.

And down in the river valley – in striking contrast to the dark, dark green of the wild brush in the left foreground, is the honey yellow of wheatfields in which stand tiny stooks of wheat. Scattered among the orderly yellow and light green fields are occasional settlements of good, honest, horny-handed farmers. Down at the bottom right is a ford with a few horses coming down to it and a raft crossing the river.

This is Cole’s vision of what America should be like, a land of free-living independent yeoman-farmers – the polar opposite of the urbanisation, the galloping desecration of the wilderness, and the encouragement of rapid industrialisation, all of which were taking place under Jackson’s presidency.

It was staring me in the face but I didn’t notice until one of the art historians pointed it out, that the river doesn’t just form a sharp loop – it is in the shape of a question mark. Which future will America choose, a federation of independent farmers, or go down the ruinous path of the Britain which Cole had himself escaped, towards industrialisation, environmental ruination and the transformation of free agricultural workers into a wretched proletariat?

More light-heartedly, Cole has painted himself into his work. At the bottom, just to the right of centre, you can see his head and hat emerging from behind a log. Here I am. I’m painting this beauty. What are you going to make of it?

Detail of the Oxbow by Thomas Cole, showing the artist himself

Detail of The Oxbow by Thomas Cole, showing the artist himself

The Oxbow has never been seen in the UK before. It is just one of about 20 paintings which are normally based in America, are rarely displayed together, and are well worth paying the admission price to see and savour.

Chapter 7. Cole’s Legacy

The final wall in the exhibition shows us the works of some of the painters who inherited Cole’s mantle. He died suddenly aged only 47, but not before he had taught the talented Asher Brown Durand and the exceptional Frederic Edwin Church. They both absorbed Cole’s practice of direct observation of nature, sketching and painting on site in the open air. There are several works by Durand and Church to assess them by.

Ironically, although Cole’s style and approach expanded into an entire ‘school’, almost all of his followers dropped his environmental concerns and adopted the new spirit of the times, the infectious optimism that America’s expansion West, its development and industrialisation, all represented a Manifest Destiny to become God’s Own Country.

Durand’s Progress (The Advance of Civilisation) was painted in 1853, just five years after Cole’s death, yet it celebrates the nascent taming of the wilderness.

At bottom right some cattle are being rounded up while a wagon is being driven up the road. To its left we can see a canal with a lock in it, over which, a bit further down, what looks like a railway bridge crosses over.

On a spur of land sticking out into the lake, in the distance, is some kind of town with a cluster of chimneys emitting the kind of smoke we saw in the first room of the gallery, denoting the British Industrial revolution. Meanwhile, half hidden among the broken trees to the left, is a group of three native Americans looking on – with awe, with regret, who knows? – but in effect characters made to pose and gaze in wonder at the unstoppable Progress of the White Man.

Progress (The Advance of Civilisation) by Asher Brown Durand

Progress (The Advance of Civilisation) by Asher Brown Durand (1853)

Absences and contradictions

There’s no slavery in Cole’s paintings. There are few native Americans. Politically correct curators can point out what – to our enlightened times – are these notable absences.

But then again there are no working poor of any kind. Farms we see, from a great distance, in The Oxbow, but none of the early starts and long days and hard manual labour involved in farming.

In fact people in general are conspicuous by their absence from Cole’s painting. Having never had a formal training, he was self-conscious about his ability to draw bodies and faces and so limited his depictions of people to distant puppets.

In any case, all this was part of his overall strategy, which was to cleanse the landscape of its human inhabitants (white or black or red) in order to present it as a bountiful and idyllic wildscape.

For example, the wall label tells us that there were already tourists at Niagara Falls, roads to bring them there and accommodation for them to stay in. But all of this was omitted from Cole’s primitivising vision of Niagara Falls (above).

The great irony of his career and art is, Who did he produce these visions of a pristine nature for, who did he sell them to?

The answer: to rich patrons in New York and Connecticut who had become rich precisely by laying roads across the wilderness, by selling dry goods to new settlements and, in the case of the New York bankers who patronised Cole, by funding the new railroads and industrial enterprises which were despoiling the very landscapes they paid him to paint.

Cole is praised as a founding environmentalist – but he is just as much a forerunner of that familiar figure, the modern artist who uses art to rail against capitalism, the West, exploitation, poverty and so on but – makes a career by selling their work to rich bankers or to art institutions founded and endowed by rich bankers, the lynchpins of the very system they purport to criticise.

A rapture of beauties

This exhibition would be worth visiting for the Cole alone, but the National Gallery has given us a real embarras de richesses by including masterpieces by the four European painters who most influenced him –

  • the enormous Snowstorm by Turner (Tate)
  • the ludicrously melodramatic Belshazzar’s Feast by John Martin (Yale, USA)
  • as well as five works by John Constable including Hadleigh Castle (Yale, USA) the Opening of Waterloo Bridge (Tate) and three beautiful sketches all usually kept at Yale University in the States, including some wonderful sketches of clouds

Cole developed a friendship with Constable and they exchanged letters and sketches. In fact there are a number of studies by Constable and Turner of skies, cloudscapes and so on, to compare and contrast with Cole’s own sketches. Some of the Constable ones are stunningly skilful uses of paint.

The Opening of Waterloo Bridge (1832) by John Constable © Tate 2018

The Opening of Waterloo Bridge (1832) by John Constable © Tate 2018

In fact one of the most fascinating snippets or sidelights of the exhibition was being shown the relationship between Cole’s anti-industrialising ethos and Constable’s similar sentiments. I hadn’t noticed before that the south bank of the Thames in the Opening of Waterloo Bridge (at the far right of the painting) is thronged with factory chimneys spewing out toxic smoke. Apparently, in his final years, Constable was depressed at the arrival of industrial blight in the landscape of the south of England.

I last saw The Opening in a large exhibition of Constable and powerfully disliked it. The curator pointed out that so does everyone else, but that was part of its point. It is an English version of Cole’s The Consummation of Empire, showing foolhardy pomp and circumstance while in the background industrialism is beginning to corrupt and destroy the culture.

Last but not least in the room showing enormous paintings which influenced Cole is Seaport with the Embarkation of Saint Ursula by Claude Lorraine. You can immediately see how his light-filled combination of water with classical buildings was absorbed and repurposed by Cole for the Course of Empire series, but there are plenty of pleasures to linger and enjoy just in this one painting.

Seaport with the Embarkation of Saint Ursula (1641) by Claude

Seaport with the Embarkation of Saint Ursula (1641) by Claude

The point is, this exhibition isn’t just about Cole. If you add in the couple of paintings each by Durand and Church to the Claude, Turner, Constable and Martin, the feeling is of encountering masterpiece after masterpiece in an exhibition which expands your mind and gladdens the heart.

While the rational mind is processing a raft of issues and ideas, the eyes are surfeited with quite rapturous beauty.

The promotional video


Related links

Reviews of other National Gallery exhibitions

Other posts about American history

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