219 years ago • Description of a Slave Ship

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Published in London in 1789, the broadside Description of a Slave Ship is an icon of the antislavery moment in England and the United States. Between March and July of that year, more than 10,000 copies of the plan of the slave ship Brooks, in one form or another, were issued. The plan makes visually striking what until then had been grasped only verbally or by consulting the statistical data gathered by Commons regarding the ships involved in the trade.

The 10,000 printed copies descended from three primary versions of the plan, which can be distinguished by their place of origin : Plymouth, Philadelphia, and London. The Plymouth version is the very first, occurring in two variants: (a) a four-page pamphlet with inserted plate, and (b) a broadside with engraving and text. The earliest Plymouth version appeared in March 1789. The Philadelphia version is based directly on the Plymouth version. It is known in three variants: (a) an inserted plate in the May 1789 issue of the journal American Museum, (b) a broadside with engraving and text in four columns bearing the imprint “Matthew Carey — Price 3d. — or 18s per hundred,” and (c) a broadside with engraving and text in three columns and no imprint. Philadelphia variants (b) and (c) were evidently issued in June and July 1789, respectively. Temporally between the Plymouth and Philadelphia versions is the London version, printed by James Phillips. It is known in two variants: (a) one illustrated by woodcuts, and (b) one illustrated with a copperplate engraving. It was first published between April 21 and 28, 1789. According to minutes of the London Committee of the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade, the printing orders are recorded on July 28, 1789, as follows : “1,700 Description of a Slave Ship with copper plate ; 7,000 ditto with wood cuts” (see Cheryl Finley, “Committed to Memory : The Slave Ship Icon in the Black Atlantic Imagination” [Ph.D. diss., Yale University, 2002], 94, n.119).

The Plymouth version (a) is very rare ; only three copies of the pamphlet are recorded. One copy of the Plymouth broadside variant (b) is known. The Philadelphia variants are more common but still quite rare. Princeton owns a copy of the May 1789 issue of the American Museum (a) with the plate still intact. Princeton also acquired, evidently in the 1960 s, a copy of Philadelphia variant (b). It is beautifully preserved and shows signs of once having been folded so as to form a postal letter.

This accession was acquired from a London bookseller in early 2006. It was purchased in part with funds donated by Sid Lapidus, Class of 1959.

It is a fine copy of the London version (a), the variant with woodcuts. Historical evidence shows that the London version was by far the most commonly distributed version of the plan of the Brooks. As the years went by and the debate over the slave trade continued, the London version was reprinted time and again. It appeared in the précis of the proceedings of the Commons committee on the slave trade published in 1791. Princeton has two copies of this précis, one in the general rare book collections and another in the Scheide Library. It appeared several times after 1791, most notably in the 1808 History of the … Abolition of the African Slave-Trade by the Reverend Thomas Clarkson, a chief agent of the London Committee. (The Library recently purchased a copy of the London edition of the History; the Philadelphia edition has been in Princeton’s collections since the early nineteenth century.) On the eve of the American Civil War, the London version of the Brooks plan appeared in an abolitionist pamphlet, which was given to the Library in the late nineteenth century by John S. Pierson.

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