Teaching the SLAVE SHIP

Like many, I first saw this image in my childhood, and I have never forgotten it. However, in retrospect, I do not believe that I was taught the history behind the image correctly – at least, not the whole history.

In a blog entry originally posted in 2017 and recently recirculated widely, Corinne Shutack advocated 75 specific constructive actions in support of racial justice. Among them was the recommendation that parents, teachers, and concerned citizens should encourage their schools to ensure that the topic of slavery in American history is taught correctly.1 Noting that a correct history is one that listens to many voices from the past, Shutack asked ‘is your school showing images such as Gordon’s scourged back, a slave ship hold, and an enslaved nurse holding her young master?’ The slave ship hold to which she refers is the ‘Description of a Slave Ship’, a powerful image produced as a broadside (a public poster) in London in 1789, as well as its many derivatives. Although these important images do not record the ‘voices’ of the enslaved, they do represent essential eyewitness testimony to the cruel practices of enslavement through the depiction of a slave-trade ship’s cargo hold.

Description of a Slave Ship, 1789 (woodcuts). Oversize 2006-0018E

Educators who wish to display these images in teaching may wish to know that Princeton University Library owns the two earliest original broadsides of the ‘Description of a Slave Ship’, both printed in 1789. They have been digitized and are freely available to all. Two points worth emphasizing to students are the large size of the broadsides, which measure two feet tall, and the ship doctor’s horrifically detailed report, which accompanies the image, but is often left out in textbook reproductions. Here is the link to higher-resolution images of the two broadsides (in the page that opens, the image download button is on the left, below the contents panel next to the two images):


Description of a Slave Ship, 1789 (engraved). Oversize 2016-0001E

Published by British abolitionists in April 1789, the broadsides of the ‘Description of a Slave Ship’ provided the most recognizable, shocking, and unforgettable of all images associated with the Atlantic slave trade. The plans and sections diagram in painful detail how the slave ship Brookes was intended to stow its full capacity of 482 men (in chains), women, and children. In reality, the inhumanity was even worse: up to 609 people were imprisoned within the ship during its two-month journeys from the coast of Africa to the West Indies. The accompanying text refuted the rationalizations of ‘the well-wishers to this trade’ with facts, statistics, and the ship doctor’s gruesome eyewitness report that invoked the reader’s moral duty to take action against ‘one of the greatest evils at this day existing upon the earth’.

Two variants of the original ‘Description of a Slave Ship’ are known, both published in London between 21 and 28 April 1789 (many later reproductions appeared in books). According to minutes of the London Committee of the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade, the printing consisted of 1,700 broadsides illustrated with a copperplate engraving and 7,000 illustrated with woodcuts. Princeton’s engraved version includes some hand-written corrections to the printed text. For the history of these images, we recommend reading Cheryl Finley, Committed to Memory: The Art of the Slave Ship Icon (Princeton University Press, 2018). Princeton acquired the engraved version in 2016 as a counterpart to the woodcut version, purchased in 2006 with matching funds given by Sidney Lapidus, Class of 1959.

Please feel free to share these images with teachers you know.

1 Corrine Shutack, on MEDIUM’s ‘Equality Includes You’ page (August, 2017): https://medium.com/equality-includes-you/what-white-people-can-do-for-racial-justice-f2d18b0e0234