Slave Ship

Date: 1831
Owner: John Carter Brown Library, Brown University
Source Type: Images


This British image was made in 1831, after Britain had abolished its own slave trade and was idealistically pressing for its end worldwide. It is a diagram of the slave ships used to send Africans to Brazil and, on this vessel, all the human cargo is shoved into a tiny middle deck in which they did not have room to either stand or lie down.

According to historian Marcus Rediker, slave ships were the fundamental technology enabling the existence of both the slave trade and the New World plantation system. These ships were sophisticated machines, advanced descendents of the caravels and galleons that first made American colonization possible in the fifteenth and sixteenth century. Like the vessel depicted here, they typically had three masts, a rounded hull, and iron cannon, the weapons that allowed ships to serve as both transports and fortresses. Slave ships, however, had functions beyond those of other ships: they were a combination of a trading post and a prison. They were efficient trading stations that let merchants carry their cargo in their place of business and, for slaves, they were prisons in an era before such institutions existed on land.

Taken together, slave ships and plantations were the two codependent institutions that allowed each other to thrive in the early modern era. The technological innovations of each allowed for the further entrenchment of the other and they created an economic, social, and demographic situation that impacted cultures, people, and ecosystems on all four Atlantic continents.

Reference: Rediker, Marcus. The Slave Ship: A Human History. London: Viking Press, 2007.

CITATION: Sections of a Slave Ship. In Walsh, Robert. Notices of Brazil in 1828 and 1829...Vol. II. Boston: Richardson, 1831. Accession no. 05835. Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University.