I always get a bit of a thrill using the Newberry’s special collections. The ritual associated with it—divesting yourself of pencils, entering the closed room, waiting for the delivery of your item nestled in a velvet pillow and accompanied by a snake to hold the pages flat—remind me I’m about to engage in ‘real research’ among real documents, even if that real research is looking through endless ledgers or the almost-incomprehensible scribble of a Victorian correspondent who did not pay quite enough attention to her handwriting instruction. Recently I have been searching for images of slavery from the 18th century for a Teacher as Scholars seminar on Olaudah Equiano offered on October 22 and 23, 2012. These are relatively uncommon—the 19th century archive is flooded with pro-slavery and abolitionist texts, illustrated respectively with cheery images of plantation life and dire scenes of beatings, overwork, and harrowing escapes. (You can take a look at some examples of these in the “Slavery, Civil War and ‘New Birth of Freedom’” collection.) The 18th century archive, though, is a bit trickier to navigate. So I was thrilled to receive on my desk the simply named “Description of a Slave Ship” (1789) and find it was the famous cross-section of the slave ship Brookes [I think] packed to an inhuman degree with human cargo. I had seen the image before, but encountering it printed on a broadside in stark black ink, intended to wring an emotional response from even the most casual viewer, was a different experience altogether. Below the cross-section there is printed text, describing the precise dimensions of the boat and the infinitesimal range of motion allowed to the captives. The image of the slave-ship has become commonplace in history courses and in TV documentaries, almost to the extent that it loses its power to shock. But reencountering this broadside unexpectedly and up-close helped me see it anew as a powerful and immediate call for justice.
Teacher Programs summer intern and graduate student in History, Northwestern University