Saturday, July 28, 2012
Image that Led 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.