A New Bedford Whaler in Africa: Frederick Sowle’s photographs of Senegal and Cape Verde

Exhibition Opening: August 10, 2018

Frederick Sowle photograph hand-tintedIn 1973, a weathered man who looked like an old seaman walked into the Photography Department in Arlan’s Department Store on Brooks Street in New Bedford. The man wanted to sell glass slides/original photographs he took and negotiated the images with the manager for $25. David Baker, who was 17 at the time and worked in the Photo Department, lamented the fact that he didn’t have the $25 to buy the beautiful glass plates. Shortly after, the man came back in with another box of slides and David purchased this box for $25.

Not too long after, David worked in the Photography Department at Zayre’s. The old man somehow found David and asked him if he wanted to buy an additional box of slides for $25. David agreed. As he was waiting for the man to come back in, he heard a loud crash. When he went to see what happened, the man told him that when he tried to show the slides to another Zayre’s employee, he dropped the box and some of the slides broke. The man told David he’d now be willing to sell them for $10.

David kept the boxes of slides until he moved out of New Bedford. He donated them to the New Bedford Whaling Museum in 2003 so they could be in a place where they’d be appreciated and would not suffer further damage. Fifteen years after his donation, a photograph from the collection caught the eye of Michael Lapides, the museum’s Director of Digital Initiatives. He forwarded the photograph to the museum’s Curator of Social History, Akeia Benard. They then rediscovered this unique and rich collection in its entirety.

Unlike other photographs of colonial Africa from this era, Sowle’s images beautifully depict individuals engaging in daily life and interactions, with no hint of ethnocentrism or stereotyping.

Frederick Sowle photograph hand-tintedThe glass slides are camera originals from photographs taken by Frederick Sowle while on the schooner Clara L. Sparks in 1899. He was likely the old man who sold the slides to David—he would have been in his 90s at the time. While some of the photographs are from Cape Verde, a frequent stop for whaling crews, many of the photographs are from Senegal on the African continent, a rarely documented or photographed excursion at this time. Unlike other photographs of colonial Africa from this era, Sowle’s images beautifully depict individuals engaging in daily life and interactions, with no hint of ethnocentrism or stereotyping. He photographed mothers, children, kings, the marketplace, laborers, and beggars—all captured with a sense of dignity and humanity and sometimes humor and light-heartedness. Many of the slides were beautifully hand painted by S.H. McLoughlin a colorist in Boston. The images are truly representative of New Bedford residents who had the rare experience of global travel in the nineteenth century. Like those who would have originally viewed Sowle’s slides upon his return to New Bedford, you can explore the landscapes and people of Senegal and Cape Verde as Sowle saw them in 1899.