Historicising Slavery

By: Kristy Warren

I recently gave a talk as part of UCL’s Diversity Month, in which I discussed some of the issues surrounding historicising slavery and presenting information about this  topic to secondary school students.  Below I outline some of the key themes that I addressed.

The LBS team is currently expanding and deepening  the way we transmit histories of slavery to diverse groups, including young people. This involves contemplating how we can best enhance and revise existing learning resources in the face of new research and broadened understandings about how the system of slavery worked. It also includes considering how this history can be made meaningful and relevant to another generation. These considerations would be important at any time. But they are especially  critical in the face of soon to be implemented changes in the curriculum which see a renewed emphasis on the national, at the expense of  showing the extent to which the development of this island is linked to people in and of other places.

My colleagues Kate Donington and James Dawkins have already engaged with secondary school students studying History and English.  Kate’s experience has shown that being able to link slave-ownership to London streets, which students themselves walk, helps them to  engage more deeply with the topic. Meanwhile,  James has noted  in a recent blog entry, that the ability to show the links between a founder of the school where he was giving a presentation and slavery helped to bring home the local connections of a global system. I feel their experiences speak to the power of localizing history.

In this vein, the team has just embarked on a pilot Share Academy funded project called Local Roots / Global Routes in which we will be working along with Hackney Museum and Archives, community consultants and teachers to develop a resource for Key Stage 3 (students aged 13 – 14) which explores links to slavery and abolition in that borough. We are grateful to be partnering with staff from Hackney Museum and Archives as they have a wealth of experience and knowledge concerning community engagement and teaching slavery.  In addition to developing the resource, we will also soon add a page dedicated to this project on the LBS website.

To do this, it is important to consider what is already being done to teach slavery. Although activities which surrounded the 2007 bicentenary of the abolition of the British slave trade did a lot to bring about the development of many key recourses and curriculum changes, inevitably certain misconceptions arose due to the focus of that year. Chief among these were that many people’s knowledge of slavery became implicitly and explicitly focused on the abolition of the trade and the British abolitionists, not on what came before or to the actual practice of plantation enslavement.

Additionally, there still remains a presumption in the minds of many that slavery is not connected to Britain due to the emphasis placed on the North American experience of slavery. This belief denies the importance of Caribbean slavery to Britain. This skewing of the British past is reinforced by the way in which the history of the enslavement of Africans is commonly taught as only being part of black history, often squeezed into the month of October. It is also not usually taught within a wider context of black presences in Britain or the history of the African continent before the trafficking in Africans began; although there are important exceptions to this which can be further explored on the black history 4 schools website.

The research being conducted by LBS means that information about slave-owners can be reinserted, broadening an understanding of Britain’s involvement in transatlantic slavery. The information being gained in this project shows the connections between Britain and plantation slavery by including details about slave-owners and localizing the study in both Britain and the Caribbean.

Including information about slave-owners can give specific examples to show how individuals and families were enriched by their involvement in slavery. It also can show what impact these people had through engagement in politics, commerce, culture, the wider empire, the built environment and the construction of the history of slavery. This exploration includes discussing the content of the argument of the pro-slavery lobby, which has as much to tell us about Britain as the arguments made by the abolitionists. Furthermore, localizing the study can show how slavery worked in the everyday lives of those living in Britain and the Caribbean.

As a team, we want to use our research to build on the critical work conducted  already by so many groups such as the Understanding Slavery Initiative, who started reassessing slavery  long before the 2007 bicentenary.  In thinking about this aim, what Hackney Museum stated in their 2007 teachers resource pack Abolition 07 resonates: “Whatever their roots, race or ancestry, as British citizens living and learning in Britain today, this is part of their history. Young people need to learnwhy it has been hidden for so long. Young people need to own this history.”

What I learned from both preparing for the talk, and the engaging conversation that was had afterwards, is that in addition to providing new information, discovering ways of getting this information to teachers will be vital!