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In 2016, the Addison added a new ship model to its collection for the first time in nearly 80 years. Created by artist Yinka Shonibare, MBE (RA), Wanderer both memorializes a nineteenth-century slave ship and interrogates the relationship between the transatlantic slave trade, colonialism, and power.
The ship that this work replicates in quarter scale, also named Wanderer, was built in 1857 in New York as a pleasure schooner and racing yacht. Wanderer soon changed hands, acquired as part of a clandestine plot to kidnap African people into enslavement in the United States, despite the 1807 Congressional Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves. William C. Corrie, the ostensible buyer, secretly partnered with Charles A.L. Lamar, the true owner, whose attempts to revive the international slave trade made his association with any ship suspicious to government authorities.
While anchored at Port Jefferson, New York in 1858, the ship received several large water tanks, prompting port authorities to investigate the activities of Corrie and his crew. With no decisive proof of slave-trading, the Wanderer set sail for Africa on July 3, 1858. Once there, the crew further fitted out the ship with slave-decks to house the 487 captive Africans who were crammed on the vessel. Nearly 80 died during the six-week crossing, and many more died later from illnesses contracted during the voyage.
Corrie anchored Wanderer at Jekyll Island, Georgia, where despite their subterfuge the district attorney for Georgia arrested and charged him and other crew members with slave trading, piracy, and other offenses. These prosecutions either ended in acquittal or mistrial and Lamar was never definitively connected to Wanderer.
Seized by the Union Navy during the Civil War, Wanderer served as a gunboat, supply ship, and hospital ship throughout that conflict. After she was decommissioned, Wanderer became a commercial vessel and was lost off the coast of Cuba in 1871.
A British artist of Nigerian descent, Shonibare explores the legacies of imperialism and related questions of identity and power. Replacing the ship’s original white sails with printed fabric, his recreation of Wanderer gives agency to the individuals stolen into enslavement aboard this vessel. This fabric, also known as Dutch wax print, originated with the batik fabrics of China and India in the 8th century and was further refined in 13th-century Indonesia, which in the 19th century became the Dutch East Indies. Ghanaian soldiers serving in the Royal Netherlands East Indies Army then brought it to Africa, where it flourished in popularity as material for clothing. Both a product of colonialist history and a symbol of African culture, the ship model’s patterned sails tell a provocative and nuanced story of empire building and the construction of identity.