These overseers are indeed for the most part persons of the worst character of any denomination of men in the West Indies. Unfortunately, many humane gentlemen, by not residing on their estates, are obliged to leave the management of them in the hands of these human butchers, who cut and mangle the slaves in a shocking manner on the most trifling occasions, and altogether treat them in every respect like brutes.
– Equiano, 105
This quote describes the overseers stationed in plantations of the West Indies. The overseers are described as the “worst character of any denomination of men in the West Indies” (105). Out of every single person from the West Indies, the overseers take the title of the world heavyweight championship for being the worst. In other words, the overseers are jerks and are so because of what they’ve done to the Africans. Equiano compares the overseers to butchers, as they “cut and mangle the slaves”. The description alone suggests how much torture and misery the slaves have gone through while working at the plantation. To be scarred and obtain scars, the overseers are not nice people and Equiano confirms that. Throughout the reading, he brings up the topic of religion. In this case, the overseers are religious and believers of God, yet they commit such hateful and heinous things toward the slaves. So why is that? Why are “good people” doing bad things? Equiano is definitely showing some sort of irony here with his type of writing.
Afterall, Equiano sort of becomes a hypocrite because after he becomes a free man, he accepts the job of becoming an overseer anyway. Even though he is not as vicious as the overseers he’s describing, it is definitely unpopular to accept the job of being an overseer. Kind of ironic don’t you think? Furthermore, this goes back to the title of my post: “New Slaves” by Kanye West. The song actually has some weight on this issue. In other words, Equiano would rather be a leader than a follower. To go with the unpopular opinion (becoming an overseer) rather than going against slavery. Or in another sense, he is becoming a new slave to European culture. He might not be in the fields working for them, but he is definitely on the fields working with them.
In the first cartoon, John Bull Taking a Clear View of Negro Slavery Question, by Robert Cruikshank, the quote by Equiano gives us context and helps us put the cartoon in perspective. As seen in the first satirical cartoon, here is a photograph of what seems to be a portrait of an overseer torturing a slave. This photograph is shown to a man who is looking at an island through a telescope. In my interpretation, it looks like the island could be the West Indies. However, from the viewer’s perspective we can see the island is filled with happy inhabitants dancing and celebrating. Zoom in the middle of the group of dancers, it seems to be an African woman dancing with a white man (or maybe the cartoon wasn’t painted completely). This might be a counter to Equiano’s statement about overseers– maybe they aren’t “brutes” or “butchers” but are instead “fun” and “relatable”. I mean why would an overseer dance with a group of slaves if they were these terrible human beings and vice-versa?
Anyway, back to the man looking through the telescope. The man holding pictures of slavery seems to imply how politicians use propaganda to support their cause. And in this case, it must mean that the man holding the photographs is an abolitionist and is trying to persuade the man in front of him to side against slavery. So who is the man looking through the telescope? Possibly John Bull. But who is John Bull? An Englishman that’s for sure. But why is he so important to be in the title of the cartoon? In my opinion, John Bull is the representation of the people of England. The abolitionist is trying to sway the people to see the cruelty and painful torture slaves go through. Now Cruikshank seems to be poking fun at abolitionists and politics in general.
Another major thing in the cartoon is the issue of the production of sugar. We have the West Indies vs the East India Company. As you can see in the left, a Quaker-like fellow is holding a sign that says “Buy only East India Sugar, ‘Tis Sinful to buy any other”. In his back pocket, it is seen that he has some stock in East India sugar. More or less, he doesn’t really care about the issue of slavery and how the production comes along, but more about promoting the brand and keeping his stocks up.
And on the far left of the cartoon is a petition to Parliament to remove the sugar production duties of the East India company. He goes on to do this by showing kids signing petitions on the left side of the cartoon. But why are kids signing a petition? Aren’t they too young to vote? Maybe he’s poking fun at petitions and how effective they are. But it’s definitely poking fun at how credible and valid they are (since children are voting). If anything, this is more of a cartoon about anti-abolitionist and using the issue of slavery to distract the viewers. Especially a sensitive issue like this one about treatment and dehumanization of others. Cruikshank throws in another worthy image in this cartoon about the mistreatment of others: the homeless man with children next to him. This seems to be a comparison of the poor families in England and the slaves in the West Indies. It seems that “Poor Pat” (term for Irish immigrants) is a representation of the Irish immigrants. He even draws a dog urinating on his sign! A sign that has incorrect spelling! This isn’t about slavery anymore, this is more of a wake-up call. Sure, there are people suffering in the West Indies (outside of Europe) but there are people suffering at home too. Maybe the abolitionists should look at the cruel and mistreatment of people at home instead of the slaves in the West Indies. All in all, this seems to be a satirical take on the abolitionist movement and ironic for Equiano. Equiano talks bad about the overseers but becomes an overseer anyway. Just as the cartoon pokes fun at England’s own problems vs the problems outside of England.
- Christopher Luong