Category Archives: Caribbean Slavery

The ‘Slave Auction’ & teaching slavery sensitively

It wasn’t too long ago that I found myself at the always engaging “What’s Happening in Black British History” conference. During an excellent presentation by Justice 2 History, in which they covered some of the problems they had faced in London classrooms on the teaching of slavery, one of the presenters, a young man from inner London, explained that during his placement he had wandered over to the walls and looked at the displays created by the class. On a poster that collected the generalised end products of slavery, he noticed a subheading titled, something similar to, “how did slavery benefit black people?” Naturally as he recounted this story the audience were all quite shocked and, caught up in the moment, someone declared “if this is what is happening in London schools, what is the teaching around the rest of the country like?”

Irascible with back pain, and slightly weary of the London-centric focus during the conference, I was quick to jump to the defence of my colleagues, explaining that the slave trade is a very popular topic, especially North of the border, and many teach it extremely well. (Furthermore, it cannot be assumed that teaching is worse the further its distance from the metropolis!)

A recent news story reignited, for me at least, this debate around sensitive handling of the Atlantic Slave Trade.

Rochester Grammar School in Kent was accused of trivialising the sale trade

An image of the worksheet used by the Kent Grammar School. Credit: Facebook/Remi Okukoya

The Telegraph carried a story where a grammar school had asked students to buy slaves, focusing on the physical characteristics and cost of the enslaved. The exercise was meant to introduce the students to the economics of the slave trade, by asking them to step into the shoes of slave traders and purchase the ‘best’ slaves for the plantations/companies. A local businesswoman, and presumably a parent, posted this on Facebook which brought this misguided lesson to the wider attention of the public.

The Telegraph story was then submitted to a Facebook group, where the discussion showed clear divides on whether the Slave Auction activity constituted a good method of teaching. Ian Phillips, an educationalist based in England, added to the discussion by posting two excellent links to further the conversaion, and pointed out that such an activity:

[is] a-historical at best and insensitive at worst. Would you re-enact an Auschwitz selection asking which of the following Jews you would select for slave labour… The problem with the Slave Auction activity is that it is undertaken from the perspective of the Slave Owners and Slave traders and the voice or perspective of the people who were slaves is either overlooked or they are portrayed as anonymous victims.

The topic didn’t engage many in the group and this, I think, partly indicates the lack of a deeper understanding in the UK’s teaching industry around race and the issues that surround it. In Scotland, for example, our general profession is struggling to attract ethnic minority teachers, and most classrooms in Scotland have a white majority, and so the issue of racism and its impact upon students is rarely taught in any detail to practitioners. In a wider sense, though our society at large is seen as more tolerant and left-wing than our American cousins, race is still a topic that few would profess true understanding of, never mind having engaged in critical dialogue around.

But this must change. To paraphrase a great man, if there is no struggle, there is no progress, and the struggle here is realising that we are using outdated and unfit ideas to teach lessons.

One of the links Phillips provided leads to an article by Dr Kay Traille, which discusses the affect teaching of slavery can have upon black students. This, based upon work for her thesis, highlights some worrying concerns. She starts by noting from Husbands and Pendry that “[w]ork in history education may have under-estimated the extent to which children’s capacity to respond to historical tasks is affected by issues of emotional and affective maturation“.1 Students of African-Caribbean descent, she found, “felt implicitly and explicitly negatively stereotyped by teachers and peers because of their black heritage“.2 Something that we should do before we go into detail on the topic of the Atlantic Slave Trade is explain that slavery is a major phenomenon throughout all human history, not just something that happened in the New World, nor one limited to our period of study. This positioning allows the students to understand it as the ages long human problem it is, rather than solely one of ethnicity, an issue than can occur if it is taught in a vacuum.

A great video for this is “The Atlantic Slave Trade – Crash Course”, with the (energetic!) presenter providing an excellent overview, but also importantly putting it into the larger context.

A couple of non-teachers were flabbergasted when I spoke to them about the slave auction lesson. One suggested that teachers should feel ashamed and embarrassed by teaching such a lesson. In response, I offered that I know as well as any teacher the constraints that their job places upon them too – little money, time or resources to do more than keep heads above water, especially in the inner-city schools. Any Continued Professional Development is usually spent undergoing courses selected by the department head, or focused on learning the most recent changes to the examination system.

We all teach for different reasons – some teach for the joy of educating children and young adults; others love learning the content and historical facts; there are those that enjoy facilitating in the growth of the next generation and representing a pillar of society. These usually direct how we spend our fleeting spare moments – researching recent historical discoveries; creating new and exciting lessons to engage the pupils; giving our time to the school sport’s team or band.

So I find it hard to feel ashamed at these teachers’ ignorance on the topic. They are not the ones that have used their spare moments to research race and its impact on schools as I know other teachers have. But many of them will have spent their time on other areas that benefit their pupils.

