Julia Frankl argues that studying the abolition of slavery and human rights challenges modern day discrimination

2007 marked the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade in Britain and the colonies – the first step to outlawing slavery altogether. Such events provide a great opportunity to explore the slave trade in class. There are lots of connections to PSHE. For example, teachers and students can look at discrimination, human rights, responsibility, and how people stand up for what they believe in.

The campaign to abolish the trade was the first example of mass public protest in Britain. People from all walks of life worked together. The efforts of both British and African activists in the UK, alongside the slave revolts in the colonies, brought an end to the misery and suffering of millions of slaves – but the legacies live on today. From attitudes towards discrimination to forms of political protest, the transatlantic slave trade has helped shape life in 21st-century Britain.

Britain and the slave trade
The slave trade made a huge contribution to the British economy and its rise as an industrial nation. As well as generating business for the slavers (ie ship building and shackle-making), slave routes provided cheap raw materials and labour – allowing production work to be massively scaled up. Cotton production in the Americas fed textile mills in England, transforming small towns such as Manchester into vast industrial cities.

Brutal conditions
It is estimated that 24m Africans were captured and enslaved, with only around 10m surviving the Atlantic crossing. During the crossing, adults and children were shackled together and crammed below decks. The stinking conditions were ripe for spreading disease and a third would die within three years of arrival. Slaves were held to be of inferior intelligence and were often flogged or beaten, forced to work day and night, under-fed and vulnerable to sexual harassment. Slave owners saw them only as property with no legal rights. This issue can lead to useful classroom discussions about the importance of human rights.

The abolition movement
Many groups and individuals were part of the campaign to end the slave trade – one of the first mass human rights movements. Organisations such as the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade and the Sons of Africa (a group of Black community leaders) used petitions, speeches, articles and testimonies from slaves to gather support and lobby parliament for a change in the law. On 25 March 1807, legislation was passed which made the slave trade illegal in the British colonies. It was an important step towards the total abolition of slavery and liberation of enslaved people. There are many positive and inspiring role models who campaigned in the abolition movement who can be researched in class.

Slave trade legacies
The legacies of the slave trade have many repercussions. The ideology of racism, set-up to justify the enslavement of Africans, can still be seen in aspects of modern day racism. The economic development of Africa was severely interrupted and some people argue that reparations should be made. Through discussion work you can explore students’ experiences of prejudice or bullying and how, like the abolition campaigners, they could assertively challenge discrimination.

Slavery today
Under international law, slavery and the slave trade are illegal, but people trafficking and forced labour is evident all over the world. Some of the ways that people are still enslaved today include:

  • bonded or forced labour
  • child labour
  • early and forced marriage
  • chattel slavery

In class you can find out about places where children or workers are exploited, and consider the role of the fair-trade movement and trade unions in preventing exploitation. You could even look into becoming a fair-trade school!

Why teach about slavery?
Learning about the causes and consequences of the slave trade provides opportunities for students to explore what happened and reflect on its impact on society today. From the vast contributions Africans made to the social, cultural and economic development of the Americas, the Caribbean and Europe through to modern day racism and slavery, it can promote inter-cultural understanding and help to develop critical thinking.

There are plenty of teaching materials covering this subject, such as books, websites and films. This can be a sensitive topic, and may rouse strong feelings regarding both historical atrocities and contemporary issues.

The Global Dimension website has a complete guide to available resources that focus on the slave trade, slavery and how to teach controversial issues. There is also a list of recommended resources and links to event information.

Curriculum links
Exploring this topic in PSHE allows students to develop good relationships and respect the differences between people by learning about:

  • the effects of stereotyping, prejudice, bullying, racism and discrimination and how to challenge them assertively
  • the diversity of different ethnic groups and the power of prejudice
  • exploitation in relationships
  • the importance of goodwill.

25 March 2007 commemorates the day the slave trade was abolished in the British colonies

  • 23 August every year is the International Day of Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition
  • 2 December every year is the International Day for the Abolition of Slavery

Julia Frankl is the editor of Global Dimension – a guide to educational resources with a global dimension. Find out more at www.globaldimension.org.uk

First published in Learning for Life, March 2007