Slave Ship and The Mariner's Revenge Song

7:00 AM

J.M.W. Turner, Slave Ship, 1840



Every time I hear this song, I burst into a one woman musical, singing as loudly as possible while everyone within a one mile radius cover their ears. I love this song, the creepy solo the mother has, the slightly concerning amount of detail The Decemberists went into while describing how the boy should avenge his mother. Lovely, isn't it? Then again, I've always had a soft spot in my heart for the dark and creepy. 

But really what I love most about this song is the story it tells. The story of a con man who takes advantage of a young boy's single mother, seducing her then taking all that they have. The son never forgave the man, especially when his mother later dies of illness. In her last moments, she beckons him to seek revenge, a raw and hate-filled revenge for what that man had done to them. He spends many years, looking and sulking, but eventually locates the man as the captain of a ship while overhearing a sailor giving confession at the church the boy works at. Immediately, he takes to sea with a privateer, his mother's voice whispering to him a reminder of what he must do in the wind. When the ship is finally located, a giant whale attacks, swallowing and demolishing both ships. Coincidentally, the boy and his target are the only two left alive, alone in the belly of a whale. Hence my favorite line, "But oh what providence! What divine intelligence! That you should survive as well as me!" Then, the lyrics stop, and you're only left with an increasing instrumental tempo, but you know exactly what's happening.

That same turbulent, treacherous noise can be found in Turner's Slave Ship. Rather than the story of a young man's revenge, Turner retells how the cruel captain of a slave ship  threw slaves he suspected of being diseased into the sea, chained and alive. His reason? Money. The captain would not have been paid if slaves showed up dead, but would be given something if his human cargo had been "lost at sea." Thus, when disease inevitably broke out, he decided that it would be more fiscally responsible to throw anyone with sniffles overboard. Turner added some more monsters to the painting. What I can only assume are piranhas gnaw at a chained leg, while fish-monsters like the ones in the song close in on the abandoned slaves. It's gut wrenching and horrible, but that was the point. To capture your attention and tie your stomach into a knot so that you would never forget what true evil looks like. Turner was an abolitionist later in his life, and painted Slave Ship as a protest to such a monstrous institution. No one was ever convicted for the crime, and while the ghosts of the slaves the captain had thrown over board never met him in dark alley or the belly of a whale, I like to think that this is Turner's own form of revenge. A dish best served cold and covered in paint.

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