Paint Me A Picture

Slave Traders in 19th Century Brazil, possibly Genizaros [painting by Debret]

Slave Traders in 19th Century Brazil, possibly Genizaros [painting by Debret]

Cigano (Portuguese Romani) Slave Traders, 19th century Brazil [painting by Debret]

Cigano (Portuguese Romani) Slave Traders, 19th century Brazil [painting by Debret]

Painters, not unlike musicians or actors, need patrons or a paying audience.

This might seem obvious, but it has a direct bearing on how we view history.

English society has been notoriously class-conscious since the first Norman warlords began erecting their stone fortresses – aka castles – among the peoples of England after 1066.

These Normans/Northmen (of Normandy in France) were really just “Frenchified” Vikings with a serious superiority complex after spending a few generations away from their Northern homelands.

Their “Viking French” became the language of the ruling classes in Britain, and this legacy survives right down to the present day, even in American English.

When we want to sound educated, we tend to use words evolved from the French language.

When we want plain talk, we tend to use words evolved mostly from Saxon English.

Think of the difference between saying “an illuminated chamber”, or “a well-lit room”.

But I digress (or “wander off-path”, if we avoid French usages here).

Our deeply-ingrained sense of social class, for much of history, dictated what was deemed worthy of recording.

In the age before affordable photography, only very few people could afford to pay a trained artist for a portrait or painting.

The peasantry, the underclasses, and the poor were only rarely subjects for the artist’s brush.  They simply couldn’t pay for such a service.

So art as a paid occupation – in the age before social realism – was generally concerned with portraiture of the ruling classes, landscapes, religious themes, and the documentation of “great events” – with only a few noteworthy exceptions.


I invite any reader here to fire-up a search engine, and attempt to locate contemporary images of the American working classes and underclasses from any time before the mid-19th century.

Paintings, etchings, drawings, anything.

You will find precious little.

What is more, by the time American painters DID decide to paint scenes from the lives of frontierspeople and common people, America as a whole was already actively, aggressively engaged in curating its own myth.

Think of George Caleb Bingham‘s 1852 painting of Daniel Boone leading “white settlers” through the Cumberland Gap – a painting made over 80 years after the events it sought to portray.

This is where it gets a little ticklish and complex, because there ARE American drawings of things such as slave markets and slave auctions.

This is because America was happy to portray “The Three Americas” which underpinned the racial caste system.  Black, White, Indian.

Anyone who was not “Black” (and thus unfree), anyone who was not “Red” (and thus savage), became by default and by design, “White” and thus free.

“Brown” was not an option.


As we’ve already suggested, most artists in 16th and 17th century class-conscious colonial America painted “worthy” subjects, or at least subjects who could afford to pay them.  The “white” merchant classes, religious leaders and elites, in other words.

So decades and centuries of art mostly portrayed only two groups of people – well-to-do “whites” or enslaved “blacks”.

In the post-Revolutionary years, as many American artists began to turn their faces away from “elite” subjects, and to the historical men and women who were deemed worthy of remembrance as nation builders, painters could no longer conceive that the American frontier was actually settled in large part by “brown people”

Yet it was.

And we can prove it by examining early camera lucida drawings and photographs, reading court and census documents, and cross-referencing folklore and DNA.

The paintings shown here were made by a French gentleman in early 1800s Brazil, a man named Debret.  An unusual man with an early, almost anthropological fascination with the “non-white” peoples of Brazil.

One shows the house of Portuguese Cigano “Gypsy” slave traders in Rio de Janeiro.  The other shows what are probably “Genizaro” slave traders marching Guarani captives to market.

What does this have to do with Anglo-American history?


American folk heroes like Jim Bowie were trading with pirates for slaves along the Gulf Coast before Texan “independence” from Mexico.  Jewish slave merchants operated out of Maryland and Charleston.  Many indigenous American tribes had become drawn deeply into this sordid trade.

And all of these people (who were often brown to begin with) were “co-mingling” and creating an even larger brown American underclass – an unsung and largely forgotten group which would spend decades, centuries, attempting to cross the color bar into “whiteness”.

Needless to say, the brown and impoverished rarely sat for painters.

For their own futures and safety, they were usually pressing ever westward, or keeping to the hills and hollers, swamps and backwoods…


#BeforeWeWereWhite #history #SlaveTrade #brazil #cigano #romani #genizaro

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