Remembering Slavery

Remembering Slavery Learning Zone

Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade

Teaching the trans-Atlantic slave trade - some things to be aware of

This section outlines some things to be aware of when teaching the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Consultation was undertaken throughout the Remembering Slavery 2007 project, with community groups and with Freedom Think Tank, a local Black-led voluntary group set up to influence the commemoration of the 2007 bicentenary in the North East of England.

The effects of slavery and the trans-Atlantic slave trade - in which 10 to 12 million people were kidnapped, transported across the Atlantic and sold - resonate in our lives today, explore the rest of the website for more information. Teaching this topic requires careful and considered interpretation. Please make use of the glossary and the intended learning objectives included in each section in this zone. Additionally, the Understanding Slavery website and resources provide a good introduction to the subject and offer support for teaching the history and legacies of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

The trans-Atlantic slave trade is a challenging topic and can lead to feelings of anger, guilt and confusion. It is important to provide opportunities for students to discuss this sensitive and emotive topic. Many of the images and descriptions of the trans-Atlantic slave trade are violent and graphic and these must always be placed in context. The topic opens up distressing issues, such as cruelty, separation of families, branding and horrific conditions on board the slave ships.

There is also a risk that members of the class who are descendants of enslaved people will feel uncomfortable and alienated when discussing this topic. As well as allowing opportunities for class discussions, one suggestion would be to help them to research accounts of freedom fighters on their islands. Be prepared to deal with inappropriate comments.

It is also important to remember the contributions made by people from the North East - both in terms of abolition and of fuelling the trade in enslaved Africans. Click here for more information about links between the north east and slavery.

Terminology - use of language

Choosing the right words to use when teaching the trans-Atlantic slave trade can be difficult. This section outlines some appropriate terms that can be used. Please also make use of the glossary.

'Enslaved', not 'slave'

Instead of the term 'slave', use 'enslaved' as a means to illustrate and reiterate the fact that Africans who were bought and sold during the trans-Atlantic slave trade were subjugated and did not consent to their capture and enslavement. It also emphasises the fact that they were forced into enslavement and their choice and freedom were removed. They were treated as if they were a piece of property or cargo.

The term can be used as enslaved worker/African/person to reiterate the human component of enslavement.

'Commemorate', not 'celebrate'

It is important to not be triumphal about the abolition of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and in particular about the role played by white abolitionists. The British view of slavery up to 2007 has tended to focus on the ending of slavery and the great philanthropic triumph of abolition. It is time to offer a more rounded picture which acknowledges Britain's complicity in the trade, and to ensure that the resilience of the enslaved Africans and the central role they played in their emancipation is acknowledged. The year 2007 has served as a memorial of the enslaved rather than a celebration of their emancipation.

'Trans-Atlantic slave trade', not 'slavery'

The trans-Atlantic slave trade describes a very specific historical period and is distinct from other slave trades that have existed throughout history. Whilst the trans-Atlantic slave trade ended 200 years ago, slavery exists today.


Africa is a large continent and is made up of many different countries so be specific about which African country or area you are referring to (for example, Benin) to avoid generalisations. Highlight the fact that Africa existed before and after the trans-Atlantic slave trade and cannot simply be defined in terms of the trade and slavery. It is also worth remembering that because Africa is such a large continent, there are many different spoken languages and dialects. Very few of the African countries speak only one language and enslaved Africans on the Middle Passage and plantations may not have shared a common language.

Use of images

It is absolutely essential that appropriate captions and contextual information accompany images and materials relating to the trans-Atlantic slave trade to avoid oversimplifying this complex history. Ask students to think about things like: what the image is showing; who it was produced by and for; how it fits into the trans-Atlantic slave trade triangle; what it tells you about the actions and lives of the enslaved, abolitionists and the enslavers; and so on. Make use of the images of objects from TWAM' collections that are shown throughout the Learning Zone and online exhibition.

The famous image of a kneeling enslaved African accompanied by the slogan, 'Am I Not A Man And A Brother?' was made popular by the potter Josiah Wedgwood and frequently used by the abolitionists to support their campaign. It shows the enslaved in a derogatory, supplicant manner, begging for freedom. Displaying this image would have shown support only for the abolitionist campaign and not for the plight of the enslaved. Furthermore, it does not illustrate the experience of the enslaved and their unending resistance and resilience. Context needs to be provided, and one suggestion would be that the image could be shown next to an image of a freedom fighter, such as Toussaint L'Ouverture, the leader of the Haitian Revolution. Derogatory stereotypes such as these reinforce the negative depiction of enslaved Africans and help to perpetuate racism.

Images created by artists working for plantation owners usually offered a sanitised view of the daily lives of enslaved Africans.

Be aware that images used after the abolition of the slavery, such as the image of the 'golliwog' (showing the face of a black person with exaggerated facial features) in the late 19th century reinforced the stereotypical view of Africans held by white British people. This character featured on Robertson's marmalade jars until 2001.

Take a look

  • Abolitionist medallion with the slogan 'Am I Not A Man And A Brother' and image of enslaved African.

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