How can we foster students’ understanding of the Industrial Revolution, the British Empire and the Transatlantic Slave Trade as interconnected?

Thanks to Sian Ayling (@MsAylingHist), history teacher at Blackfen School for Girls in Sidcup for this blogpost. Sian has wrestled with the need to enable students to see the inter-connection between Britain’s industrial revolution, Empire and transatlantic slave trade. She describes the way that she has planned and developed this work in a way that will be very helpful to colleagues planning the same journey.

  • What was the teaching problem that you wanted to tackle?

Following discussions on twitter and my own teaching of the three topics of The British Industrial Revolution, The British Empire and The Transatlantic Slave Trade (the order of which they are taught in my school’s current curriculum), it became obvious that these three topics run alongside each other chronologically but are seen by students as solo topics that each contribute separately to the narrative of colonial British history. I wanted to find a way that these three topics could still be taught with the depth they deserve in their own right but to be seen as more interconnected. Therefore, I created bridging lessons with the goal of allowing pupils to appreciate and recognise the web of interconnectedness between these topics. It has not been to provide students with more information on each topic but to widen students’ narrative of the British colonial past.

I had also previously seen an infographic by @theblackcurriculum that stated, “72.6% of people in the UK learnt about the Great Fire of London…[but only] 9.9% of people learnt about the role of slavery in the British Industrial Revolution.” (Source: Impact of Omission). This further encouraged me to think about how I could make my students be a part of that growing 9.9% rather than to remain outside of it. If such interconnectedness is missed, students are blind to the contribution of slavery to Industrialisation and how far the slave trade penetrated British society.

  • How have you made these topics interconnected?

As previously stated, my initial goal was to emphasise the role that slavery had in the growth of the British Industrial Revolution. After re-watching Black and British and reading the newly published student version of the show’s namesake, I was reminded of the Cotton Famine in Lancashire and its connections with the Emancipation proclamation and American Civil War. I was particularly interested in the flour barrel David Olusoga examined, that I was also previously shown on my PGCE – I believe by Robin Whitburn. In the mid 1800s, Lancashire was the ‘Workshop of the World’ using raw cotton imported from America to weave into cloth that supplied and clothed the British Empire. The American Civil War (1861-65) was fought over the issue of slavery. The Northern states, who opposed slavery, alongside Abraham Lincoln, blockaded southern ports so that cotton could not be exported. This meant that the consistent stream of slave-grown cotton dried up in Lancashire, which led to the Cotton Famine – a great period of hardship and depression in the North-West of England. It led to thousands of workers losing their jobs and being plunged into poverty.

To me, the Lancashire Cotton Famine was a tangible event that students could wrestle with to physically illustrate the links between the slave trade and the Industrial Revolution. I plan to look at the Cotton Famine from three different angles at the end of my teaching of each (see figure 1 of ‘where do these lessons fit?’) Teaching it once at the end of the Industrial Revolution stressing the connection between raw cotton picked by enslaved Africans and the closure of mills and unemployment in Lancashire. Secondly, at the end of teaching the British Empire stressing the conclusion of the Lancashire Cotton Famine by importing Surat cotton from India, only made doable as a result of the expansion of British colonialism. Lastly, at the end of our work on the Transatlantic Slave Trade to show the continuing effects and influences of the Trade on industrialisation after its supposed abolition in 1807 to bring us back full circle. By coming at this one event from three differing angles, I hope to provide students with the familiarity of a previously studied event but widening their lens and contesting their own understanding of it by exploring it through different lenses (see figure 2 process of teaching).  

At the conclusion of studying how the Industrial Revolution affected those in Britain students are then to first study the Lancashire Cotton Famine. In this initial bridging lesson, students are initially presented with the image of the barrel of flour sent to Lancashire from the free states of America during the American Civil War. Here, the aim is to get students to bring their knowledge of the workers of the Industrial Revolution and to hypothesis any possible links (even if superficial) to the image, inferring why people might be starving in Lancashire through a thriving Industrial Revolution. It is important to note that at this point students bring no more than their own understanding of slavery and the slave trade to these discussions, they have not been taught it in lessons yet. Through discussions students were to suggest why they thought such a barrel would have been sent to Lancashire from America – what could be the reason? Why does Lancashire need aid? Why does America, a country 3000 miles away, care about the region of Lancashire?

