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The Brookes - visualising the transatlantic slave trade

The appearance of the abolitionist poster the Brookes in various museum displays and exhibitions in a multitude of forms throughout the bicentenary has affirmed the prominent place this eighteenth century image still possess over contemporary society. For many the horror and inhumanity of the slave trade is distilled with this image. It appears capable of evoking great emotion amongst its viewers and has become alongside the Wedgwood seal the most recognisable piece of the campaign materials of the abolitionists. Like the Wedgwood seal its appearance has also been contested this year. Its use has been strongly criticised by some individuals and groups of African heritage as providing a very limited view of the history of the transatlantic slave trade, resistance and abolition (Hudson 2007). The Brookes as a symbol for the history and legacy of the slave trade will be explored in this article as a means to create a deeper understanding of the message and meaning of the image for audiences.

History of the image

The <cite>Brookes</cite> ship

The Brookes ship (1789)

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The history of the Brookes image is one which has been largely left untold alongside its use in museums and galleries. Its employment by the abolitionists to campaign against the slave trade is perhaps considered 'common knowledge.' Woods (2000: 16) relays the genesis of the image which depicts in cross-section and overhead view the number of enslaved individuals that the Liverpool slave ship the Brookes could legally hold.

The <cite>Brookes</cite> ship

The Brookes ship (1789)

First designed in Plymouth in 1788 and published in December 1788 by the Plymouth Chapter of the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade, the image was then made widely available by the bookseller James Phillips (Jennings 1997: 8). The print became the most widely recognisable image of the Middle Passage as it was reproduced countless times as a means of forwarding the abolitionist cause (Webster 2005: 2)

Whilst Woods (2000) has explored the reception of this image during the 18th and 19th centuries and considered its legacy throughout western culture to the present day what is left unexamined is how the image is viewed. What is thereby not explored is the effect of this image on its viewers. Why has it proven so popular? Why has it become such an iconic image? What is it that the image does which has proven so powerful?

Looking at the past

To begin to assess these issues of concern an examination of the social and cultural context of seeing and looking must be considered (Berger 1972). Therefore the 'gaze' of the viewer is assessed as a social practice, an activity which is far from being a 'natural' or 'inevitable' faculty (Foucault 1980). This approach connects the implications of looking and seeing with aspects of power and knowledge.

How the individual looks and observes an object, an image or indeed another human being is dependent upon the social, economic and cultural position of the observer. To cast your gaze upon an object or image in a museum or gallery is an exercise of power, privilege and authority: though this gaze can never be entirely one-way.

To assess the various forms in which the Brookes image has been used this year is to reveal how it dominates the visual representation of the transatlantic slave trade and indeed the wider marking of the bicentenary. From its seemingly obligatory appearance in local and national museums, to artworks and performance pieces the image dominates the marking of the abolition act of 1807.

Marking the bicentenary

Perhaps the most noticeable use of the image has been as an inspiration to a variety of public performance pieces. In the York Castle Museum, the London Print Studio and on the Palace Green by Durham Cathedral, the image has been replicated by asking large numbers of individuals usually children to recreate the image by laying down alongside each other.

The <cite>Brookes</cite> ship

Recreation of the Brookes at York Castle Museum

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This experience is designed to elicit an understanding of the physical confines onboard the ship and these events have provided some of the most memorable scenes of the bicentenary year. Though obviously incapable of replicating the sheer physical and mental brutality of forced transportation, these events are conducted in an apparent attempt to offer the hope of generating a sense of corporeal or visceral memory. The Education Outreach Officer at Durham University Library stated that, 'the aim...was to give the young people a chance to reflect on the horrors of the Middle Passage and leave a long-lasting impression upon them' (DU 2007).

The <cite>Brookes</cite> ship

Recreation of the Brookes (1789) at Durham Cathedral Palace Green. See the Durham University website.

Unsurprisingly these events have attracted criticisms, foremost being the obvious question of whether it is appropriate to render the image in such a fashion. Asking individuals to replicate a scene depicting extreme cruelty could be labelled morbid as it can be seen as particularly insensitive both to the memory of those enslaved and their descendants today.

These examples however succinctly illustrate the strange fascination the Brookes image holds. The power of the image is again evoked in the artwork by Romauld Hazoumé, La Bouche de Roi, bought by the British Museum and displayed at numerous museums and galleries this year. La Bouche reworks the image using petrol cans and artefacts drawing attention to the resonance and legacy of the slave trade in contemporary society.

