A little bit of background

This page is intended to offer space to think – to expand on some of the things said and points made on a site whose contents have been getting out of hand.

Already the blog runs to the length of two full-size books. There are a lot of things that could be said in qualification and explanation. Eventually, I hope to say them.

Mike Dash, 26 January 2014


The crucifixion of Prince Klaas

Prince Klaas lashed to the wheel - the image on display at the Museum of Antigua and Barbuda in St John's, Antigua.

Prince Klaas lashed to the wheel – the image on display at the Museum of Antigua and Barbuda in St John’s, Antigua.

The story of Prince Klaas, the rebel slave, is one of the highlights of the charming Museum of Antigua and Barbuda in St John’s, which I had the chance to wander around in December 2012 while doing some lecturing in the Caribbean. Slave revolts have been an interest of mine for years, and I was familiar with the outlines of Klaas’s remarkable story – which I wrote up for the Smithsonian at the time (and which caused a certain amount of upset in Antigua itself among people who don’t seem to have actually read the article very closely). But I had never seen a picture that purported to show him, and in fact it’s vanishingly rare for images of slave leaders to survive from so early a period as the first half of the eighteenth century. So when I discovered that the museum displayed a drawing of Klaas, naked, strapped face down to a wheel, and being lashed, I snapped it and later used it as an illustration in the essay that I wrote.

I felt a little bit uneasy about this. There was something not quite right about the sketch. Klaas, after all, had been bound in order to suffer the appalling punishment of breaking on the wheel – a form of execution that involved the systematic pulverisation of the victim’s bones that is, in effect, a form of execution. Yet the drawing showed Klaas being whipped, not shattered. The wheel that he was strapped to seemed to be lying on the ground, when in reality it would have been mounted on an axle, the better to rotate the victim to face the executioner’s blows. The man administering the punishment was black, implying that he was the overseer on a plantation, not an executioner employed by the Antiguan government. And the artist had depicted only a handful of spectators, not the substantial crowd that watched Klaas die.

Eventually I decided to take a closer look at the problem, and spent a little while researching images of slavery. I soon discovered that my misgivings were correct. The image of Klaas turns out to be adapted from ‘Whipping of a fugitive slave, French West Indies, 1840s,’ an oil painting (below) by the artist Marcel Verdier which is currently owned by the Menil Foundation of Houston, Texas.

Marcel Verdier's 'Whipping of a fugitive slave' (1840s).

Marcel Verdier’s ‘Whipping of a fugitive slave’ (1840s).

Closer examination shows that the image has been redrawn rather than manipulated in a program such as Photoshop – see, for example, the fine detail of the lounging figure on the left, the turnups on the overseer’s trousers, what appear to be the bulging eyes of the slave in the Antigua image, and, most revealing of all, the excision of the object lying next to the slave’s right leg in Verdier’s painting. This last is a spiked iron collar, which was a punishment usually inflicted on a runaway, not an alleged rebel, as Klaas was.

Probably all this this suggests that the image in the museum is quite old. It remains unclear who drew it or why, but the addition of the wheel – however crudely added – certainly suggests that somebody specifically intended it to represent the death of Klaas.

There are, I think, two points to make about all this. One is the irony that Verdier, a French artist, executed his original oil entirely from imagination – it is not even an historically accurate portrayal of the punishment of slaves in the French West Indies in the mid-nineteenth century, much less of Klaas’s execution more than a century earlier. The other is that images of this sort are a lot more common than many people realise – and, by “of this sort,” I mean not faked images of slavery, but images that have been specially created to show a moment in time that never was captured for posterity. The fact is that there is a huge demand for drawings, paintings and even manipulated photographs that purport to show key moments in history – and, sometimes at least, these pass themselves off as something more than imaginative reconstruction. They are claimed to be real.

Such images can frequently be severely misleading. It’s one thing to turn an image of a flogging into one supposed to show an execution; it’s another altogether to claim that an ancient Austrian school photo depicts a youthful Hitler with his classmate Ludwig Wittgenstein. And the point is not that these are actually deceptions – though of course they are. It’s that images of this sort – the ones we badly want to exist, to satisfy ourselves as to what so-and-so actually looked like, or that some remarkable moment “actually happened” – are terrifically potent. In the right circumstances, they can actually distort history. I’ve written an obscure but, I think, important article about all this elsewhere, which I think is still worth reading.

Credit: Whipping of a Fugitive Slave, French West Indies, 1840s; Image Reference Image-2, as shown on http://www.slaveryimages.org, compiled by Jerome Handler and Michael Tuite, and sponsored by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and the University of Virginia Library.

