Bailey's painting derives from a late-eighteenth-century engraving that diagrammed the Brookes, a British cargo ship that transported enslaved Africans to Jamaica. On each voyage, the ship carried some 500 people in the hold, each of whom was allotted a maximum floor space of six feet by sixteen inches (smaller than Bailey's work). Revealing the brutal treatment of Africans as freight to be packed as tightly as possible for transport to the New World, the engraving became one of the most widely circulated abolitionist images of its day.
Bailey streamlined and altered the engraving's composition, removing nearly all of its text and more than half of its figures. He also made nearly half of the remaining figures white, setting them opposite their Black counterparts. This "separate but equal" arrangement refers to the 1896 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson upholding the legality of maintaining segregated public facilities for white and Black Americans. Made at the tail end of the civil-rights era, Bailey's work implicitly link the nation's ongoing systemic racism with the legacy of slavery.