Through the discussions about the barrel, as a class we traced the journey of raw cotton across the Atlantic to Lancashire. Students were then given a summary of the causes and events of the American Civil War to provide students with the necessary context behind the sending of the barrel – where we started to tease out answers as to why Lancashire would have been affected by a war on slavery. What was it about Lancashire and its industry that made it so reliant on raw cotton picked by enslaved Africans? It is the aim that students would start to envision that Lancashire relied on cotton, not only the industry, but the people as well. If there was no cotton, then people were made unemployed as the factories closed and people would be plunged into poverty, unable to buy bread to eat.

The answer to this question was then further developed by looking at sources to stress the importance of cotton to the Lancashire economy and workers’ livelihoods. Students were provided with tables of British exports, breakdowns of the Lancashire economy and a factory inspectors report on how far the use of raw cotton penetrated Lancashire. Students deduced that British industry imported 1,115,890,608 lbs of raw cotton from America per year in 1860 that was picked by enslaved Africans and if this was stopped (as in the case of the American Civil War) mills would stop running and people would become unemployed.

This got me thinking great (!) students can now see the obvious link between exports from the slave trade and the powering of Industry. However, in order to really stress the value that raw cotton held to the British Industrial Revolution and Lancashire, I had to show the effects of the reduced access to this commodity on the people themselves. I felt that by exploring the human perspective of the effects of the Famine students would be able to see how reliant the lives of people of Lancashire were on the enslaved Africans 3000 miles away.

Using the work of the Barry Amiel and Norman Melbourne Trust (found here: ) students explored the effects of the loss of the import of raw cotton workers. Students had previously looked at individuals such as John Lincoln using the autobiographical works from Liberty’s Dawn by Emma Griffin so were familiar with the handling of autobiographies, factory reports, diaries, etc. This would eventually develop into a discussion on “how far the Industrial Revolution was fuelled by enslavement?” using the famine and its human effects to provide detail on the connections between slavery and industrialisation.

  • How you plan to avoid overload, bewilderment, and learning blocks that you could predict?

The first thing I saw as a potential roadblock was the fact that I would have to start creating these interconnected webs at the end of students’ study of the Industrial Revolution but before any study of the Transatlantic Slave Trade within the classroom. This would mean that any judgements students would make connecting two would be no more than superficial as they did not have the necessary context from within lessons, only that which they had learnt outside of the classroom. However, I reasoned that when revisiting the Cotton Famine from the angle of the Empire and later the TAST itself these initial judgements could be deepened and examined. This first lesson would provide almost a hypothesis where layers evidence would come much later on in the year. The aim of the first exploration of the Cotton Famine is to provide the conditions for students to become responsive to further knowledge later on. The aim of these lessons is to not tell the students precisely how these topics are interconnected but to provide them with the ability to identify that this interconnectivity exists and to build this into and onto their own perceptions of the past.

  • How it seems to have worked the first time through? Successes? Failures?

So, I have now taught the initial two lessons on “How and why was Lancashire affected by a war on slavery 3000 miles away?” To two different classes. The understanding for students that the British Industrial Revolution was fuelled by raw cotton produced by enslaved Africans in America is now there. However, this understanding is superficial at most, students will not fully understand the interconnectedness between the three topics until we have revisited the Cotton Famine A further two times from different angles. It is also true to say that students will initially be unsure on the relationship between slavery, British industrialisation and the British Empire but this lack of knowing is important. Students will only begin to formulate their own webs of interconnectedness once all the pieces are in place. It is for us as teachers to reveal the pieces of the puzzle to allow them to take part in this journey. Nevertheless, I am hoping that these initial lessons have laid the foundations for students to build their future learning upon to create a wider narrative on the interconnectedness of these three topics as their understanding of Colonial British History develops.

  • Where this work goes next?

My future steps are to teach the Cotton Famine again at the end of Empire to show the trade networks of Empire through the angle of Surat cotton. Secondly to teach the Cotton Famine again at the end of year 8’s work on the Transatlantic Slave Trade to revisit those superficial judgements made at the end of their work on the Industrial Revolution to deepen them and build on their previous understandings. Further, I want to expand the connection between the Industrial Revolution and the Transatlantic Slave trade to not only be the isolated to the event of the Cotton Famine but to look at the forging and creation of Manillas (currency used to purchase enslaved Africans) in Bristol and Birmingham brass works to illustrate even further the integral heritage and legacy that the Slave Trade has within British History.

In no way have I solved the quandary on making the British Industrial Revolution, the British Empire and the Transatlantic Slave Trade as fully interconnected narratives within the framework of student understanding. However, I hope I provide at least one way that these webs could be weaved between the topics.

There are resoures and podcasts on the HA website to help with the teaching of this topic. You could start with the HA Fellowship link here.

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