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Confronting the brutal reality: how to teach the legacy of transatlantic slavery

The British curriculum sanitises the history of slavery by isolating it as an aberration of evil. Slavery built the west. Acknowledging that is the first step to undoing its damage.

Slavery memorial. Murky1/Flickr. (CC 2.0 by-nc-nd)

In response to a 2013 article in The Guardian on the narrowness of the British history curriculum, Elizabeth Truss, then the parliamentary under-secretary of state at the department for education, trumpeted the inclusion of “explicit references to ‘the slave trade and the abolition of slavery’, William Wilberforce and Olaudah Equiano”. Her response demonstrates the problematic way that transatlantic slavery is both remembered and taught in Britain. The (optional, rather than required) teaching on transatlantic slavery freezes its horrors as a past phenomenon of more barbarous times. In doing so, it provides a framing that allows white liberals to fondly reminisce about Britain’s heroes of abolition. The same logic is at work when ‘modern day’ slavery is described as the legacy of the African holocaust. Instead of addressing the actual legacy of the system of slavery – the continued oppression and structural disadvantagement of black populations in the west and the disconnection caused between the diaspora and African continent – this framing permits white liberals to embrace the abolitionist spirit of the past. It allows them to fight the good fight against ‘human trafficking’, perpetrated by those supposedly (and conveniently) coming from the developing, less enlightened world. While this is surely more comfortable for white students, it misses out on several key aspects that must be included if the importance of transatlantic slavery is to be taught effectively.

Legal system of oppression

The system of slavery lasted for over 300 years (approximately 1503 to 1888) and was embedded into the fabric of western society. Trading in African flesh was not controversial for most of those three centuries. The wealth generated from the trade funded the development of industry and whole cities such as Bristol and Liverpool. As research by academics at UCL demonstrates, a broad cross section of society owned enslaved Africans. Many of today’s major financial institutions also have roots in the trade. Lloyds of London, for example, proclaims that its history is in ‘marine insurance’, but this is code for ‘insuring slave ships’. Upon abolition slave owners generally received compensation and were not charged for their crimes. Even the deliberate drowning of 132 Africans on the Zong slave ship, done to ensure the white crew’s stock of potable water, was not met with punishment. In teaching transatlantic slavery, it essential for students to understand how embedded it was in the legal framework of the time.

Genocidal brutality

African holocaust is the appropriate term for the systematic enslavement, terror, and slaughter at the heart of slavery. There is no agreed upon figure for how many people died in the system, however Patrick Manning estimated in 1998 that four million people were killed by the process of taking people from Africa and another 1.5 million died while on the slave ships. This gives us a conservative estimate of 5.5 million deaths, one which doesn’t even begin to include the number of Africans who were killed during their enslavement in the Americas (some 10.5 million survived the journey, according to Manning). Considering that C.L.R. James argues in Black Jacobins that the Haitian revolution came about in part because it was common practice to work the enslaved to death, the toll could easily stretch past ten million. And yet, particularly in Britain, the brutality is sanitised in the course of remembering and teaching transatlantic slavery.

In popular culture, too, there have only been two big budget British ‘slavery’ movies: Belle and Amazing Grace. It is no coincidence that both these period dramas, set in the splendour of the English countryside, are about abolition rather than slavery itself. The brutal story of the system, which goes largely untold, is that of mutilation; of mass rapes of both males and females; of babies being cut from mothers’ wombs; of forced defecation into another’s mouth as a form of punishment. We should not be looking away from the genocidal brutality of the system. Rather, we should be forced to engage with its reality, with the fact that it was a legal and central pillar upon which today’s society was built. If learning about the system does not make you feel physically uncomfortable then it is not being taught correctly.

Western imperialism

The major way to reframe the teaching of transatlantic slavery is to stop seeing it as an isolated act of past terror. Transatlantic slavery was integral to a system of western imperialism that is still in existence today. The genocide of the indigenous peoples of the Americas was the first act of imperial conquest; when the Europeans exhausted the human resources they looked to Africa. When slavery was ‘abolished’, the formerly enslaved found themselves in a system of colonialism that impoverished and exploited them further. If we see slavery as part of a system of imperialism, we realise that it did not end. It just took on another form. Indeed, even after formal direct rule of the colonies was itself ended, western imperialism continued with neo-colonial economic domination of the countries and their economies. There is a reason that poverty blights large parts of Africa and the Caribbean, and that reason is western imperialism. Slavery is part of that system and its legacy is still felt very much in the present day.

Tory ministers congratulate themselves for the inclusion of an optional module on ‘slavery and its abolition’ in the national curriculum. But to teach about transatlantic slavery we need to reframe the discussion away from the historical, abolitionist, ‘modern day’ slavery discourse. The brutality of the system built our current society and therefore lives with us. The underdevelopment of the colonies is as much a direct legacy of slavery as the racism impacting descendants of the enslaved in countries like Britain.

Teaching transatlantic slavery in this way would entail a re-examination of the key myths of the progressive and enlightened so-called ‘British values’ that underpin the national identity. It would mean having to acknowledge that what we currently have is built upon a horrific reality of genocide, slavery and colonialism; not just historically but also in the current articulations of western imperialism. That is a disturbing and disorienting history, which presents no comfort or solace for the reader. This perhaps explains the current approach to teaching transatlantic slavery, which, rather than addressing it in full, freezes it in the past, praises abolition, and looks forward to the fight against ‘modern day’ slavery. Reframing the teaching of transatlantic slavery would be a step towards a society that challenges rather than accepts continuing racism and imperial exploitation.

About the author

Kehinde Andrews is Senior Lecturer in Sociology at Birmingham City University. His research interests are radical approaches to overcoming racial inequality. He is the author of the book Resisting Racism: Race, Inequality and the Black Supplementary School Movement. Kehinde is director of the Centre for Critical Social Research; founder of the Organisation of Black Unity; and co-chair of the Black Studies Association.


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