October 10: Some things were unphotographable.
What is going on in this battered sepia-toned photograph taken on 10 October 1907 by Able Seaman Joseph Chidwick, aboard paddle steamer HMS Sphinx.?
We don’t expect to see any British photographs of manacled slaves. The House of Commons passed a bill in 1805 making it unlawful for any British subject to capture and transport slaves (though the measure was blocked by the House of Lords and did not come into force until March 25, 1807).
This photograph was taken 100 years later than that date. Slavery throughout the British Empire was abolished (with the exceptions “of the Territories in the Possession of the East India Company”, the “Island of Ceylon” and “the Island of Saint Helena”) with the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act. The exceptions were eliminated in 1843. No suitable photographic medium would have existed to record the result of this momentous societal changed of heart; the Daguerreotype was only six years old and Talbot’s calotype only two.
Certainly the camera recorded American slaves; abolition there occurred after the Civil War well after the invention of photography and just as the faster wet-plate process became available (and was being used by Matthew Brady to record the Civil War). This photograph taken April 2, 1863, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, USA, shows the scars of a whipped Mississippi slave.
Chidwick’s battered photograph in fact records an African man of powerful stature patiently waiting as his manacle is removed by a much slighter, workmanlike British sailor, barefoot in the heat. He’s just started plying his hacksaw (a device recently improved in the 1880s). The man had been captured as a slave by Arab traders and perhaps was rescued when the ship’s marines boarded a captured slave dhow off the East African coast as seen in another of Chidwick’s rare images made in about 1907.
The photographs were donated to the Royal Naval Museum by Able Seaman Joseph Chidwick’s 74 year old son, who said:
The pictures were taken by my father who was serving aboard HMS Sphinx while on armed patrol off the Zanzibar and Mozambique coast. That night a dhow sailed by and the slaves were all chained together. He raised the alarm and they got them on to the ship and got the chains knocked off them. They then questioned them and sent a party of marines ashore to try to track the slave traders down. They caught two of them and I believe they were of Arabic origin.
The posed group image above by Welsh-born Johannesburg photographer Joseph Barnett or his brother David seems to be complicit in the slave trade, or at least appears to remove itself from condemning it (though amongst his collection are images of freed slaves as well as slave sales).
Chidwick goes on to say:
My father thought the slave trade was a despicable thing…the slaves were treated very badly so when [the marines] got the slavers they didn’t give them a very nice time!
The elder Chidwick later survived the sinking of armoured cruiser CRESSY, torpedoed by a German U.9 in southern North Sea, 22 September 1914, and fortunately these rare photographs remain. They were part of the Royal Naval Museum’s 2007 exhibition ‘Chasing Freedom -The Royal Navy and the suppression of the Transatlantic Slave Trade’ marking the 2rd centenary of the House of Commons abolition bill. It presents the dangerous work undertaken by the Royal Navy’s anti-slavery blockade along the coast of the African continent.
This humanitarian endeavour is the antithesis of the British Empire’s role as a major slave trading nation. Prior to 1807, the Royal Navy had its own enslaved Africans in its dockyards in Jamaica and Antigua and as part of its job it escorted slave ships down the African coast and fought major battles for control of the valuable ‘sugar islands’ of the West Indies.
Up to three million Africans had been transported in British ships since 1650, and at the end of the 18th century Britain was dominating the trade, with an average of more than 150 slave ships leaving Liverpool, Bristol, and London each year. Such horrors of slavery are graphically represented in British artist J. M. W. Turner’s The Slave Ship, originally titled Slavers Throwing overboard the Dead and Dying—Typhon coming on, first exhibited in 1840 and inspired by the artist’s reading of anti-slavery literature, particularly Thomas Clarkson’s The History and Abolition of the Slave Trade.
Between 1807 and 1860, the Royal Navy’s West Africa Squadron seized approximately 1600 ships involved in the slave trade and freed 150,000 Africans who were aboard these vessels.
Chiswick’s photograph vividly demonstrates that even in 1907 slavery still persisted 100 years after its British abolition. It still does; the exhibition aimed to highlight the still inadequate efforts to prevent people trafficking.
Some things were unphotographable; because they no longer existed when photography appeared, like the British slave.
Nevertheless, slavery continued in the twentieth century.
Here, in this (recently and badly ‘colourised’) publicity image taken on this date in 1942, a grim Adolf Hitler is accompanied by the smirking, porcine Hermann Goering, and architect Albert Speer who had just been appointed Minister of Armaments and War Production. His ‘Org. Tolt’ (Organisation Todt) armband refers to the German paramilitary civil industrial, and during the war, military, engineering group civil of the Third Reich from 1933 to 1945.
It was named after its founder, Fritz Todt, an engineer and senior Nazi figure who oversaw the building of the first autobahns prior to the war. Formed from a conglomerate of government firms, private companies and the Reichsarbeitsdienst (Reich Labor Service), the OT used up to 800,000 forced laborers (Zwangsarbeiter) from countries Germany occupied during World War II. Amongst the private firms to ruthlessly exploit this source of labour were IG Farben, which used 83,000, BASF, Bayer and Hoechst (80,000), ThyssenKrupp (75,000), BMW (50,000), Daimler/Mercedes (40,000), Bosch (20,000), Auto Union/Audi (20,000), VW (12,000). By the time this picture was taken, Fritz Todt, who had become convinced that war with the Soviets was unwinnable, had died in a plane accident on which Speer himself, later appointed to replace Todt, had narrowly missed boarding.
On of the major projects Speer oversaw was the production of V-2 ballistic missiles, V-1 flying bombs, and other weaponry at the factory Mittelwerk (German for “Central Works”) built underground in the Kohnstein to avoid Allied bombing. It used slave labor from the Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp. As he entered them on April 10, 1945, Major William Castille rather inappropriately described the Mittelwerk tunnels as “a magician’s cave;” surely those of a supremely evil sorcerer!
Combat photographer Jim Bates (1916–2002), accompanying the US troops produced graphic evidence later used in war crimes trials. Aside from the emaciated and shattered bodies of hundreds of enslaved workers, many killed during their bombing runs, the Americans discovered orderly rows of V-2 parts and subassemblies stretched out through the tunnels and the assembly line was left with its electric power and ventilation systems still running. They promptly commandeered numbers of the rockets for their own purposes. Speer had disobeyed Hitler’s order to leave behind a ‘scorched earth’ —total destruction of all military infrastructure— for the allies.
Elsewhere on this date in 1945, Soviet spearheads, after a spectacular night attack by 4,000 tanks and almost 5,000 aeroplanes striking across the Oder in the white glare of massed searchlights, reached the outskirts of the Nazi capital on the eve of Hitler’s 56th birthday, and two days later entered the city proper.
American Lisa Kristine (*1965) and Nicolas Asfouri, a Danish national, born in Beirut and working for AFP, are just two of many documentary photographers who are exposing contemporary slavery, an ongoing inhumanity visited by the greedy on the disadvantaged, those who catch your seafood in Thailand for example. Child slavery makes up more than one quarter of all forced labour. According to official ILO figures, there are at least 5.5 million children living as slaves.