Sunday, 10 May 2015

Exploring Slavery

It started out innocently enough, with us learning about a Victorian explorer/missionary, David Livingstone, and his travels in Africa.

A few chapters into the main book that we were reading for this topic, we came across the concept of slavery, which quickly turned our attention onto the transatlantic slave trade that was undergoing huge changes in the Victorian times when slavery had been going on for centuries but people were just starting to make progess in abolishing the practice, openly at least.  As we saw last month when learning about chocolate, slavery still exists today in various forms.

We attended a workshop on the abolition of the slave trade at the National Gallery, where we were shown a few paintings that traced the process of abolition.

While the art gallery session gave us a good overview into the abolition process towards the end of the slave trade, we wanted to understand more of this sad history of human trafficking, so we attended a Slavery Study Day at the Museum of London Docklands.

This museum is a very relevant to the learning of the transatlantic slave trade, specifically of the sugar trade, because the building was the former warehouse for the sugar that came to London from West Africa, where the sugar canes were grown and where slaves were used on those plantations.  On the third floor of the museum is the London, Sugar & Slavery gallery where we saw some harrowing instruments of enslavement and cruelty.

The various sessions throughout the study day were very interesting and informative.  We started with an introductory session where we were given an overview of the slave trade, how it began, why West Africa in particular, people's attitudes at that time, and how it ended.

There was also an object handling session where we learnt about Africa pre-and-post slave trade through various objects that symbolise the produce of that continent (e.g. sugar cane, tobacco) and its varied culture (e.g. small bronze sculptures from Benin, gourd drums).  The main objective of the session is to dispel the misconceptions of early Europeans that dark-skinned people were sub-human or that they had an inferior/non-existing culture, which I think the children understands very well.

The most interesting session of that day, for me, was the poetry session where the workshop leader engaged the children in various language exercises to reflect upon what they had heard, seen, and felt in the previous sessions, in relation to the topic of the day, i.e. slavery.  The children then had to write a short poem about slavery.  There was a family of African descent in attendance that day, and those children wrote the poetic verses on the topic that day, far more insightful and sensitively written than anyone else in the room.  I wonder whether the topic being very close to their personal ancestral history has something to do with their ability to feel its relevance much deeper than the rest of us. 

Considering the gravity of this topic, I think the museum has handled the displays and the sessions with great care and sensitivity.  I was very interested in the reaction of the African family to this topic so I observed them for the whole day, in addition to paying attention to the sessions, of course.  It seemed to me that the mother was slightly uncomfortable with certain exhibits in the gallery and with some points that were discussed in the various sessions.  I imagine it must feel strange for someone of African descent to hear about the history of slavery from Europeans.  I personally would be very interested to hear the British side of the story about the Opium Wars but since this topic is not in the National Curriculum, I would not have the pleasure of seeing how it is taught to children in this country, if at all.


  1. That's one of the topics we've talked about a little, but not much. I look forward to covering it more with my kids in a year or two.

    1. There is so much complexity in this topic that it takes some maturity on the children's part to be able to appreciate and understand the issues involved. I think it's wise of you to cover it in more details with your children when they are a little older. I should imagine there to be much to talk about in the context of America!

  2. Fascinating stuff, though I think I would have found some of the exhibits difficult. My book group recently read Sue Monk Kidd's 'The Invention of Wings' which is based on the true story of two abolitionist women. I'd highly recommend it.
    I'm excited about reading about the next workshop you guys do, which C(11) will be joining you at! :-)

    1. Slavery is indeed a very difficult topic, and I'm very impressed by how it is openly taught and included in the school curriculum here. Even so, that doesn't make it easier on anyone who learns about exploitation of and cruelty to other people. I still am quite bothered about some of the things I've learned at the museum.

      Thank you for the book recommendation. It is on my to-read list! :-)

  3. Fascinating and thoughtful post, thank you. We have only touched briefly on slavery with "Follow the Drinking Gourd."
    The Museum of London Docklands is on my list of places to visit and it is useful to know about its history and that we should visit when we study slavery.

    1. Slavery is indeed a big and complex topic. I expect we'll study it in more details at a later stage. I also recommend the Museum of London Docklands when you're studying the topic. I can't think of anywhere else in London that is more relevant than this museum is for the study of this topic. :-)


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