Faces of Perfect Ebony: Encountering Atlantic Slavery in Imperial Britain

Article excerpt

Faces of Perfect Ebony" Encountering Atlantic Slavery in Imperial Britain. By Catherine Molineux. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012. Pp. xiii, 341. $49.95.)

Following the approach pioneered by David Dabydeen in Hogarth's Blacks, Catherine Molineux provides a generously illustrated survey of the representation of black subjects in various cultural forms, both "high" and "low," during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. She revisits much of the ground covered by Dabydeen in a chapter on Hogarth's satire but also broadens the focus to include seventeenth-century portraits, plays, and newspapers, as well as eighteenth-century prints, pamphlets, and commercial advertising.

Though the book's title suggests a British survey, most of the evidence cited was produced in London. Since the capital was home to the largest black population in the British Isles as well as a center of imperial trade, including African slavery, this focus is certainly justifiable, but as the author makes clear, this book is about white "constructions" rather than black experience.

Molineux argues that the "ambiguity of slavery" and the "multiplicity of meanings attached to black subordination" suggested in her sources allowed Britons to distance themselves from the "black trauma" associated with enslavement. Her analysis begins by highlighting the importance of European models, particularly the work of Anthony Van Dyck, for several Restoration portraits of English noble subjects. These images not only idealized the relationship between predominantly female masters and their "exotic" child slaves but also established the trope of benevolent domination that would be reworked in other cultural forms to the end of the eighteenth century. …