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Slaves Steering a Bateau

  • Three Slaves Steering a Bateau, 1798, Watercolor
Benjamin Henry Latrobe sketched these African American men steering a bateau on the James River in 1798.
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Three Slaves Steering a Bateau, 1798, Watercolor

This watercolor painting by Benjamin Henry Latrobe depicts three African American men, probably slaves, directing a bateau, a long flat-bottomed boat, through the rapids of the James River at Richmond. The boats were used to carry goods such as tobacco and coal along rivers and canals as late as the twentieth century. In the journal where he painted this picture, Latrobe noted that the illustration was inaccurate. The boat was "too short: they are from 60 to 75 feet long, & from 5 to 6 feet broad." Of the boats he wrote, "Each [bateau] is managed by 3 Men, who with great dexterity often carry them 30 miles against the stream in one day."

Latrobe was born in England in 1764 and worked for the famous engineer John Smeaton and architect Samuel Pepys Cockerell before immigrating to the United States. Latrobe lived in Virginia for several years where he designed the Virginia State Penitentiary (now demolished). Later he became one of the young nation's most significant architects. The Bank of Pennsylvania, the Baltimore Basilica, and the United States Capitol are prominent examples of his designs. His journals and accompanying illustrations are excellent sources for the Virginia landscape and culture at the turn of the eighteenth century. According to Latrobe's journals, he shared the conflicted feelings of many upper-class Americans at that time. He found the institution of slavery distasteful and perhaps morally repugnant, but he also believed in the inferiority of people of African descent. Latrobe acquired a slave in 1804, and he emancipated the boy at the age of sixteen in 1813 on the condition that he should remain an indentured

For Educators


1. Why do you think this scene caught Benjamin Latrobe's eye? Why do you think he painted it?
2. What are the men doing in the painting?
3. Can you think of a similar situation where people have to cooperate to get a job done today?

Further Discussion

1. Benjamin Latrobe admitted the painting is not quite right, the boat is too short. Look up pictures of bateau (or batteau) boats and draw a picture of what the real scene may have looked like.
2. Benjamin Latrobe struggled with the idea of slavery and found the institution distasteful, but he did own a slave at one point in his life. How do you think you would act in a situation where everyone around you accepts something you know is wrong?
3. Transportation was only one way by which African Americans contributed to the American economy. Consider and discuss other ways they contributed to the southern and American economy.


Benjamin Henry Latrobe gave the journal in which this illustration appears, as well as another journal he had prepared, to Susan Catherine Spotswood, the great-granddaughter of Virginia governor Alexander Spotswood, in response to her request of help with drawing.


This Day in Virginia: September 1

Suggested Reading

Formwalt, Lee W. "An English Immigrant Views American Society: Benjamin Henry Latrobe's Virginia Years, 1796–1798" Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 85, no. 4 (October 1977): 387–410.

White, Shane, and Graham White. "Slave Hair and African American Culture in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries." Journal of Southern History 61, no. 1 (February 1995): 45–76.

White, Shane, and Graham White. "Slave Clothing and African-American Culture in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries." Past & Present 148 (August 1995): 149–186.

Morgan, Philip D. Slave Counterpoint: Black Culture in the Eighteenth-century Chesapeake and Lowcountry. Williamsburg, Va.: Published for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture by the University of North Carolina Press, 1998.