“some teachers are creating contexts of misunderstanding, hopefully not because they set out to alienate, but because they are probably unaware or do not understand”3

These sound like excuses, and they are not meant to be. What I am trying to say is that guilt or embarrassment are unhelpful emotions here, and not something we should foist upon teachers. We shouldn’t shame people for not knowing something they have never been questioned on. Instead, the focus should be on moving forward and improving lessons for the next time it is taught. But, as one colleague commented “[i]f a forthright lesson on slavery cannot drive home the objectification, commercialization and degradation of peoples in the name of economic growth and cannot elicit response of understanding, shock and empathy then it just illustrates that we have not begun to tackle Britain’s slave history and the racial biases still embedded in society.”

All it takes is a ten minute read of Traille’s piece to realise why teaching a lesson like the slave auction is wrong, and Professor Simon Newman offers another perspective:

I think one of the problems to point out is not simply that the classroom activity takes the perspective of slave traders and owners and once again silences the voices of their victims. It is that whatever the intentions of teachers, in an age when business studies courses use ‘The Apprentice’ in their teaching, then whatever the intentions of teachers, pupils are going to regard as successful their planning of trading in human flesh. The pupil who picks ‘best’, and gets most people alive to the plantations and sells them at the highest prices is the ‘winner’. For all that lessons about the economy of the slave trade are important, it is very hard to prevent this lesson assuming different shapes and significance in young minds, with humans becoming the objects of a Monopoly like exercise. What are the unintended, perhaps even subconscious lessons this may teach young people about the objectification of people by skin colour?

Dylan William had written a piece just as I was entering teaching, where he explained that most teachers would not adapt their practice after the first two-three years: that many were simply repeating what they had learned, term after term, year after year. We can’t be like that. We need to take advantage of the excellent links we have built with the academic and heritage communities, amongst ourselves, to keep pushing forward and providing our children with the best education possible.

It is time that local councils, national teacher unions, and here in Scotland organisations such as the Scottish Association of the Teachers of History, offer courses that explain how racially sensitive topics in the classroom can impact upon students of ethnic minorities, and then provide ways to teach various aspects of race in a manner that excludes no-one and benefits everyone.

Until then, I would urge colleagues to continue the discussion, however awkward or hard that may be, and read Dr Traille’s important document, which can be downloaded with her permission, here; and Ian Phillips article looking at History and Maths, here. More articles on black history in schools can be found here.

Nelson Mundell.

PhD candidate on the project, and former history teacher.

1. Husbands, C. & Pendry, A. ‘Thinking and feeling: pupils’ preconceptions about the past and historical understanding’ in Arthur J. & Phillips R. (Eds) Issues in History Teaching London (2000), p.132.
2. Kay Traille, ‘Teaching History Hurts’, Teaching History 127 (2007), p.32.
3. Ibid., p.34.

Slave ‘Merchant City’

I’ve been working with Glasgow Museums on the ‘Hidden Legacies’ project and we spent an enjoyable afternoon taking a tour through imperial Glasgow exploring the city’s historical connections with New World slavery. The city’s imperial connections have been historically celebrated in George Square, home to many statues of imperialists as well as the City Chambers.City Chambers Built between 1882 and 1888, the City Chambers is civic demonstration of Glasgow’s claim to be the ‘Second City of Empire’. Looking closely at the triangular facade on the front of the City Chambers, Queen Victoria sits atop a series of native peoples bringing gifts: the subservient role of the colonies inscribed into the city’s architecture. Above the triangular façade celebrating imperial exploitation, three statues that symbolise truth, justice and liberty hint at the hypocrisy of the imperial mentalité. The City Chambers’ architecture, therefore, reflects  Glasgow’s status as one of the most prominent port cities of the Second British Empire. The city was part of a wider imperial network – based on New World slavery – that connected North America and the Caribbean with Scotland at least from the 1620s to 1838. However, there has been no adequate explanation of the nation’s spectacular rise from one of the poorest nations in western Europe after Darien fiasco in the mid-1690s to nineteenth-century industrial powerhouse. Capital derived from exploitative and usurious activities in America, the West and East Indies all played a role. Although Scotland had limited involvement with direct slave trade voyages (known as the ‘triangular trade’) and there were only 31 recorded between 1706 and 1766, the merchants of Glasgow traded in slave-grown produce. In effect, the merchants cut out the Africa leg of the triangular trade and went directly to the plantations. In this way, Glasgow merchants came to monopolise the trade in tobacco and sugar, although the latter to a much lesser extent. This article examines the city’s connections with New World slavery through the urban heritage, focusing on the men who made it possible: Virginia merchants, known as ‘the Tobacco Lords’ and West India merchants, known as ‘the Sugar Aristocracy’.

From George Square we travel south-west into the ‘Merchant City’. The Cuninghame Mansion – now The Gallery of Modern Art – was built by William Cuninghame, one of the four main ‘Tobacco Lords’ during Glasgow’s ‘golden age of tobacco’, 1740-1790.GOMA Completed in 1778 and built in the Palladian style of architecture, it was described at the time as one of the most fantastic houses in the west of Scotland. The core of the mansion became the Royal Exchange in 1827-29. Across to Ingram Street and further south, we arrive at Tobacco Merchants House which is located at 42 Miller Street (laid out in the 1750s). Tobacco Merchants House illustrates the living conditions of a ‘Tobacco Laird’, a colonial merchant lower down the economic rung from the elite ‘Tobacco Lords’. TMHBuilt in a Palladian style and completed in 1775, Tobacco Merchants House is the oldest surviving building in the ‘Merchant City’ which also underlines little remains of Georgian Glasgow and the city centre is almost all Victoriana.

