Black History Month: Description of a Slave Ship

12 October 2017

For Black History Month we are exploring our archive for important details relating to black history. This document was sent to Patrick McDouall-Crichton, 6th Earl of Dumfries (the 2nd Marquess of Bute’s grandfather) describing the conditions on slave ships. The broadside was commissioned by Thomas Clarkson and the Committee for the Abolition of Slavery to inform the public on the inhumanity of the slave trade. As a leading Scottish Peer the Earl of Dumfries was a valuable ally to this cause.

Please note: this post contains content some readers may find upsetting.


What follows are a few short extracts from the broadside describing the Brooks, a well known slave ship. This poster was not intended to call for the end of slavery but to campaign for the reduction in the number of slaves carried on a single ship.

In this ship the number of men actually carried is: 351

The number of men stated in the plan at 1 ft 4 inches each: 190

Difference: 161

“…the room allowed them, instead of being 16 inches in the plan, was in reality only 10 inches each; but if the whole number 351 were stowed in the men’s room, they had only 9 inches each to lay in. The men therefore, instead of lying on their backs, were placed as is usual, in full ships, on their sides on or each other.  In which last situation they are not infrequently found dead in the morning.”

“It may be expected, from this mode of packing a number of our fellow creatures, used in their own country to a life of ease, and from the anguish of mind their situation must necessarily create, that many of them fall sick and die.  Instances sometimes occur of horrible mortality.  The average is not less than 1 – 15th, or 20 per cent.”

“The only exercise of the men-slaves is their being made to jump in their chains; and this, by the friends of the trade, is called dancing.

“As then the inhumanity of this trade must be universally admitted and lamented, people would do well to consider that is does not often fall to the lot of individuals, to have an opportunity of performing to important a moral and religious duty, as that of endeavouring to put an end to a practice, which may, without exaggeration, be stiled one of the greatest evils at this day existing upon the earth.

As part of our Black History Month series you can read more about Edmonia Lewis, an African American artist whose sculpture of Christ is still in the Bute Collection, or more about the Society for the Abolition of Slavery.