Mind Forg'd Manacles: William Blake and Slavery

Mind Forg'd Manacles: William Blake and Slavery


The idea of slavery was fundamental to William Blake’s art and writing. He was fervently opposed to it, and during his own lifetime (1757 – 1827) spanned successful campaigns against the Atlantic slave trade, leading towards the abolition of slavery itself within the British domains in 1807.

But for Blake slavery was also a mental state. Limited perceptions and following conventional religion or science was akin to enslavement, to being held with ‘mind forg’d manacles’ of one’s own making. Mental enslavement and its opposite, freedom, gave rise to his most dramatic and complex writings and images. Blake represents these notions through the contorted body; mentally restricted figures are enclosed within themselves, while those free of mental shackles fly upwards like birds. The image of enslavement is associated above all with the suppression of sexual desire and the desire for unity, represented in Blake’s imagery by chained figures. Many of the most dramatic and complex images show a confrontation between the forces of repression and those seeking freedom.

Mind-forg'd Manacles: William Blake and Slavery features over 60 vivid works organised into five sections, taken from Blake’s watercolours, prints and illuminated books in the British Museum collection: The Cruelties of Slavery: Blake and Captain Stedman; The Little Black Boy and other black boys; Slavery as restricted vision; Chaining Desire; Throwing off the Chains.

This richly illustrated publication also includes an in-depth essay by the curator, leading Blake scholar David Bindman on the theme of slavery in Blake’s visual imagery, and another by novelist and literary critic Darryl Pinckney on Olaudah Equiano, an African former slave who campaigned for the abolition of slavery in Blake’s time.

This book commemorates both the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade in Britain, and the 250th anniversary of Blake's birth.

Essays by David Bindman, Darryl Pinckney

21 x 16 cm 
148 pages
45 colour and 22 b/w illustrations
ISBN: 978185332 259 4
RRP £14.99

David Bindman is Emeritus Professor of the History of Art at University College London. He is a scholar of eighteenth-century British art, and the author of books on Blake as well as the editor of The History of British Art (Yale University Press, 2008).

Darryl Pinckney is an American novelist, playwright and essayist. His first novel High Cotton was published in 1992. He is also a frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books, Granta, Slate and The Nation. He frequently explores issues of racial and sexual identities, as expressed in literature; he has published two collections of essays on African-American literature. 

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