16 June 2014


Jorge Luis Borges and the infinite library

Jorge Luis Borges and the infinite library

My parting shot, in the sidebar to this blog, is a quote from a poem by Jorge Luis Borges, the blind Argentinian writer and librarian: “I have always imagined Paradise as a kind of library.” This, to me, is a rather beautiful sentiment, and even hopeful. However, while it’s how Borges’s words are usually presented in compilations of quotations, and it turns them into something that can stand alone,  it’s loosely translated. In fairness to the poet’s memory, here is the whole of his ‘Poem of the Gifts’ (1958), with the original words in their proper context. The translation is by Alastair Reid, and the poem is one every bibliophile should know. It addresses the progressive blindness that began to afflict Borges shortly after his appointment as director of the National Library of Argentina in succession to Paul Groussac – who, strangely, was also blind.

No one should read self-pity or reproach
into this statement of the majesty
of God, who with such such splendid irony
granted me books and blindness in one touch.

Care of this city of books he handed over
to sightless eyes, which now can do no more
than read in libraries of dream the poor
and senseless paragraphs that dawns deliver

to wishful scrutiny. In vain the day
squanders on the same eyes its infinite tomes,
as distant as the inaccessible volumes
that perished once in Alexandria.

From hunger and from thirst (in the Greek story),
a king lies dying among gardens and fountains.
Aimlessly, endlessly, I trace the confines,
high and profound, of the blind library.

Cultures of East and West, the entire atlas,
encyclopedias, centuries, dynasties,
symbols, the cosmos, and cosmogonies
are offered from the walls, all to no purpose.

In shadows, with a tentative stick, I try
the hollow twilight, slow and imprecise—
I, who had always thought of Paradise
In form and image as a library.

Something, which certainly is not defined
by the word fate, arranges all these things;
another man was given, on other evenings
now gone, these many books. He too was blind.

Wandering through the gradual galleries,
I often feel with vague and holy dread
I am that other dead one, who attempted
the same uncertain steps on similar days.

Which of the two is setting down this poem—
A single sightless self, a plural I?
What can it matter, then, the name that names me,
given our curse is common and the same?

Groussac or Borges, now I look upon
this dear world losing shape, fading away
into a pale uncertain ashy-gray
that feels like sleep, or else oblivion.

Why does this resonate? In his essay “Jorge Luis Borges and the plural I,” Eric Ormsby makes an important point about libraries, about the poem and the poet: “The library, whether the Library of Babel in his great ‘fiction’ of the same name or the National Library of Argentina where Borges served as director for some eighteen years, is a fitting metaphor for infinitude. The fact that Borges was almost completely blind during his tenure as national librarian must have strengthened his sense of boundlessness. Anyone who has wandered in a large library at night when all the lights are out will appreciate the eerie sensation of limitlessness; the books on serried shelves, each foreshadowing its neighbour, appear to extend into endlessness, and to perceive this purely by touch must be doubly persuasive.”

26 January 2014

2 thoughts on “A little bit of background

  1. Regarding:
    “I’ve written _an obscure but, I think, important article about all this elsewhere_, which I think is still worth reading.”

    Unfortunately, all of the image files for the illustrations remarked upon in that linked article (“Our artist pictures what the witness saw…”, May 25, 2010) are currently missing — presumably victims of some CMS change — leaving your readers to guess at the artists’ own guesses. The pictures are still viewable in Internet Archive copies of the page, though, so if you wish to, you may fix it without much trouble by copying the images back from there.

    (I won’t include the Internet Archive URL here, as I suspect a URL might get this comment automatically spam-filtered, but for any visitors also reading this, who are unfamiliar with the Internet Archive, and wish to view the article I’m referring to with its pictures: You can copy the web address from the “an obscure but…” link in Dash’s text above, then do a Web search for the “Internet Archive”, go to the Internet Archive, paste into their “Wayback Machine” search box the previously copied Web address of the article, hit Enter, and click on one of the older-dated copies on the calendar, like one of the copies from 2010.)

    Thank you for sharing with us all these interesting dives into diverse historical topics.

    (I apologize if this is a double-post. WordPress asked me to log in after I clicked “Post Comment”, but once I logged in, it gave me no confirmation that the comment had been posted, so I don’t know if it’s in a comment approval queue or was just dropped.)

    • Thank you for drawing this to my attention. I have now fixed the problem. For those who are interested, the article referred to appears on another blog I used to run, and can be found archived here.

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