BBC TV film on migrant deaths in Greece is like 1840 Turner painting on slaves

Rashmee Roshan Lall
2 min readJun 17, 2024

When the news was read out on the BBC that the Greek coastguard was alleged to have deliberately caused the deaths of migrants in the Mediterranean, my thoughts immediately went to a Turner painting from 1840.

The painting is titled Slavers throwing overboard the Dead and the Dying — Typhon coming on. It’s also known as Slave Ship and sometimes, just as Slavers. Now hanging in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the 91x138cm painting, documented an event from 1781. In November that year, more than 130 slaves being taken from Africa to the Americas were thrown overboard by the captain of a British ship called Zong. The “cargo” was got rid off so that the ship’s owners could collect insurance monies.

Now, a new BBC documentary, Dead Calm: Killing in the Med? has interviewed eyewitnesses who claim the Greek coastguard had been doing the same with migrants unluckily found in Greek territorial waters. If true, these people too are “cargo” that must be got rid off.

The BBC report reads as follows: “…migrants said they were thrown directly into the sea by the Greek authorities”.

The report quotes a Cameroonian migrant who survived: “They started with the [other] Cameroonian. They threw him in the water. The Ivorian man said: ‘Save me, I don’t want to die… and then eventually only his hand was above water, and his body was below. Slowly his hand slipped under, and the water engulfed him’.”

The claim that migrants are being thrown overboard to their deaths is explosive and the Greek coastguard has strongly rejected it.

Even so, the echoes of the Turner painting are horrifying. It is appalling to even think that behaviour we thought had been left in the 18th century should feature in the 21st.

It is horrifying that there should be need for another Turner painting — albeit, using the modern medium of a TV documentary — to portray such alleged inhumanity against human beings.

In fact, the more I think of it, the TV documentary is almost exactly like the Turner painting, which was first exhibited in 1840, an important year for the global anti-slavery movement. The World Anti-Slavery Convention met for the first time in London right around now, in June 1840.

Unlike the BBC documentary, however, the Turner painting has been accused of callousness rather than compassion, of telling an incomplete and cynical story about the treatment of vulnerable human beings.

I’ll explore that next.

Originally published at https://www.rashmee.com

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Rashmee Roshan Lall

PhD. Journalism by trade & inclination. Writer. My novel 'Pomegranate Peace' is about my year in Afghanistan. I teach journalism at university in London