Teaching resources and ideas for tackling the slave trade


The film 12 Years a Slave has thrust the horrors of slavery back into the headlines. Isobel Durrant looks at a range of projects and resources that can help teachers to tackle both historic and modern slavery in the classroom.

Steve McQueen’s film, 12 Years A Slave, has put the Transatlantic Slave Trade back in the spotlight.

At the same time, a number of high-profile contemporary news stories about people trafficking in the UK make it all too evident that despite slavery being abolished in the British Empire nearly 200 years ago, it is still a modern problem.

It is well-documented that McQueen was inspired to make his film by reading a first-hand account written by Solomon Northrup, a free African-American and prosperous New York businessman, who was drugged by traffickers and sold into slavery. McQueen’s wife found the book, which details the horrors of life as a slave on a Louisiana plantation. 

As teachers know well, such personal histories have the power to bring home realities in a way bare facts lack. By drawing us into the narrative, these tales enable us to imagine ourselves in another’s shoes. 

There are a number of first person accounts by ex-slaves, including Olaudah Equiano’s Interesting Narrative, published in London in 1789 when the slave trade was still flourishing in the British Empire.

Recently, McQueen announced he had become a patron of Anti-Slavery International (ASI), the world’s oldest human rights organisation, founded in 1839, two years before Northrup’s kidnapping.

Based in Thomas Clarkson House in south London, it works to eliminate all forms of slavery around the world, including trafficking, bonded labour, forced labour, descent-based slavery, child slavery, and early and forced marriage. It is the only charity in the UK to work exclusively against slavery.

Describing McQueen’s film as “an important, vital reminder of the of the nature and intrinsic violence of historical slavery and the centuries-deep scars that it left on the communities that suffered under these atrocities”, ASI says the film draws parallels between slavery in the 19th century and today – recent stories of Indian brick kiln workers having their hands chopped off for refusing to work in inhuman conditions or a 10-year-old child domestic worker beaten to death by her employers in Pakistan being reminiscent of the beatings and floggings of 19th century slaves. Or enslaved migrant workers building venues for the World Cup in Qatar reminding us of those slaves who struggled on in extreme heat of the cotton plantations.


The ASI’s range of resources for schools covers both the triangular trade and slavery in the modern world. The Recovered Histories collection includes narratives and pictures from across the spectrum of those involved in the transatlantic trade; authentic voices of enslaved Africans, anti-slavery campaigners, ships’ captains and plantation owners, all bring history to life.

An accompanying education resource pack, aimed primarily at key stage 3 pupils, has links to learning objectives in history, citizenship, geography, and uses key ICT and English skills. Modern day slavery teaching resources include detailed secondary lesson plans covering child labour, trafficking, human rights, and slavery and what we buy, and again emphasise the people in the stories, encouraging pupils to empathise and appreciate that their choices and actions have an impact on others in different countries.

The ASI website also offers links to initiatives around the globe, including the Anti-Slavery Literature Project (see further information).

Hidden Presence

Monmouthshire might not be the first place you would look for innovative projects around slavery, but as Anne Rainsbury, curator at Chepstow Museum which is partnering the Hidden Presence project, points out, the story of slavery is far more complex, and reaches into far more areas of our society, than many people think.

Drawing on the story of Nathaniel Wells, a man born into slavery in St Kitts who became a wealthy landowner and high-profile resident in the Welsh borders, the project sets out to explore the importance of his life in the context of contemporary Wales, looking at issues linked to an individual’s cultural heritage, identity and sense of belonging, and what it means to be Welsh. 

Wells’ life departs so far from the stereotypical images most of us have of slaves that it challenges people of all ages to reassess what they think they know. Educated and influential, he inherited a fortune from his father, William Wells, a fortune made from the plantations where Nathaniel was born into slavery; plantations he now owned. He was the first Black sheriff in Britain, a place he chose to move to and make his home. 

Planned as part of a much larger UK-wide project looking at Black presence using a cross-curricular approach, Hidden Presence will see arts and heritage organisations working together with local schools who choose the areas on which they wish to focus. Part of the project will also be web-based, so schools can access it remotely, and there is a blog chronicling the progress of the project (see further information).

National Portrait Gallery

At the National Portrait Gallery, the focus is on the story of the abolitionists. A gallery session based around a large painting which shows Thomas Clarkson addressing the Anti-Slavery Convention, can have citizenship or history as the main focus. It looks at key figures on the road to abolition, and how individuals can bring about major social change. 

Heroes of Abolition

The Heroes of Abolition webquest can be accessed by schools remotely and could be used to follow up a visit to the National Portrait Gallery, or on its own. It is an interactive resource where pupils use group work and discussion to understand the attitudes and beliefs of those who campaigned for abolition. It can be used flexibly, allowing teachers to plot a series of lessons and homeworks, including differentiated tasks. 

The National Archives

The National Archives workshop, This Evil Trade: Olaudah Equiano and Abolition, can be accessed by schools at its HQ in south London or by video-conference. Costumed actors play the parts of a slave trader and of Olaudah Equiano. Pupils hear first the arguments for slavery, and then for its abolition, and are given the opportunity to use original documents held in the archives to find evidence that will support Equiano’s argument for abolition. 

The documents provide information about Africa before the slave trade and evidence of resistance and rebellion among the enslaved. They use the information they find to discuss with “Equiano” what life was like for the enslaved and how slaves took an active part in striving to overcome slavery. A resource pack for the session is available to download. 

Understanding Slavery Initiative

As part of the Understanding Slavery Initiative, a partnership project between museums across the UK, the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich and the Museum of London in Docklands offer free study days for key stage 3 pupils.

The sessions have curriculum links to both history and citizenship, and the concepts of identity and diversity. By looking at the lives of people affected by the trade, and seeing documents from the museums’ archives, as well as handling replica objects, pupils deepen their understanding, exploring the history and legacies of the transatlantic slave trade to help them to reach their own ideas and opinions. 

These study days can be adapted for older pupils and schools which have attended the sessions report pupils working more imaginatively. One teacher said: “I think pupils had a deeper understanding, and empathy, of the legacy of slavery, and connected issues surrounding human rights today.”. 

Another talked of the work pupils did back at school: “Pupils took their experience back to the classroom to develop presentations for school assembly. Some chose to construct very striking posters, other wrote first-hand accounts, and there were also PowerPoint presentations and a display was mounted in our entrance hall.”

There are online materials to support the sessions and the breadth of these materials have been highly praised by teachers. The references to modern day slavery have had quite an impact on some pupils, raising awareness of human rights issues, and even inspiring some to want to be lawyers in order to represent people in poorer parts of the world. 

The Understanding Slavery Initiative also offers sessions to support teachers who may not be comfortable teaching about transatlantic slavery because of the potential for divisions between pupils of different ethnicities. Feedback after these sessions indicate an increased confidence and awareness when teaching the subject. Information on how to book can be found online.

  • Isobel Durrant is a teacher and an education writer.

Further information
CAPTIONS: (from top) Anti-slavery: Anti-Slavery International resources help schools to tackle the subject in the classroom include an illustration showing slaves being forced below deck at sea and a poster advertising a slave sale in 1829. Meanwhile, students take part in a free Understanding Slavery Initiative study day



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