UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Abolition and William Blake’s illustrations for Stedman’s Expedition against the revolted Negroes of Surinam Andrews, Sharon Andrea


In 1796, John Gabriel Stedman's "Narrative of a Five Years Expedition against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam" was published in London. The "Expedition" described Stedman's campaigns as a mercenary officer employed by the Dutch colony of Surinam. Stedman, subscribing to eighteenth-century notions of empiricism, described in great detail the flora, fauna and inhabitants of Surinam, including the brutal mistreatment of its plantation slaves. However, while calling for amelioration of such mistreatment, Stedman stated his support for slavery as a system and for the cross-Atlantic slave trade. Eighty-one illustrations, by various engravers, accompanied the Expedition and received contemporary acclaim. Of those, twelve images of slaves and slave life including illustrations that represent the punishment and execution of slaves, were engraved by William Blake. These latter images were unusual within the traditions of book illustrations in travel narratives and abolitionist literature because of their graphic display of pain. This thesis focuses on Blake's illustrations and in particular assesses the way in which these images contributed to the late eighteenth-century reception of Stedman's publication as a document that supported abolition and antislavery interests. Both William Blake and the publisher of the Expedition. Joseph Johnson belonged to "radical" groups that advocated the ending of both slavery and the slave trade. This thesis argues that Blake, supported by Johnson, emphasized abolitionist and antislavery elements in the illustrations thereby allowing the publication to be harnessed to the cause of the anti-slave trade movement. In order to examine Blake's illustrations within the Expedition the thesis is divided into four sections: Chapter One assesses the rise of the abolition movement in late eighteenth-century Britain; Chapter Two contextualizes the Stedman images within the traditions of travel and abolitionist literature; Chapter Three examines eighteenth-century printing and engraving practises; and Chapter Four assesses the images themselves and the way they could work both with and at times against Stedman's text.

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