#youreallyshouldteach…Interpretations of Abolition

With the new A-level came a new coursework topic. I now offer my year 12s the option of writing their essay about the Transatlantic Slave Trade, which is particularly pertinent to the school’s context. Much reading ensued. Most of the students are writing about the reasons for abolition, so we have researched interpretations together.

I’ve been teaching a short sequence of lessons on abolition to year 8 for several years now, as part of their study of changes in Britain 1750-1900. It allows for a recap on the Transatlantic Slave Trade unit that I teach in year 7. We use my old favourite Peace and War textbook, which has an excellent four page sequence on different reasons for abolition. The extra reading for the A-level put this into context and I have now started teaching my students about the history of the history, as well as the history. I find it to be a very accessible way of introducing the idea that history changes over time.

The two historians we look at are Reginald Coupland and Eric Williams. Coupland was a professor of Empire history, born in 1884, who promoted the moral and religious motivations of the abolitionists as the main reason for the success of their movement. A biographer of William Wilberforce, Coupland held up the abolitionist movement as an example of Britain leading the world in a moral crusade. He seems to have been nostalgic for the Empire, sitting in an office funded by Cecil Rhodes’s money and buying up abolitionist literature. In my fertile imagination, he finds himself disappointed that something considered so glorious when he was a child has become so rapidly discredited and is looking for silver linings (I’m really projecting here: I haven’t done enough reading to be able to say that, really). Coupland represents the whiggish interpretation of history, that humankind is on a journey to being more civilised.

On the other side, Williams was born in Trinidad in 1911. He studied history at Oxford, where he experienced quite a lot of prejudice. He went on the become the first Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, overseeing its transition from colony to independence. In 1944, he published his work Capitalism and Slavery, in which he claimed that the moral crusade was incidental to the real reason for abolition, which was that the monopoly held by the Caribbean plantations was no longer in the best interests of the British public. Cheaper sugar was available from other (slave-worked) colonies, such as Cuba; abolishing the slave trade and, eventually, slavery was a way of breaking the monopoly held by a bunch of rich men with strong political representation. Williams doesn’t entirely discount the impact of the anti-slavery campaigns, but he places them among other factors, including slave rebellions, that are lesser to the idea that slavery was abolished because it was holding capitalism back.

There are plenty of other points of view, of course. In Hull they’ll tell you it was all down to Wilberforce. Hochschild makes a good case for the tireless campaigning by the Quakers and individuals such as Clarkson in Bury the Chains. I’ve got Fryer’s Staying Power for a Marxist take on it and Olusoga’s Black and British, but I need to wrestle those back off my year 13s before I can summarise what they think.

For year 8, however, these two provide the perfect start. Not too much and not too complicated. Once the background to each interpretation has been explained, students find it quite straightforward to match the historian to his tale. Just two pictures of the historians on the board elicited the first inference: “He’s white, so he wants his people to look good. He’s black, and he doesn’t care about making them look good.” You mean, their backgrounds have something to do with the story they’re telling? Quite. So, let’s go from there.

Some further reading:

1900-2007: The Legacies of Slavery and Anti-Slavery, Richard Huzzey

British historians and Capitalism and Slavery, O.H.Folarin – on JSTOR – you have to register but it’s free to read. It’s a 1970s review of the topic so it provides a nice interpretation in itself as well as outlining the main arguments.

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