From the bottom of Miller street, we arrive onto the main thoroughfare, Argyle Street, and travel into the heart of mercantile Glasgow. Arriving at the Trongate (passing the site
of two now demolished Palladian townhouses, the Shawfield and Virginia Mansions), the Tolboth Steeple is a reminder of the once bustling commercial centre. TolboothThis was the site of the Tontine Rooms (which sat next to the Tolbooth Steeple) which served as the social and commercial headquarters of mercantile Glasgow. The city’s first paved street was located outside the Tontine Rooms and this was where the ‘Tobacco Lords’ convened. Resplendent in their scarlet cloaks, scarlet cloaks and gold-tipped canes, these tobacco merchants bestowed upon themselves the regal sobriquets: ‘Princes of the Pavement’ and ‘Tobacco Lords’. Here they might have discussed the price of slaves in Africa, the growing conditions of tobacco in Virginia, the sugar crop in Jamaica and the tobacco market in France. This was the rise of early-modern capitalism in the west of Scotland based on the exploitation of enslaved labour. And make no mistake, the ‘Tobacco Lords’ were fearsome capitalist competitors who monopolised the trade in slave-grown tobacco from Virginia, which was shipped to Europe (especially France) via Glasgow. From the Trongate, we walk down to St Andrews in the Square. St Andrews in the SquarePresbyterian ‘Tobacco Lords’ attended to their spiritual needs and the Kirk was constructed between 1739-1756. The interior is an exemplar of mercantile splendour: the salubrious surroundings (now restored to their former glory) are enhanced by the mahogany imported from the Spanish West Indies. Further south, we arrive at St Andrews by the Green completed in 1751-2. This was the worshipping place of the Episcopalian faction of the ‘Tobacco Lords’: Presbyterians looked down on their mode of worship which involved organ-playing during services, which led to the pejorative nickname the ‘Whistling Kirk’ for St Andrews by the Green. StAndrewsbytheGreenThe establishment of the Whistling Kirk was inextricably associated with Richard and Alexander Oswald, Caithness merchants who established a mercantile dynasty in Glasgow from the 1710s.

This short trip ends at The People’s Palace in Glasgow Green. Glasgow Museums are currently working through how to better represent New World Slavery within their collections (a process stimulated by the important Georgian Glasgow exhibit in 2014). The People’s Palace already has some important exhibits.Collar,3 The slave collar owned by John Crawford reveals that Scots used instruments of subjugation (most likely worn by enslaved people) in Scotland. This was not a unique case and there are other records providing more detail. The People’s Palace also holds the Glassford Family portrait which was painted in 1767 by Archibald McLauchlan of the Foulis Academy (associated with Old College, now the University of Glasgow). It features John Glassford – one of the four main ‘Tobacco Lords’ in Glasgow – and his family located within The Shawfield Mansion, the prototype colonial townhouse in the ‘Merchant City’ which was built in 1711. GFPOn Glassford’s right hand shoulder, there is a young black child, evidently a page-boy who had been brought over the colonies. Given Glassford’s strong connections with Virginia (and his agent Neil Jamieson was involved with slave-trading in North America) we can make assumptions about the boy’s origins. However, we know little of his life. It was assumed until fairly recently that the young child had been painted out from the painting in the abolitionist period, although a restorative project in 2007 revealed the young child had not been painted out, but in fact dirt and grime built up over the years and partially obscuring the child from view. Glasgow’s full role in New World slavery can be viewed metaphorically in the painting: it has always been present, yet obscured from our view. Although the fate of the young black child in the Glassford painting is unknown, we have records for some others, many of whom ran away from their masters.

The Runaway Slaves project at the University of Glasgow is uncovering new details about the black population of Scotland and England during the period 1700-1780. In Scotland, there are only around 70-100 recorded black people during this period. Many ran away thus inadvertently generating details of their lives particularly through newspapers in which masters placed what were essentially lost property adverts. There are also three famous court cases: Jamie Montgomery (1756), David Spens (1769-1770) and Joseph Knight (1774-1778) which provide further details. Many resisted and rebelled against oppressive conditions in Scotland and flight was one means to do this.

This short tour through imperial Glasgow winded through the ‘Merchant City’. Exactly what is a ‘Merchant City’? No-one says ‘Slave Merchant City’, or ‘Slave produce Merchant City’ so it is important to keep in mind what a ‘Merchant City’ actually was. People MakeThis article has traced locations where the ‘Tobacco Lords’ and ‘Sugar Aristocracy’ worked, lived, worshipped, convened. Some were personal slaveowners and young children would have been brought here in the 1760s. As I thought over the concept of a ‘Slave Merchant City’, I stumbled on the city’s booster slogan ‘People Make Glasgow’. And I instantly agreed. Yes, yes they did.

Dr Stephen Mullen,

Postdoctoral Researcher on the project

Twitter: @DrStephenMullen