Samuel Colman, Jr., Ships Unloading, New York

Cotton, oil, and the economics of history.

Samuel Colman, Jr., Ships Unloading, New York, 1868, oil on canvas mounted on board, 105 x 76 cm (The Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1984.4), a Seeing America video. Speakers: Dr. Peter John Brownlee, Curator, Terra Foundation for American Art and Dr. Steven Zucker

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:10] We’re in the storage room of the Terra Foundation for American Art, looking at a large painting by an American painter named Samuel Colman. This dates to just after the Civil War. We think it was painted in 1868.

Dr. Peter John Brownlee: [0:18] It was painted that year, we think, because the ship, the “Glad Tidings,” was being handed over from the father to the son. The transition, I think, is the reason the painting may have been created. Our research has told us a lot about the “Glad Tidings,” which transported cotton throughout the Civil War period and after. It traveled between New Orleans, New York, and London.

Dr. Zucker: [0:42] I think it’s easy for us in the 21st century to lose sight of how important ships were in a port city like New York. New York’s life was on the water. Its wealth, its prosperity, was the result of commerce up and down the coast, but also to Europe.

Dr. Brownlee: [0:58] The large sail ships that we see in the foreground were the vessels that made the transatlantic voyage. Off to the left we see a steamboat, and so bringing the sail ships and the steam vessels together. These two technologies that were still working in tandem during this period.

Dr. Zucker: [1:14] This is a painting that is about those kinds of contrasts of the past and the future. I think that it’s no mistake that the artist is painting that just a few years after the close of the Civil War, when things really are shifting. The artist brings those shifts out, not just in the contrast between sail and steam power, but also in what’s being transported.

Dr. Brownlee: [1:36] At right, we see multiple bales of cotton, likely from New Orleans, possibly being transferred to another vessel for shipment to London. We don’t quite know, but the presence of this cotton alludes to that great wealth coming out of the Cotton Kingdom.

Dr. Zucker: [1:51] The American South produced cotton that was used around the world, especially in the mills of England. It was incredibly valuable material. It was the great cash crop for the South, but it was labor intensive. It used enslaved labor. And so it’s a crop that is bound up with the Civil War.

Dr. Brownlee: [2:10] I think the strength of cotton on the world market in the days leading up to the Civil War is the factor that gave the Confederacy the confidence that England and France would come in and intervene on their behalf. I think without that kind of economic power, the Confederacy would not have been as bold to secede from the Union.

Dr. Zucker: [2:35] In fact, in this year, there’s a story in “London Illustrated News” celebrating American ships now in the post-war era that are able to bring American cotton to the mills in Northern England.

Dr. Brownlee: [2:42] There was great jubilation when those ships, including the “Glad Tidings,” entered the harbor. Many people think that trade in cotton ceased entirely during the Civil War. What happened is much more complicated and much richer, I think.

[2:55] It’s during the early to mid-Civil War period that a cotton manufacturer by the name of Edward Atkinson speaks with Abraham Lincoln to begin to utilize the Union Army in seizing cotton plantations in areas of the southern United States where the Union had advanced to during the conflict.

[3:20] Union troops would go into a large cotton-growing plantation, seize it, seize its labor force, and they would rename these now-freed slaves as contrabands of war. This discussion about contrabands raised many issues because now these formerly held slaves were making their steps toward emancipation.

[3:36] The term was “free-labor cotton.” These contrabands produced this free-labor cotton, as they called it, because these contrabands, they were paid minimal wages and they were given certain rights that exceeded that under slavery.

[3:54] This free-labor cotton became very significant to abolitionist-minded countries like England, where the distaste for taking US cotton throughout this period was a result of their anti-slavery political positions.

Dr. Zucker: [4:02] But this painting is even more fascinating because to the left of the bales of cotton, we see barrels.

Dr. Brownlee: [4:09] In the years after the Civil War, the Southern cotton economy would never really recover. By that time, England and other cotton-using manufacturing countries were looking elsewhere for their cotton crops — to Africa, to India, and so forth. The South never fully recovered its control on that market.

[4:27] If you look closely at the end of the barrels, you read the words “New York Petroleum Company,” and below that, you’ll notice a dark spot. In fact, it’s raw crude petroleum spilling out of those barrels.

Dr. Zucker: [4:41] This is long before the adoption of the combustion engine for the automobile. Petroleum was still quite a novel thing. It was being marketed to replace whale oil, which was very expensive, and oil was just becoming plentiful thanks to the discovery of the important oil fields in western Pennsylvania.

[5:01] I’m not sure that Colman understood just how far-seeing his choice was in including both cotton on the right, this important commodity of the 19th century, and the commodity that would so shape the 20th.

Dr. Brownlee: [0:00] Both of which responsible for great amounts of armed conflict.

Dr. Zucker: [5:18] Let’s turn for just a moment to the composition and to the light, because this painting is so beautifully, so carefully rendered.

[5:24] First of all, you get the sense that this is an artist that understood the rigging of these ships, but I’m struck by the way that the masts tower over us. This is the skyline of New York before the skyscraper.

Dr. Brownlee: [5:37] Also interesting is the way that the smoke that’s coming off of the tar pits is infiltrating some of the riggings of the ships. It’s clear on one hand and also atmospheric in other areas.

Dr. Zucker: [5:48] The artist has kept all of the figures in this painting at a distance, but we’re still close enough to make out that at least one figure is an African American.

Dr. Brownlee: [5:58] We notice that he is barefooted. He’s rolled his pants up to his knees, and he’s facing away from us, tending to the cotton. This was a common trope during the Civil War period for rendering African American figures.

Dr. Zucker: [6:10] Because New York is a Northern state, we don’t associate it with slavery, but New York had slaves well into the 19th century.

Dr. Brownlee: [6:19] New York was intricately intertwined with the plight of the South, economically speaking. I think the African American figure in the foreground both looks back, of course, to the plight of slavery, but here, in this post-war moment, 1868, the height of Reconstruction, this African American figure also gestures forward in time, thinking about all of the challenges that African Americans would have to overcome over the following years, through the Reconstruction period into the Jim Crow era, and then finally into the moment of civil rights in the 1950s and ’60s.

Dr. Zucker: [6:53] It’s extraordinary how a single canvas, one that at first is seemingly just a lovely image of ships, reaches out into some of the most complex and troubling issues in American history.

[0:00] [music]

Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

[flickr_tags user_id=”82032880@N00″ tags=”GladTidings,”]

More Smarthistory images…

Cite this page as: Dr. Peter John Brownlee, Curator, Terra Foundation for American Art and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Samuel Colman, Jr., Ships Unloading, New York," in Smarthistory, March 13, 2020, accessed June 12, 2024,