The slaves and the dance

The slaves and the dance

  • Dance of slaves. (attributed to Augustin BRUNIAS)

  • Dance, article extracted from "Directory of colonial notions in alphabetical order".

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Title: Dance of slaves. (attributed to Augustin BRUNIAS)

Author :

Date shown:

Dimensions: Height 29 - Width 40

Technique and other indications: Oil on canvas.

Storage location: Aquitaine Museum website

Contact copyright: © Bordeaux City Hall - Photo JM Arnaud

Picture reference: M. C .: L6

Dance of slaves. (attributed to Augustin BRUNIAS)

© Bordeaux City Hall - Photo JM Arnaud

To close

Title: Dance, article extracted from "Directory of colonial notions by alphabetical order".

Author :

Creation date : 1796

Date shown:

Dimensions: Height 0 - Width 0

Technique and other indications: Moreau de Saint-Méry (Médéric, Louis, Elie). Dance, article extracted from a work by M. L. E. de St Mery entitled: "Directory of colonial notions in alphabetical order". In Philadelphia, printed by the author, printer-bookseller. pp. 36-40

Storage location: Mazarine Library website

Contact copyright: © Mazarine Library

Dance, article extracted from "Directory of colonial notions in alphabetical order".

© Mazarine Library

Publication date: January 2007


The slaves and the dance


Historical context

A slave labor force populates in considerable numbers the Antilles and the Americas close to them. The owners of sugar cane or cotton plantations, before the invention of photography, have souvenir paintings made: portraits of the family, small genre scenes, paintings one of the main objectives of which is to make the happy visible. outcome of an ambition of harmonious prosperity in the plantation.

Some masters tolerate Sunday rest for their slaves; it sometimes happens that the slave and his family are not fed by their master, this Sunday to be devoted to the food culture of a piece of land conceded around the hut. The master, however, concedes festive meetings between slaves.

This unsigned painting is attributed to Augustin Brunias (1730-1796), an Italian painter who died in Dominica after spending thirty years in the West Indies. His paintings are widely distributed in Europe in the form of prints.

Image Analysis

The painter skilfully plays on the contrasts between a central static group of musicians and the two dancers who frame him, between the light shirts and dark skin, between the near, amiable and edible nature, and the distant, almost unreal woodland nature. Strange table. The eyes of the characters flee. The apparent jubilation of a dance, of course, but the mysterious stakes of it. The masters do not perceive them. Brunias either, but he senses a mystery. The painting is based on the repetition of oval or circular shapes: fruit basket, calabash, guitar, hats, folded arms. The massive strength of the musicians, in front of us, imposes a mystery. A monumental stiffness carries the music you don't hear; but it must be essential to slaves. The master commissioner of the painting must, however, be satisfied by the appearances of kindness, good build, light distraction of his employees. They are well dressed, clean and strong. Their dance does not unleash anything. The colors and the light are happy.

Brunias observes. The quality of ethnological information in his painting is exploding. Far beyond a compassion for some dance stiffened by nostalgia for lost Africa, the painting shows, perhaps without understanding them all, what drives this dance and those who live it.

It is interesting to read what Médéric Louis-Élie Moreau de Saint-Méry (1750-1819) wrote at the same time, a lawyer of Martinican origin, active defender of slavery while being close to the spirit of the Enlightenment, and having assembled an important documentation on the Antilles, in particular in its Topographical, physical, civil, political and historical description of the French part of Saint-Domingue (1796). He describes with precision in a small booklet, Dance (1796) the choirs of singers responding to one or two main singers with brilliant voices, the dancers, the drums and the guitars and the black penchant for dancing, "so powerful that the negro most tired by work always finds strength to dance ”.

Brunias' painting, just as precise, shows the two instrumentalists, initiated into their ethnic groups of origin, as in many peoples of West Africa, playing sacred instruments capable of summoning "spirits" or gods for the ceremonies: anzarka, stringed instrument, and large drum, percussion placed on the ground as so often in Africa the hollowed calabash that the initiate strikes. The two women, no doubt singers, are also initiates. All bring in the "spirits" of which they are, in a way, the intermediaries. The two dancers are also initiates. The dancer accompanies the gestures of his ankles and his wrists with the sound of bells, like some dancers in large possession dances with masks. It is possible that the brutalities of the slave trade and the fierce desire for acculturation of the slave traders, resulted in these initiates, mulattoes or Carterons, for some, not of the same ethnic group. But the initiations have frequent similarities and the absolute imperative not to lose contact with one's community and the “spirits” and “ancestors” of this one means that, in the slave deportation, songs and dances are recomposed. , finally rites which syncretically restore these community contacts. Besides, all dance and sing barefoot, as always we should do on sacred ground.


The painting then takes on a deeper meaning. Brunias shows, beyond the fruitful prosperity in the basket in the foreground, the importance of the hands which summon the "spirits" while playing, the gravity of the bodies which revive the roots while dancing. The misty forest in the background is the murmur of origins, a true "sacred wood" whose memory of the fetishes, sacrifices and rites that inhabit it has never been abandoned. The sung dance is a ceremony which will end in the trance of the initiates, able then to bring the response of the "spirits" to the spectators who, worried about their destiny, question them.

  • dance
  • slavery
  • music
  • West Indies
  • planting


Views of the West Indies: Marcel Chatillon CollectionCatalog of the exhibition at the Musée d'Aquitaine in Bordeaux, September 23, 1999 - January 16, 2000, Paris, RMN, Bordeaux, Musée d'Aquitaine, 1999.Gabriël ENTIOPENegroes, dance and resistance (The Caribbean from the 17th to the 19th century) Research and Documents Latin America, published by Harmattan.Guide to the sources of the slave trade, slavery and their abolitionDirectorate of Archives de France, La documentation française, Paris, 2007.

To cite this article

Yves BERGERET, "Slaves and dance"

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