Hazoumé uses the emotions that the Brookes image evokes to create a powerful, atmospheric artwork. In the same way the display of the image in museums, exhibitions and displays has relied upon the image itself to communicate to visitors the suffering of the Middle Passage and the meticulous violence of the trade. Often the image is shown on display panels with a minimal amount of text to describe the image. It is left to speak for itself.

The <cite>Brookes</cite> ship

The complete installation from above.
Photo: Benedict Johnson.
Courtesy the British Museum

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Whilst the Brookes image has acquired an iconic status there have been complaints from groups and communities of African heritage which have argued that the image reduces the role of the enslaved. The individuals depicted in the image become passive victims waiting to be rescued by the abolitionists, rather than architects of rebellion onboard the slave ships (Woods 2000: 23).

The image of the enslaved in the Brookes is reduced to illustrating the structure of the ship itself. The crude renderings of the enslaved in the print, side by side, serves to dehumanise individuals at the very moment when the need to proclaim their humanity is paramount. They are reduced to ciphers, images of pain and cruelty, to be easily understood by the viewer. The image can therefore be certainly criticised as sanitising the history of the Middle Passage, as the suffering of the enslaved is observed to be obscured or altered by the political objectives or sensibilities of the original abolitionists.

Differing viewpoints regarding the image of the Brookes have come as a distinct surprise to some curators. One museum professional (anon 2007) expressed that they 'had no idea' that the image could be deemed so offensive by sections of the community. Indeed, to many the image certainly remains a straightforward depiction of the cruelty of the transatlantic slave trade. The various ways in which the Brookes can be 'seen' by its audience therefore becomes of paramount concern in the development of visual displays in museums and galleries.

To comprehend these processes the Brookes will be assessed on three principles, as a technology of vision, as an instrument of empathy and as a symbol of control. By highlighting the various means of constructing the 'viewing' of the image a greater degree of scrutiny can be placed on the image regarding its ability to 'speak for itself.'

Technology of vision

It is important to consider not only the subject that 'views' but their relationship with the object that is observed. This association is never wholly one way, rather it is reciprocal. Indeed, such is the nature of the interaction of the subject and object an almost hybrid relationship might be said to exist.

The manner of viewing is dictated by the object just as the subject can 'recreate' the object by looking. This concept is of especial pertinence in museums where objects of the past are presented to visitors for their observation. In these circumstances it is appropriate to ask; are visitors imbuing past objects and materials with new meanings and associations with their 'contemporary gaze', or are the objects themselves prefiguring their own reception, enabling the recirculation of past meanings and understandings?

Asking these question in the context of the Brookes image highlights the way in which the image 'structures' the viewing of the depiction of the slave ship. The observer is asked to comprehend the torture of the Middle Passage with reference to the way in which the Brookes is depicted.

The methodological, top-down layout of the ship's hold and the figures of the enslaved form a particular mode of viewing for the observer; one which places the individual observer in the moral context of a witness not a participant. Viewers are therefore asked to understand the moral cause of the abolition of the slave trade in this context.

Detail of the Brookes

Detail of the Brookes (1789)

In this way the image dictates perception in the same manner that occurred in its inception. Designed to elicit support for the cessation of the British enslavement of Africans the image gave the viewer the perspective of an all-encompassing vision. A moral observer of the situation who benignly cast judgement on the context they witnessed. The image offers a position of power for the observer.

Designed for a white British audience the image facilitated the empowering of individuals to take an ethical stance. It creates an impression of privilege and righteousness. It provides an assumption of power over others. The depiction of the enslaved as small figures for the purpose of illustrating the capacity of the ship thereby ensures an inherently superior, external and neutral stance on the transatlantic slave trade and slavery.

It creates a mode of neutrality as it enables the viewer not to see themselves as participating in the trade, not to examine their own position in the role of a victim, a perpetrator or an apathetic or ignorant beneficiary. It creates a neutral context in which to judge the immoral enslavement of individuals from Africa.

This technology of vision is still evoked in the present day; the image of the Brookes is often displayed in museums and displays with a minimum of contextual data. In this manner the same structure of vision is created, as the image dictates the manner in which is perceived and apprehended.

The background knowledge and experience of viewers must also be considered. Wallace (2007) has described the popular memory of the transatlantic slave trade in Britain as one which focuses on the work of British abolitionists and forgets the complicity of Britain in the trade. In this respect, audiences in Britain who are either well-versed or with only a cursory knowledge of the 1807 Abolition Act access the image as one used by the abolitionists. The mode of viewing the image as a disengaged witness, a disembodied observer, as ordered by the image itself, is in that way reinforced, and with this viewing a particular perception of the history, memory and legacy of the British enslavement of Africans is created.

