The Power-Packed Image That Led Call for the End of Slavery

Slave trade infogram
Slave trade infogram

The old saying is that “a picture speaks a thousand words.” Here’s an example of one image which spoke volumes more, leading to increased resolve to call for the end of slavery.

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.

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.