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 crucifixion. 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.
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 believe 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.