How a Look Inside a Slave Ship Turned the Tide Toward Abolition

tags: slavery, Slave Ship

The Image of the Black Archive & Library resides at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. The founding director of the Hutchins Center is Henry Louis Gates Jr., who is also co-founder of The Root. The archive and Harvard University Press collaborated to create The Image of the Black in Western Art book series, eight volumes of which were edited by Gates and David Bindman and published by Harvard University Press. Text for each Image of the Week is written by Sheldon Cheek.

This image is part of a weekly series that The Root is presenting in conjunction with theImage of the Black Archive & Library at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research.

Reduced to its essential details, the slim lines of an 18th-century sailing vessel reveal the shocking accommodation of its interior to the transportation of African slaves across the far reaches of the Atlantic Ocean. The cleanly outlined juxtaposition of cross section and bird’s-eye views of the interior recalls the rational mindset of the Enlightenment, here applied with a great moral resolve to redressing the most egregious injustice of the age.

Known as the Brooks, the ship had been measured for the express purpose of producing this print. The inspection took place at its home base of Liverpool, a thriving seaport farther up the west coast of Britain from the national capital of London. In the print, an extensive account of the ship and the conditions of its use in the trade appears in densely set type below the image of the ship.

The sensibility of the viewer to the graphic depiction of human misery within the ship’s hold is abetted by the lengthy account of the experience of the hundreds of slaves packed aboard during their long voyage. The four columns of text begin with a comparison of the arrangement of slaves, shipped according to recently passed regulations governing the maximum capacity of the ship, with an account of the far greater number of captives carried on a previous voyage. According to the chart, the allowable limit was 454 souls, which makes the conditions even more appalling given the figure of more than 600 that was confirmed by the examination of shipping records.

The large-scale broadsheet, a kind of circular intended to efficiently communicate an urgent cause, did not, of course, appear out of nowhere. Description of a Slave Ship was produced in 1789 as a follow-up to the first salvo in the campaign to eradicate the British slave trade. The stage was set within the houses of Parliament, the time-honored seat of often stormily debated legislative measures. ...

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