The Slave Ship Brooks

The Slave Ship Brooks

By Will Noel

Michael Suarez, Professor of English and Director of Rare Books School at the University of Virginia, was a recent speaker at one of our biweekly seminars that we hold in Special Collections in conjunction with MARBAS (Manuscript, Rare Book & Archive Studies at Princeton), the driving force of which is the terrific Marina Rustow, Khedouri A. Zilkha Professor of Jewish Civilization in the Near East and Professor of Near Eastern Studies and History.  W. Bruce Leslie ’66, current president of the Friends of the Princeton University Library, was also in attendance. 

A group of people looking closely at a document
MARBAS Seminar, Special Collections, Firestone Library.

Michael’s latest research is concerning what bibliography can tell us about the slave trade. Princeton is particularly rich in important copies of the Slave Ship Brooks, representations of which went viral at the end of the eighteenth century and helped in abolishing the trade in England. 

One of the images that Michael showed us was a rendition of the Slave Ship Brooks, published by the London-based Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade in 1789.  It is a fine copperplate diagram accompanied by typography.  Our copy is a proof copy, marked up with corrections in the first column.  Only one other unmutilated copy of this copperplate version of the Slave Ship Brooks known to survive, at Harvard. 

"Plan and Sections of a Slave Ship" showing different sections of a boat filled with people
Description of a Slave Ship, 1789. Rare Books Collection (2006-0018E Oversize).

However, William Wilberforce had a copy, and he used it to brilliant effect.  He cut out the plans, and laid them down in a three dimensional copy of the Slave Ship Brooks, which he then presented to the opposition before delivering a speech on the abhorrence of the trade in the House of Commons.

It was a great seminar, in which several editions of the Slave Ship, engraved and woodcut, printed in England and America, were placed in the context of this one, and behind the horror of the image, we got a good sense of the courage and strategies of those who fought so strenuously for the abolition of such a lucrative practice.