William Blake made these engravings for John Stedman’s book about his experiences working on the slave-worked plantations of Surinam.
How did Blake come to be working on this?
From 1779, soon after Blake had finished his apprenticeship, he was commissioned regularly to make engraved plates for printing by the publisher Joseph Johnson; these are copies of works by other artists, to be included as illustrations in books. Through Johnson Blake met Captain John Stedman, an artist and poet, who had been a mercenary with the Dutch army in Surinam (South America) during a slave rebellion between 1772 and 1777. Stedman had kept notes which were made up into the book, published by Johnson, with some of the images engraved by Blake.
Stedman maintained a friendship with Blake, gave him gifts, and praised his work, though Stedman was furious with the way Johnson altered his text and pictures. On his side Blake looked after Stedman’s interests, though this brought him into disagreement with Johnson.
How did the work influence Blake’s thinking?
The first plate shows Stedman the artist and Blake the engraver presenting the brutality of the slave-owning colonists (the text is equally horrifying in its description of torture); the last image is one of equality, and is related to Blake’s use of Europe, Asia and Africa as entities in the prophetic books, as well as his anti-slavery position.