J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, September 24, 2007

Shark Politics in Parliament

Yesterday’s Boston Globe “Ideas” section featured an article by Prof. Marcus Rediker, author of the upcoming The Slave Ship: A Human History, titled “Slavery: A Shark’s Perspective.”

The article described a 1792 satirical essay by Scottish encyclopedist James Tyler, which Rediker says showed “a dark and daring kind of humor I had never known to exist among abolitionists.” Taking the form of a petition to Parliament, the document asks the government on behalf of “the SHARKS of AFRICA” not to outlaw the slave trade, which provided them with so much food in the form of ill, injured, or suicidal captives.

Thus benefited, as your petitioners are, by this widely extended traffic, a traffic which has never before been molested, it is with the utmost indignation they hear that there are in Britain men, who under the specious plea of humanity, are endeavouring to accomplish its abolition.— But your petitioners trust that this attempt at innovation, this flourishing of the trumpet of liberty, by which “more is meant than meets the ear,” will be effectually frustrated.

Should the lower branch of the legislature be so far infatuated by this new-fangled humanity as seriously to meditate the destruction of this highly beneficial commerce, your petitioners have the firmest reliance on the wisdom and fellow-feeling of the Lords Spiritual and Temporal of Great Britain.
The Boston Globe website supplies an image of the document, and Jack Campin of Edinburgh has transcribed the text. At least three American newspapers reprinted the essay between 1792 and 1807, the last one being The Friend of Salem, Massachusetts.

I wonder if putting this argument into the gaping mouths of sharks had a special resonance because one of the slave trade’s defenders in Parliament had himself famously survived a shark attack. In 1793 Brook Watson (1735-1807) was an Alderman of London. He had grown up in Boston from 1741 until he went to sea as a cabin boy. In 1749 he was swimming in Havana harbor (where, legally, his ship should not have been trading) when a shark bit off his leg. The story of Watson’s injury was well known in London.

During the Parliamentary debates of the 1790s, Watson made much the same argument as the “Sharks of Africa”—that the slave trade so benefited his constituency that the government must not shut it down. Watson also argued that the Newfoundland fishing trade would lose its main market without the enslaved populations of the Caribbean, and put forward an early “positive good” argument for slavery:
He held that those who had brought them from their own country had brought them to happiness, and wound up by telling the House that there could not be a more delightful scene than that presented by the dancing and other amusements of the happy slaves on a well-managed estate.
It seems the “Sharks of Africa” agreed with Watson as much as Watson’s leg agreed with that Cuban shark.

Today’s image shows the painting that Brook Watson commissioned from John Singleton Copley in 1778 of his shark attack. This copy is in the National Gallery in Washington, and part of a very nice online exhibit. There’s another copy at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.


Anonymous said...

I guess I'd never thought about what Watson did after surviving the shark attack. Alas that he did no use the rest of his life wisely. Thanks for making this connection. Kit

J. L. Bell said...

I hadn't realized that Watson had a political career until I looked into that painting because of the shark reference. I just knew he'd become rich enough to commission it from Copley.

It turns out Watson was nipping around the edges of the Revolution as well, managing to leave people on both sides feeling betrayed. Interesting guy.