Embodiment and the Brookes

Perhaps it is of no great surprise therefore, that with the use of the Brookes as an inspiration for a variety of public performances, the photograph of these performances that was most sought after by the media and organisers alike was an aerial photograph. Looking down on the arrangement of individuals from above to capture the same form of 'looking' that the image requires; the technology of visual control that the image dictates would therefore seem quite pervasive. The point of view of these spectacles from the level of those participating is absent; as that's not 'the way' the image and the trade are remembered.

Despite this the Brookes image remains a popular part of exhibitions and displays. Its capacity to evoke a sense of connection for audiences to the experience of the Middle Passage might seem to make it a key tool in the generation of empathy for the enslaved (Lubbock 2007).

The creation of this empathy is however not based on the experiences of the individual; it provides no surface on which to read the suffering of the human body. Landsberg (2001) and Bennett (2006) have described the formation of an empathetic connection with an image in terms of the evocation of a 'sensuous sign'. These signs convey the pain and suffering of the human body to the audience.

In art, film and various other visual arts the manner in which this empathy is created has become a concern for many scholars working in this field. These studies have located the ability to convey a distinctly humanistic and experiential perspective in images as the key to empathising with another.

The Brookes offers a mode of empathy, a sense of connection for its observers but this is based upon witnessing the suffering of others in an abstract manner, in terms of the capacity of the ship itself rather than the experiences of the individuals in the holds.

In this respect the image is a symbol of control, it dictates a particular way of viewing and remembering the slave trade. Significantly, it offers only one perspective, that of the abolitionist witnessing cruelty, the perspective of those who are suffering the cruelty is predominantly absent.

It is for this reason that the image has been considered by groups, communities and individuals especially those of African heritage as offensive and disempowering. The image in effect narrates a history which obscures the voices of those enslaved and their descendents.

It also thereby reaffirms the poisonous heritage of the transatlantic slave trade of inequality and racism. The bodies of the enslaved Africans are presented for a presumably white British audience to look upon and pass judgement. It fixes the notion of 'the other' in the mind of the viewer. 'The other' is a being which is fixed by the gaze of the observer as different, as separate from the thoughts and feelings of the viewer.

It excludes the perspective of Black men and women of African and Caribbean heritage as the image casts them as 'victims', suffering 'objects' to be viewed by audiences. The image which is reproduced so liberally across official publications regarding the bicentenary undermines the Government's own agenda of the bicentenary to promote multiculturalism in Britain (DCMS 2007). The Brookes places the power of looking and seeing firmly within white British society.


It is a strange, unexamined feature of the bicentenary that this image has still served to shape perceptions over two hundred years since its publication. Its continued usage cannot be explained away with traditional assumptions of its 'innate power' or 'effective communication' (Lubbock 2007). Whilst the image structures the gaze of the viewer, it is the viewer who locates within the image a message or meaning that finds acceptance and wider cultural currency.

The power and prominence of the Brookes image is created through a network of societal factors which have placed the representation above others. Its continued use is a stunning indictment of the unequal nature of power and representation in Britain for those of African heritage. The inherent power in the gaze which fixes 'the other' as something different, to be observed and looked upon, maintains the prejudice and discrimination of 'institutionalised racism.'

The Brookes provides an image that firmly locates the viewer away from responsibility of the slave trade. They are asked to take a moral stance on an evil committed elsewhere and by others. Looking at the image the observer is asked to be an abolitionist, the more troubling issues of the history and legacy of the slave trade are not accessed in the image. The viewer is not asked to examine the actions or context of their own lives but those of others.

As part of the visualisation of the Atlantic slave trade the image offers a very specific perception of the past. In effect it forms a displacement for the consideration of Britain's complicity in the enslavement of millions of Africans. These questions are deferred as the viewer can 'perform' the role of moral outrage in the picture not a critical assessment of the nation's past

Following this, it would perhaps be more appropriate for museums and galleries to reclassify the Brookes not as an important part of Britain's abolition heritage but rather as another example of the racist ideology that the slave trade fostered. It could be placed alongside the cartoon strips and engravings from the 18th to the 20th centuries which negatively depict Africa and individuals from Africa.

What is certain therefore is that the image cannot be relied upon to, 'speak for itself.' The politics and power of visual representation in museums was felt more keenly in 2007 than previously. This can enable an engagement in the manner of displays and can foster a discussion concerning what other images can be offered in which to view and remember.

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