Believe It or Not, He Survived

Published:January 9, 2012 by Brendan Wolfe

Might as well just keep going with the sharks, so here’s a painting, by the Boston-born artist John Singleton Copley, titled Watson and the Shark (1778). I think you’ll agree that it vividly depicts the dangers of a shark attack, but what’s notable is that it was painted at the height of the slave trade (just when satires like this one were being written) and features, at the top of what art historians would recognize as the hierarchical triangle there in the middle, a black man.

What’s the story? Well, it’s actually based on a real-life event: 14-year-old Brook Watson was attacked twice while swimming alone in Havana Harbor in Cuba when he was rescued by nearby seamen. He survived but lost his leg. Later he became a wealthy London merchant and staunch Tory, and he actually commissioned Copley’s painting. According to the art historian Albert Boime, the painting needs to be understood in the context of English politics, the American Revolution, and the slave trade. Tories, you see, did not support the Revolution and used the hypocrisy of slavery against the American agitators for liberty. As a result, writes Boime,

Copley’s picture demonstrates a Tory attempt to show sympathy for repressed people [the well-dressed black man] at the height of Tory antagonism toward the American Revolution. Through the work, both painter and patron sent the message that opposition to the rebellion was not identical with opposition to regulated freedom. In Watson, a conservative painter formulated for his conservative client a response to the political attacks of Whig opponents whose own involvement in slavery belied their stated defense of American independence. Watson, moreover, emphasized his close association with the New World, not just as an armchair spectator or tourist, but as someone who had experienced it in the raw. Seemingly, Watson announced: “I know more about this world than smug, self-righteous Whigs. I have been there and I have suffered there.”

And yet! In order to make that point, Copley and Watson found it necessary to invert what was the overwhelming reality on the seas in 1778: placing the black man on top and the white man in the shark-infested waters instead of the other way around.

But that’s the point, says Boime: “Copley represented Watson as a victim of divine wrath for his own involvement in slave trading,” an involvement that is not entirely agreed-upon, it should be said. The waters, then are the colonies, “dangerous breeding ground for revolutionary ideas that threaten the youth of the New World.” Oh, and Watson’s body there in the water looks an awful lot like the prostrate African American, Crispus Attucks, in the Paul Revere engraving, Bloody Massacre, made after the Boston Massacre of March 5, 1770. Turns out Revere plagiarized his engraving from a design by Copley’s stepbrother, Henry Pelham, whose own work was published two weeks after Revere’s.

IMAGE: Watson and the Shark (1778) by John Singleton Copley