Back to Inquiry Set

10.2a.5 Decks of a slave ship.

This print illustrates how slavetraders packed hundreds of slaves into ships for transport. The top image shows a view looking straight down upon African slaves laid out in the hold and the bottom image shows a cross-section of the ships decks.
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division, The New York Public Library. "Decks of a slave ship." New York Public Library Digital Collections.
This drawing of how slave traders packed hundreds of slaves into the hold (the bottom diagram) and lined them on the deck (the top diagram) of a ship was published in 1789 for a German-speaking audience. Drawings like this were used by abolitionist societies in the late eighteenth century to show how slave traders mistreated and abused their captives, to convince white Europeans and Americans to oppose slavery. Between 1501 and 1867, more than 12 million African people were kidnapped into slavery, transported across the Atlantic Ocean, and sold in Brazil, the Caribbean, and North America. Chattel slavery, the kind of slavery in the Atlantic World, was one of the worst forms of inequality in the premodern world because of its brutality and the number of people enslaved. Although some Enlightenment philosophers called for an end to slavery, most European elites thought that was a very radical, utopian idea. However, we need to keep in mind that only a small minority of the world’s people could read and write, and most of what they wrote and created has been destroyed over the years. Most surviving sources we have were written or created by elite, wealthy, educated males, who had a self-interest in supporting the unequal social order because they were at the top. We do not have any records of the voices, feelings, and thoughts of most people who lived in the 1700s, and so we do not know what they thought about slavery.
The purpose of this drawing is to remind students that slavery was a significant economic and social phenomenon in the mid-eighteenth century and a major source of inequality. You might ask students to recall details about the slave trade and the infamous Middle Passage from their studies in eighth grade. Point out that only a small fraction (400,000) of the 12 million Africans kidnapped and sent across the Atlantic ended up in North America. The greatest number (more than 3.5 million) wound up in Brazil, and the rest were spread throughout the Caribbean. In the same period, Muslim slave traders transported almost 3 million Africans to Muslim states and empires.
Decks Of A Slave Ship.