Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Blake's Coded Designs of Slave Revolts

Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Blake's Coded Designs of Slave Revolts

Article excerpt

The Haitian Revolution of 1791 reached the shores of all the slave colonies of the Americas. But the Saint-Domingue Revolt, as it was called at the time, was the most influential, harrowing, and longest (1791-1804) of the West Indian slave insurrections. The slave revolts influenced the British emancipation movement (Matthews), and the literature. Blake was electrified by them, especially the Haitian Revolution (Wood, Slave")) 192; Poetry 143-144). It rolled through his 1790 "prophecies": America: A Prophecy (1793), Europe: A Prophecy (1794), and The Song of Los (1795). Critics name these the "Continental Prophecies" because they arc set on the four continents of America, Europe, Africa, and Asia. However, "America" should signify not only the slave-owning colony that became the United States but also the West Indian plantation colonies with their constant revolts going back to the mid-1600s.

Blake's familiarity with the experiences of slavery in other colonies of the Americas underlies his 1791-1792 engravings for John Stedman's Narrative of a Five Years Expedition against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam. The Narrative itself contained graphic descriptions of the tortures by which the planters disciplined their slaves, and when Blake engraved the Continental Prophecies several years later he drew on a detailed knowledge of slavery in the sugar colonies. Sarah Salih suggests how problematic such "fictions of atrocity" (64) can be, for the viewer "is situated at a safe textual remove from the enslaved people" (70). However, Debbie Lee shows that Blake's engravings are subversive precisely because he brings his viewers close to the slaves (90) through their "self-possession" (107-111). They look out directly to the viewers in an intimate complicity.

Critics have noted the striking parallels between the Stedman engravings and the designs for Blake's works of the 1790s (Linebaugh and Rediker, 344-47). Blake duplicates the image of the spread-eagled rebel from his famous plate #71, "The Execution of Breaking on the Rack," in "The Poison Tree" of the Songs of Experience (Davis, 56) and the "Preludium" of America: A Prophecy (Erdman, 231). Many designs of the Continental Prophecies belong to the larger context of his Stedman engravings that became iconic with the abolitionist movement. In a comprehensive and complex way, those engravings imply support of slave resistance as Stedman's narrative does not (Lee, 88-90).

The 1791-1792 engravings reach a high pitch in Blake's designs alluding to plantation slavery, and some of his later works parallel their key illustrations. Several of the most graphic were reproduced repeatedly in the popular abolitionist media: #11, "A Negro hung alive by the ribs to a gallows"; #35, "Flagellation of a female Samboe slave"; and #71, "The Execution of Breaking on the Rack." Figures duplicating the posture of "Neptune" in #71 (as Stedman names him, 285-6), who was thus being broken, appear often in different Blake works. His Stedman engravings in particular influenced designs for the Continental Prophecies.

Indeed, if one looks at the designs of the Continental Prophecies as a whole, they strongly oppose West Indian colonial slavery. The designs encode his real intent as the texts do not, specifically, his support for the rebelling slaves in the unfolding Saint-Domingue Revolt. This advocacy culminates in Europe: A Prophecy, in which the designs present the capsule history of this Revolt up to 1794, when the French left and the British began their own attempt to take the colony and restore slavery. The designs of the Continental Prophecies thus provide a significant dimension missing from the accompanying poems, save for the Preludiums of America and Europe. In them, Blake "prophesies" the end of the slave trade, initiated by colonial slave insurrections such as the Saint-Dorningue Revolt then underway for three years.

As nearly all critics recognize, these Continental Prophecies present a vision of the point when forces of cultural repression grow unendurably constrictive and are broken down by the spirit of revolution. …

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