What Happened on the Brookes Slave Ship?

The slave ship Brookes brought African captives to Caribbean sugar plantations.
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In the mid-1600s, trader John Hawkins sailed from England to the west coast of Africa, where he purchased African slaves. He sailed west to the Caribbean, where he traded the slaves for sugar and tobacco before returning home. Hawkins' journey initiated Great Britain's 150-year long "triangular trade," which would lead to the enslavement of approximately 3.1 million Africans. Of the many slave-trading ships, none achieved the notoriety of the Brookes. A poster depicting its human cargo and the deplorable conditions onboard was instrumental in ultimately abolishing Great Britain's slave trade.

1 A Swift Slaver

The Brookes was built in 1781 for Joseph Brooks Jr., a slave-trade merchant in Liverpool, the most prosperous of England's three slave-ship ports. The Brookes was a large ship, measuring 100 feet in length and 27 feet in width. The height between the decks where the slaves were stowed was about 5 feet, 8 inches. The ship weighed in at about 300 tons. It was a fast, full-rigged ship that was well-known, successfully run and a veteran of 10 trips to the coast of Africa.

2 A Deadly Voyage

The Regulated Slave Trade Act, which determined the number of slaves a ship could legally transport based on its size, was passed by Parliament in 1788. That same year, Prime Minister William Pitt sent Captain Parrey, a naval officer, to inspect and measure slave ships docked at Liverpool. Of the 26 ships Parrey inspected, he measured nine, including the Brookes. Parrey found that the Brookes afforded the second-smallest space per slave of all the ships he measured. The Brookes was legally permitted to carry about 450 slaves. However, the ship's records showed it had transported about 600 slaves on three occasions, and on one voyage carried 740 slaves in its cargo hold. Parrey's report also indicated that the mortality rate among the Brookes' slave population was nearly 12 percent.

3 The Truth Comes Out

In 1787, Cambridge student Thomas Clarkson took up the cause of abolishing slavery after winning a Latin essay contest on the topic. Clarkson joined other abolitionists in forming the Committee for the Abolition of the African Slave Trade and rallied the support of Parliament member William Wilberforce. Wilberforce advised Clarkson to gather evidence of the slave trade's horrors. Among the information Clarkson obtained was Parrey's account of the Brookes. Abolitionist William Elford used this information to create a broadside depicting a graphic, cutaway drawing of the Brookes showing its cramped quarters. Accompanying text detailed conditions onboard the ship, and a cartouche showed a slave in chains with the words, "Am I Not a Man and a Brother?"

4 An End to Evil

Elford's broadside of the Brookes was widely distributed throughout Great Britain and the Americas. Wilberforce also showed members of the House of Commons a wooden model of the boat during his campaign to abolish the slave trade. The Brookes' onboard surgeon, Dr. Thomas Trotter, testified before Parliament that slaves were packed so tightly in the hold that he suspected many died of asphyxiation during the months-long voyage. Slaves who refused to eat or dance when commanded were whipped and beaten, Trotter said. The Brookes became the haunting symbol of Great Britain's slave trade. In 1807, Great Britain made the slave trade illegal, and in 1833 it abolished slavery altogether. The Brookes made its last slave-trading voyage in 1804, during which it was captured and kept in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Laura Leddy Turner began her writing career in 1976. She has worked in the newspaper industry as an illustrator, columnist, staff writer and copy editor, including with Gannett and the Asbury Park Press. Turner holds a B.A. in literature and English from Ramapo College of New Jersey, with postgraduate coursework in business law.