This painting is a product of the early phase of the British movement to abolish the transatlantic slave trade during the 18th and 19th century. Its dominant image is that of an enslaved African, set against the backdrop of a Caribbean sugar plantation. Further enslaved people raise axes to the sugar cane in the background.
As the abolitionist movement gained popular support, the image was widely used for decorating men's snuff boxes, ladies’ bracelets and hair pins, as well as household objects including milk jugs, sugar bowls and tobacco boxes.
The foot of the canvas reads, ‘Am Not I a Man and a Brother’ a variation on the more common version, ‘Am I Not a Man and a Brother’. Although the image and motto were replicated across a variety of artefacts and printed material, this work is only the second painting that is known to exist featuring the motif.
While the image became an important symbol of the abolitionist movement, it also touches on the historical representation of enslaved Africans. Although the image was designed to appeal to the sympathies of the British public in identifying with the cause of abolition it also reflects the misconception of enslaved Africans as passive acceptors of their fate. In fact the opposite was true, enslaved Africans were the main instigators in their fight for freedom, with Black abolitionists such as Olaudah Equiano, Ottobah Cugoano and Mary Prince actively campaigning as part of the British abolitionist movement.