Description of a Slave Ship, 1789. Wood engraving with letterpress text, approximately 500 by 440 mm.
Menil Collection, Houston

This image is part of a weekly series that The Root is presenting in conjunction with the Image 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.

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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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As sensitivity to the barbarous nature of slavery developed during the late 18th century, groups of concerned citizens began to formally organize efforts to end the practice first of the slave trade and then of slavery itself. Foremost among these activists were the Quakers, known for their pacifist views and regard for the sanctity of human life. Their involvement in the cause played an essential role in founding the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade, which first met in 1787. One of its most tangible achievements was the fashioning of the iconic visual device depicting a kneeling slave in chains, his head raised to heaven and surrounded by the words, “Am I Not a Man and a Brother?

In due course, highly influential politicians took up the cause, most notably the parliamentarian William Wilberforce. One year after the anti-slave-trade group was formed, an earlier version of the print seen here appeared. It bore a similar diagram of a slave ship with little text but with the kneeling slave device positioned below the ship. The sheet appeared in conjunction with the debate over the regulation of the slave trade undertaken in Parliament in 1788.

When the 1789 version of the Brooks diagram was produced, the burgeoning slave trade stood at its peak in Britain. Surprising as it may seem today, real outrage at the wholesale trafficking in human lives had just begun when the printed image was circulated as part of an aggressively promoted effort to end the slave trade altogether. In fact, its appearance signaled the advent of imagery as a primary means to state the salient points of those opposed to the horrors of the trans-Atlantic passage.

The measurement of the Brooks was made not only to illustrate the terms of the new law but also to emphasize the appalling conditions that the slaves still had to endure. For the first time, the nation could grasp the stifling environment of these pestilence-ridden vessels. The numbing, anonymous repetition of the prone slaves gave the indelible impression of people consigned to a fate beyond their control.

Despite the fervent efforts of its opponents, the slave trade’s abolition occurred only 20 years later, after a long and hard struggle against the entrenched interests of this most lucrative enterprise. Wilberforce, along with allies outside Parliament such as Thomas Clarkson, the advocate of an honorable trade with Africa, and Granville Sharp, eventually triumphed with the passage of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act in 1807. Twenty-six years later, the practice of slavery itself was abolished, a momentous event that occurred only three days before the death of Wilberforce.

At first thought, it might be easy to regard this powerful indictment of slavery as a once-vital document now relegated to the care of antiquarians. As it turns out, nothing could be further from the truth. The impact of the slave ship sliced open to reveal its contents continues to inspire an engagement with the legacy of slavery as well as similar forms of oppression facing many people in today’s world.

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The Benin artist Romuald Hazoumé, for instance, has adapted a common utilitarian object, the plastic jug or jerrican, to highlight the abuse of many of his country’s poorest citizens by unscrupulous black market entrepreneurs. Young men are coerced into transporting gasoline in these containers across the border with Nigeria. Often the trip ends in disaster when the dozens of cans suddenly explode.

Hazoumé cuts discarded cans into shapes resembling human faces and combines them with other recovered materials to add a further suggestion of the figures’ humanity. Assembled between 1997 and 2005, La Bouche du Roi (“The Mouth of the King”) combines hundreds of such pieces within the same configuration as the slaves packed into the hold of the Brooks. The artist’s insightful comparison of this modern humanitarian crisis to the practice of slavery on the same African soil two centuries earlier dramatically asserts the original power of the print to enlighten.

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 chairman 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.