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22 Volume
1-2 Number
2009 Year
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Cornell University
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A Visual Journey through Time

Cheryl Finley, History of Art Finley
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What Is the Role of Visual Culture?

Cultural Memory of an Icon

I am completing a book called Committed to Memory: The Slave Ship Icon in the Black Atlantic Imagination. It is a cultural study of the most recognized image associated with the memory of slavery and the Middle Passage: a black-and-white schematic print named “Description of a Slave Ship,” which shows the manner in which African captives were stowed on slave ships. I write about why I can describe the image to just about anyone, and they know it precisely. I explore the historical uses, interpretations, and adaptations of the image through time, beginning with the significance of why British abolitionists created it in England in 1789.

“Description of a Slave Ship” revealed, for the first time, the system of transporting enslaved Africans from the west coast of Africa to the New World. It exposed the horror and inhumanity beneath the decks of slave ships, which was not visible from the shores of England. Tradespeople, from blacksmiths to textile manufacturers, facilitated the slave trade with their wares, but they were uninformed about the nastiness of the business. This image graphically illustrated how enslaved Africans were tightly packed as human cargo on slave ships, and the accompanying text, with mathematical calculations describing the cramped space per man, woman, or child, as well as documented incidents of sickening torture, urged members of Parliament and ordinary citizens to join the campaign to end the slave trade.

Using naval architectural precision, the slave ship schematic exposed the cruel business of the transatlantic slave trade to people who had the ability to change the law in Britain. These were members of Parliament and others, including the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade, which eventually would rally enough people to organize a broad-based effort to end the slave trade. Known as the abolitionist movement, this was the first modern political campaign to utilize grassroots organizational tactics, including the dissemination of shocking visual images like “Description of a Slave Ship” drawn with small black figures representing African captives.

The image was designed originally to critique the Slave Trade Regulation Act of 1788, which called for a slave ship doctor on board to treat illness and prevent loss of life, as well as a reduction in the number of captives a slave ship was legally allowed to carry in order to ease crowding and create a safer transatlantic voyage. But with “Description of a Slave Ship,” the abolitionists made the visual argument that even regulation was an abomination: the slave trade must be abolished altogether. And by 1807 it was ended in Great Britain and the following year in the United States. More than 200,000 impressions of the print had been reproduced and disseminated by the end of the 18th century, in what Robert Farris Thompson (and later, Paul Gilroy) called the Black Atlantic—the modern political and geographical space that connects black people around the Atlantic Rim through historical and cultural exchange.

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