Historising Slavery

Ahead of International Slavery Remembrance Day, Kristy Warren shares her experiences engaging young people with the history of slavery. 

As part of my role on the UCL (University College London) based Legacies of British Slave-ownership (LBS) project, I am involved in sharing our work with diverse audiences. This involves reflecting on the "historic causes, the methods and the consequences" of slavery, the aim of this day according to UNESCO.

Last autumn, members of the LBS Team, along with Hackney Museum and Archives, community consultants and teachers, were part of a Share Academy funded project entitled Local Roots / Global Routes. The main outcome of the project was a teaching resource for Key Stage 3 students (aged 13 – 14), which explores links to slavery, abolition and the black presence in Hackney. Extra funding from the Arts Council allowed us to engage the students at two Hackney schools through six week workshops. My colleague Kate Donington and I worked along with the students, teachers, two creative practitioners, and staff at Hackney Archives to create spaces in which the young people could critically engage with the subject of slavery, while also allowing them to creatively respond with what they’d learned through poetry and drama.

Student viewing an archival document Student viewing an archival document

As the course was voluntary, we started by asking all the students why they were interested in the topic. One student's answer has stuck with me: ‘I want to understand why I’m here and where I came from’. This student's answer is so important for our team; for as historians you are involved in not only telling simple ‘facts’, but also in either reinforcing or breaking down stereotypes. In this case it is the pervasive narrative that the history of people of African descent doesn’t matter.

Thus it was important to speak about how Africa and Africans were placed outside of history to justify the mass exploitation of millions of people. The first lesson that the team conducted, as well as later lectures by Akala, reinforced the importance of treating the history of people of African descent as one that is first and foremost about human beings. As the dehumanisation of Africans has been one of the lasting legacies of transatlantic slavery, making sure that people of African descent are subjects rather than objects of history is a part of the work needed to undo that process. This is why, as others have noted before me, teaching children and young people about slavery must be set within a longer history of African peoples. This involves highlighting the myriad of ways in which Africans contributed to the world, while also speaking about how they lived their everyday lives.

Reinserting slavery into the story of Britain was also emphasised. It was important to stress both the involvement of British people in the business and profits of slavery, as well as giving evidence of the legacies of this connection. For although resources exist and are used by some teachers (both within schools and the wider community) slavery in the British colonies has not been a key element of the how the story of the British past is taught. In this context, the conflation of what is known as the slave trade and the wider history of slavery in the Americas  is not surprising. This erasure has meant that the role played by the enslaved in the creation of modern Britain has either been ignored or underplayed.

Once again, reinforcing agency was key. So in addition to speaking about how enslaved people's labour and lives were consumed in the production of mainly luxury goods; it is also important to note how, from the very beginning, they resisted this system in a variety of ways and asserted their humanity in how they formed families and kin networks, practised their beliefs and lived their lives.

Destruction of Roehampton Estate ©British Library 'Destruction of Roehampton Estate' ©British Library. Used in the project education packs

The students were also exposed to the history and legacies of slavery that exist in Hackney. They learnt about the ways and extent to which people of African descent, abolitionists, and slave-owners who lived in Hackney are remembered today in street names, school names, and on tombstones. Traces of people with connections to slavery in documents found in the Hackney Archives included a petition from a young woman from Jamaica, a will that included property in land and enslaved people in Jamaica, and a house deed signed by a sugar factor living in Hackney who was involved in selling goods produced by enslaved people.

Abney Park Tomb of Joanna Vassa, daughter of Olaudah Equiano, a prominent figure in the abolitionist movement Abney Park Tomb of Joanna Vassa, daughter of Olaudah Equiano - a prominent figure in the abolitionist movement

The creative outputs of the students show the journeys that they themselves are on. Some reflected on the experiences of enslaved people and other people of African descent. Others emphasised how being exposed to a new angle of this history had changed the perception they had of themselves. As one student expressed in song : ‘now I know my history, … and now no one can tell me who I am’.

Learn more about the links between the transatlantic slave trade and local history with a series of free talks and tours this Sunday, in commemoration of International Slavery Remembrance Day