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Arab Slavers Loading Cargo, 1867
Johan Jacob Bennetter (1822-1904)

View Artist Bio
Oil on canvas
38 x 58 inches
Signature Details: Signed and dated
Status: Private Collection, Louisiana

Johan Jakob Bennetter’s Arab Slave Traders in East Africa depicts an element of the international slave trade that is not often seen in European and American works of art.  Less well-known than the Atlantic slave trade that brought as many as twelve million African slaves to North and South America and the Caribbean region for 300 years, the East African and Indian Ocean slave trade lasted ten centuries, also had twelve million victims, and was not officially abolished until the last years of the nineteenth century.  Although the subject and locale were uncommon, especially among northern European, artists, it is possible—perhaps, likely—that Bennetter had witnessed such a scene first-hand.  For, prior to becoming a painter, he spent fifteen years as a seaman aboard commercial vessels.  Details of his travels are unknown but method, motive, and perhaps opportunity inspired Johan Jakob Bennetter to create this provocative painting.

         Arab Slave Traders in East Africa effectively depicts several components of the East African slave trade.  In this respect, it might be considered a history painting.  In addition, Bennetter’s choice of an “oriental” location, images of Arabs in traditional dress and carrying traditional firearms, and a subject—black Africans as “slaves”—demonstrate that he aimed to create a work in the “Oriental” style popular in mid-nineteenth-century Paris. 

Muslim Arabs on the Arabian Peninsula and the Horn of Africa had for centuries carried on a trade in captive Africans and inhabitants of Mediterranean nations.  For followers of the prophet Mohammed, all non-Muslims were subject to capture and enslavement, and Muslim rulers in North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula had for centuries engaged in capturing, enslaving, or holding for ransom people they considered infidels.  With the rise of commercial capitalism and the establishment of clove, cotton, copra plantations in coastal India and Equatorial Africa, the slave trade expanded considerably in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.  Some East African slave-traders even supplied human cargoes for the trans-Atlantic slave trade to North and South America.  This east coast trade was similar to the West African trade in that it involved slave-catchers, middlemen, and seaborne transportation of large numbers of slaves throughout the littorals of the Indian Ocean. 

During the nineteenth century the Sultan of Oman on the Arabian Peninsula held a monopoly on the trade.  In 1840, as a result of the expanding plantation culture of East Africa and corresponding increase in the slave trade, the sultan moved his capital from Oman to Zanzibar, off of the coast of modern-day Tanzania.  Africans captured in Somalia, Kenya, and Tanganyika were shipped from small villages and towns by dhows—the two lateen-rigged Arab coastal vessels in the painting—to the chief slave markets at Oman and later at Zanzibar.  There they were loaded by means of shallow-draft rowboats (six are in the painting) into western-style sailing vessels to be transported throughout the Indian Ocean.  These ocean-going vessels were sometimes owned by French, Portuguese, or British companies but some were owned by the sultans of Oman and Zanzibar.   In Bennetter’s painting, the two ocean vessels appear to be early nineteenth-century warships refitted as slave-ships.  These schooners (or frigates) transported large numbers of slaves to plantations in India, South Asia, or the east coast of Africa. 

Born in Oslo, Norway, on September 30, 822, Johan Jakob Bennetter gained practical knowledge of ships and ocean voyages working as a seaman that served him well in his profession as a maritime and landscape painter. Returning from fifteen years as a young seaman, Bennetter demonstrated talent as an artist.  In 1844 he began studies at the School of Design in Oslo and followed up that preliminary education by traveling to The Hague, Netherlands, in 1849.  There he studied marine and landscape painting for three years with Louis Johan Hendrik Meijer (Louis Meyer, 180966).  Moving to Paris, France, in 1852, he became a student of Jean-Antoine Theodore Gudin (180280), a renowned French marine painter, at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and built a successful career by exhibiting landscapes and marine paintings at the Paris Salon from 1855 to 1870.  After 1870 Bennetter returned to Norway and spent the rest of his life painting in a well-appointed studio at Stavanger.    His artistic production were not numerous but are valued for their scarcity and for the artist’s talent and academic skill. 

Americans were introduced to Bennetter’s artwork in 1876 when two of his  marine paintings, Vikings at Sea and Sea-Fight between the Frigate “La Preneuse” and the line-of-battle ship “Jupiter” off Le Blanc des Aigulles, 26th September 1799, were among the paintings exhibited by Norwegian authorities at the 1876 United States Centennial Commission’s International Exposition at Philadelphia. The Sea-Fight was an episode in the maritime war between Great Britain and the Allied Powers and the forces of Napoleon I, Emperor of France.  The Norwegian catalog that accompanied that nation’s Centennial Exhibition listed both paintings and a brief biography of the artist (p. 65). It described Vikings at Sea as “Moonlight and Storm” (p. 80).  The official catalogue of the Centennial Exhibition listed only Sea-Fight but stated that “This is a thrilling exhibition of a sea-fight.  The vessel are well-shown, and the action finely portrayed” (p. 550).  According to the biography, Bennetter had spent fifteen years at sea and at the time of the exhibition still resided in Paris. 

The subject of Sea-Fight and the artist’s long residence in Paris offer some hints respecting the background for his painting, Arab Slave Traders in East Africa.  Bennetter seemed to have a particular interest in the east coast of Africa because he created another work depicting a second encounter between La Preneuse and HMS Jupiter a few days later, on October 11, 1799.  That painting, dated March 17, 1876, is in the collections of the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia.   Perhaps the artist had visited the coast of Africa, the Zanzibar archipelago, or island of Madagascar during his youthful years as a seaman.  While information respecting the number and variety of Bennetter’s works is limited, his long residence in Paris would have subjected him not only to the influence of his marine-painter mentor Theodore Gudin but also to the “Oriental” themes that found in the works of Eugene Delacroix (17981863), Jean-Auguste- Dominique Ingres (17801867), and Jean-Leon Gerome (18241904). Access to information regarding the titles of works that Bennetter submitted to the Paris Salon during his long residence there will doubtless reveal more of his marine works but may also reveal the degree to which he was a Paris-nurtured Norwegian Orientalist.   



Benezit, E. Dictionnaire Critique et Documentaire des Peintres . . . Nouvelle Edition (Grund, 1998), Volume II, p. 109.

Burr, Samuel J. and S. De Vere Burr, Memorial of the International Exhibition . . . 1876 (Hartford, CT: L. Stebbins, 1877), p. 550, no. 28.

Cambridge History of World Slavery (2017), Volume III, p. 52.

Cooper, Frederick, Plantation Slavery on the East Coast of Africa (London: Yale University Press, 1977).

National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia:  http://ngv.vicgov.au/explore/collection/work/3793, accessed July 30, 2017.

Norwegian Special Catalogue for the International Exposition at Philadelphia 1876 (Christiana: B.M. Bentzon, 1876), 65, 80. 

Turner, Jane, ed., Dictionary of Art (Grove, 1996 edition), Volume 23, pp. 503505, Orientalism.

United States Centennial Commission, International Exposition. 1876 Official Catalogue. Part II, Art Gallery, Annexes, and Out-Door Works of Art. Department IV—Art.  Sixth and Revised Edition (Philadelphia: John R. Nagle and Company, 1876), p. 108, no. 28


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