Infographic: The Slave-Ship Chart That Kindled The Abolitionist Movement

The diagram, which visualizes an overcrowded slave ship, was an early example of graphic design that has the power of words.

If you had to compile a list of the most important infographics in the history of western civilization, this cutaway chart of the 18th-century Brooks slave ship would rank right up there with Charles Minard’s flow map of the ill-fated Russian campaign of 1812 and pretty much anything by Ed Tufte.

Click to enlarge.

Eye magazine has a fascinating account of how the drawing became a key visual weapon in the 18th- and 19th-century fight against slavery, as part of a larger feature on information design that changes minds. First published by British abolitionists in 1788, the diagram depicts a vessel of 400 slaves packed in cheek by jowl, some with just 2 feet and 7 inches of headroom. The Brooks was an actual ship that schlepped enslaved Africans to Liverpool, England, and typified the slave vessels of the era: The Regulated Slave Trade Act of 1788, which was designed to reduce deaths due to overcrowding on slave ships, allowed each man 6 feet by 1 foot 4 inches of space (women and children were granted slightly less room). By those measurements, the Brooks was able to carry up to 454 slaves. The diagram’s engraver could only squeeze in 400.

In the years that followed, the Brooks slave ship drawing was republished in broadsheets, and as a poster, all over Britain, France, and the United States, and came to symbolize everything inhumane about the slave trade. Whether it swayed public opinion or simply articulated the sentiments of the already converted is, of course, impossible to know. (The U.K. didn’t abolish slavery until 1833.) But the economy of the image, and the “intelligible and irresistible” way it conveyed information, as the abolitionist Thomas Clarkson said, made it an unusually resonant form of anti-slavery propaganda. It was design with the power of language.

It was that chart that put images like this one into the popular imagination

[Images: Sketch from Photograph National Archives U.K., From Slave Ship to Freedom Road]

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6 Comments

  • Ellencarolan

    Sadly slavery still exists, in the uk as well as many other countries all over the world.

  • Linda Barrow

    But none like the ones our ancestors gone through. The wicked still prevails but not for long. The Almighty will clean this mess up.

  • Venkat

    For a graphically vivid depiction of  slave-trading vessels and their horrifying conditions of the human cargo read Barry Unsworth's Sacred Hunger. 

  • TSjakeo

    Some people will do anything for money. When human life is reduced to a dollar amount, nothing is off limits and almost any action can be rationalized and defended. Thank God for men such as William Wilburforce (read his life story), who dedicate their lives to opening hearts and minds of those so calloused and blinded by greed, pride, self-importance, or simply indifference. God help us… even today.

  • Historic Liverpool

    What a disturbing image. I'm familiar with the main one, but I've not seen the second one before, and will not likely forget it.

    It's worth noting that slaves rarely went to Liverpool - they were transported on the 'Middle Passage' from Africa to the Americas. This distance (emotional as well as geographical) between slaves on the Middle Passage and merchants in Liverpool probably allowed slavery to go on longer than it might have. That's no doubt why this infographic was so essential to the abolitionist movement - it truly brought it home to the merchants and the British in general.