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ELH 72.2 (2005) 495-520

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Hogarth's Fashionable Slaves:

Moral Corruption In Eighteenth-Century London

The Johns Hopkins University

"Shacklings," William Hogarth writes in The Analysis of Beauty (1753), "are repugnant to nature." He was referring to the practice of using "steel-collars" and other "iron-machines" to teach children proper posture or, more specifically, to cure them of a natural bashfulness that led them to drop their heads.1 For Hogarth, such unnatural bondage of the body in the name of fashion represents the corruption of a natural freedom and expression. His statement reflects a larger concern with containment and captivity.2 In Hogarth's graphic works, a key signifier of bondage is the body of the black slave; it helps articulate and critique the taste for "steel-collars" and other instruments of fashionable bondage that Hogarth blamed for keeping white Londoners blind to their own forms of slavery.3

David Bindman's essay in The Other Hogarth argues that Hogarth's perception of black slavery was probably in agreement with Daniel Defoe's—meaning that he accepted it—and that Londoners did not connect "European patterns of consumption of luxury goods with the slave labor that produced them" until the 1760s.4 Bindman sought to displace David Dabydeen's earlier assertion that Hogarth used black figures to critique exploitation and oppression in all its manifestations, including the practice of African slavery.5 Hogarth was probably not condemning the immorality of the slave trade per se, but Bindman's attempt to relate him to the abolitionist movement in the late eighteenth century overlooks the way in which he used black figures to connect discourses of consumption with discourses of English bondage. Hogarth's primary concern was not the oppression of black slaves, but rather the harmful effects that he perceived in his fellow Londoners' desire for foreign goods. His graphic representations of black slaves are, I argue, part of a semiotic system that connects this desire for foreign luxuries to growing limitations on English liberty.6

The association of slavery with fashionable consumption was a powerful one in the early eighteenth century if we consider the language of slavery, not as it relates to African bondage, but as it was used in the opposition to Walpole, in which Hogarth notably participated.7 Themes [End Page 495] of slavery became particularly topical in the 1720s and 1730s, when the Opposition accused Walpole's ministry of corruption.8 The crash of the South Sea Company, which Hogarth parodied c. 1721, unleashed vitriolic attacks that reflected broader concerns with the domestic effects of new forms of commerce.9 The late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries witnessed a debate between classical republican notions of luxury as corruption and a newer, modernist discourse that de-moralized luxury in the process of naturalizing commerce. Regardless of whether these authors located virtue in frugality or industry, or sought a society that would channel acquisitiveness productively rather than destructively, most shared a concern with the over-importation of foreign goods and the prevention of excess.10 Hogarth, along with Joseph Addison, Richard Steele, Alexander Pope, and other authors, harbored a distaste for excess or gaudy ornamentation. His parody of Londoners' consumption of foreign spirits in Gin Lane, for instance, speaks to his own concerns with the destabilizing effects of importation.11 The fear of excess was a fear of dependence, hence it was often discussed in terms of the body's bondage to its passions. Hogarth saw the pursuit of fashion as a form of blindness that threatened to delude his fellow Londoners into voluntarily shackling their native freedom.

Hogarth uses black slaves, and the meanings associated with them, to articulate the effects of the fashion for "shackles." Through a subtle parody of the black figure's conventional position as a ficelle (a minor character who sets off the main character), Hogarth subverts the meanings (wealth, exotica, novelty, benevolence, imperial mastership) that the black body inherited from portraits, literature, plays, and other prints. He implicitly questions the imperial ideologies attached to the black body by...


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