'The Hunted Slaves' 1861

Richard Ansdell (1815 - 1885)

Painting of African man and woman fighting off large dogs with an axe

The transatlantic slave trade was abolished in Britain in 1807 but full emancipation of enslaved people in British territories was not achieved until 1834 and in France until 1848. In September 1862 (the second year of the American Civil War) in his Emancipation Declaration, Peresident Lincoln stated that from the following January:

"...all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free."

While slavery still persisted, the theme of the fugitive on the run from former enslavement was to become an important one in art on both sides of the Atlantic.

Painted in 1861, the year of the outbreak of the American Civil War, this picture portrays two runaways, turning to face the pack of mastiffs which has pursued them. When the painting was first exhibited the artist included a quotation in the catalogue from the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem 'The Dismal Swamp' , which describes the flight of an escaped person. Interestingly the subject of Longfellow's poem is an old and quite pathetic figure, unlike the graceful heroic man in Ansdell's painting.

Both Longfellow's poem and Ansdell's painting are powerful indictments of the savage treatment which enslaved Africans suffered.

Abolitionist writings from the United States and Europe undoubtedly had an important impact on artists and writers. Harriet Beecher Stowe's 'Uncle Tom's Cabin', which had been inspired by the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, won immediate popularity throughout Europe. A passage in this book describing how an enslaved man named Scipio was cornered by a pack of dogs in a swamp may have been the inspiration for Ansdell's painting.

Harriet Beecher Stowe had even visited Liverpool in 1853, where she addressed meetings on the evils of slavery. Her liberal views were not well received. Liverpool was heavily dependent upon the importation of raw cotton from the Southern States and the export of finished goods. Several Liverpool merchants enthusiastically supported the Southern Confederacy states. They believed that slavery kept cotton prices low, so its abolition would have a damaging effect on the economy of north west England.

The Federal blockade of the Confederate ports during the American Civil War prevented the export of much cotton, upon which the Lancashire cotton mills were dependent, leading to serious unemployment and hardship in the area. Ansdell actually presented this painting to the Lancashire Cotton Relief Committee, set up to relieve the suffering of mill workers. The Committee offered the painting as a prize in a lottery, raising £700 (equivalent to £35,000 today). The painting was won by Gilbert Moss of Liverpool, who gave it to the Corporation.

The painting was on display at the Walker Art Gallery, for many years. It is now in the 'Legacies' section of the International Slavery Museum.

  • Oil on canvas, 184 x 308cm
  • Accession number WAG 3070