Rethinking how we teach about transatlantic slavery

As history teachers we put a great deal of time and effort into our work to make learning about the past enjoyable, meaningful and relevant. One our greatest challenges is in finding out what to do when we start teaching a topic that is without joy and indeed especially horrific. The Holocaust and transatlantic slavery are the two topics that best fit this description and whilst they share many similarities they are far too distinct to be taught in the same way. Great work has been done over recent decades by academics and educators to develop principles, guidelines and materials on the Holocaust that have been of immense benefit to the history teacher community. Teaching History 104 and Teaching History 141 are full of valuable ideas from experienced teachers and leading scholars that help teachers prepare lessons that develop students’ historical engagement with this sensitive episode in history.

On the other hand, there is currently too great a gulf between scholarship on transatlantic slavery and what goes on in our classrooms. I would argue that this gulf has been created by a wider social reticence to come to terms with the realities of the slave trade, in particular the connection between race and the terror used at every step of the process to enforce this phenotypical hierarchy.

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There is a tendency to focus our teaching around commerce (see fig. 3), abolition and resistance. There is safety in the first two, a safety in abstraction that in some ways allows us to avoid both the routine and exceptional terror that was as central to the trade as the ships that transported the enslaved Africans across the Atlantic to the sugar they were forced to plant and harvest.

There is rightly no universally agreed pedagogical approach to teaching slavery, as this would put unhelpful constraints on teachers who will usually know what is best for their own classes, but we ought to be moving towards some consensus on what aspects we should include and also those that should be avoided unreservedly.

Conventional empathy activities used in the classroom such as role-plays could never convey the impact of such exceptional terror and these are avoided for other good reasons- what impact might such approaches have on students whose forebears were the victims of this injustice? Kay Traille, writing in Teaching History 127 , explains the importance of teaching transatlantic slavery in its broader context, Traille also references the work of Linda Levstik (2000) who argued that the ‘safety of silence’ that we may choose when confronted with teaching difficult history will likely lead to young people becoming distrustful of history as a discipline. Over some years I have come to the conclusion that when we plan schemes of work on slavery we need to make a study of race central to that process. Below is an example scheme, each of the lessons have been inspired by one or two books; Markus Rediker’s The Slave Ship was a huge influence particularly his argument that by ignoring the sea and the slave ship as important historical sites we have diminished the significance of the great sociological transformations that took place there and still affects the way many of the societies that were involved in the trade operate today.


(Key:  Ph- Personhood, Tr- Terror, Rs- Resistance, Rc- Race)

You may be feeling that you have a subject knowledge and/or resources gap that you need to plug to enable you to adapt your sequences of lessons. To help with this, there will be follow ups to this blog, including news of an exciting Teacher Fellowship. There is also a developing bank to ideas and resources that you can use here at:

For more about how to plan Key Stage 3 go to . Do follow @histassoc and the Historical Association Facebook page to stay connected with the work of the history teaching community.


Thanks to Abdul Mohamud of Justice2History for this post.


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