Decolonizing the teaching of world history

“If there were no buyers there would be no sellers”: Teaching the Transatlantic Slave System, c.1450 - c.1850

“If there were no buyers there would be no sellers”: Teaching the Transatlantic Slave System, c.1450 - c.1850
Billboard along I-26 in Charleston, SC

Having recently moved to Charleston, South Carolina, I regularly notice the large sign along I-26 that prominently reads “BLACK LIVES STILL MATTER.” Folks involved with the Spoleto festival first put up the sign in June 2020 (I’m not sure when the “STILL” was added). I keep happily thinking about how thousands of people see this sign every day. The sign is also a commentary on the sad reality that we still need to force White people to confront the reality of racism in this country and to understand the history of slavery and the slave trade.

In many ways, my mixed feelings about the sign mirror my mixed feelings about the teaching of the transatlantic slave system. Even after so many years of teaching the topic, I still feel I could improve how I teach the material to high school students. When I began teaching about the slave trade, I relied more heavily on the textbook and understanding White European motives and methods. Over time, my teaching gradually shifted to less focus on textbooks and more engagement with primary sources (especially those highlighting Africans’ perspectives). I also have increasingly focused on highlighting the systematic ways in which the transatlantic slave trade has shaped the modern world for all people.

Language Matters

Whenever I begin teaching slavery in my courses, I always spend the beginning of that first class discussing language with my students. I find that it helps them understand the choices I’m making about how I teach this topic. On that note, I want to mention briefly two important points about language. I am following the recommendations suggested in the helpful “Writing about Slavery/Teaching About Slavery.” I share with students that I grew up hearing and using different language related to slavery. I ask students to consider why we would use terms such as “enslaved African” or “enslaver” rather than “slave” or “master.” As they unpack how the use of certain terms gives people more or less agency, they begin to understand that the “history” of slavery is a story, and there is more than one way to tell that story.

I am choosing to capitalize both “Black” and “White” since I increasingly see both identities as being historically constructed. As a White, cis-gendered male, I want to help students feel comfortable normalizing this language and understanding how Whiteness is not simply the default way of being. Capitalizing White helps remind White students that their identity has also been historically constructed.

I have also increasingly used the phrase “transatlantic slave system” rather than the “transatlantic slave trade” or the “African slave trade.” Using the term “trade” can sometimes make it difficult for teachers and students to see the many ways in which transatlantic slaving extended far beyond the simple economic exchange. Professor Kwasi Konadu discusses this issue in his chapter “Naming and Framing a Crime Against Humanity: African Voices of the Transatlantic Slave System, ca. 1500-1900” in African Voices of the Global Past. He argues that using the transatlantic slave system allows him “to emphasize the systemic reach of transatlantic slaving, which extended well beyond commerce, encompassing the culture and ecology of African communities as well.” (2-3). I will often pose the question of using this phrasing to my students after a few days and show them some of the alternative names historians have used to talk about this period of history. In highlighting the ways historians make choices about wording and terms, it helps to remind them about how histories are constructed and their own ability to start telling their own stories about the past.

Starting with Causes

In thinking about where to begin any discussion of the teaching of the transatlantic slave system, it naturally makes sense to start by asking why such a horrendous crime against humanity happened in the first place. I find that students often come to the classroom with assumptions about racism being the cause. Phrases such as “the African slave trade” suggest something inherently “African” about slavery. While the practice of slavery was well established in Africa (and in the rest of Afroeurasia) before the development of transatlantic slaving, the reality is that European demand for labor to produce cheaply luxury goods, such as sugar, was one of the principal causes of the transatlantic slave system.

To help understand the causes of the transatlantic slave system, I will often have students read two excerpts. The first one is from John Thornton’s Africa and Africans in the making of the Atlantic world, 1400-1800:

Slavery was widespread in Africa, and its growth and development were largely independent of the Atlantic trade, except that insofar as the Atlantic commerce stimulated internal commerce and development it also led to more widespread holding of slaves. The Atlantic slave trade was the outgrowth of this internal slavery. Its demographic impact, however, even in the early stages was significant, but the people adversely affected by this impact were not the ones making the decisions about participation.

The second excerpt is from Ottobah Cugoano’s 1787 book Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil and Wicked Traffic of the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species. Having just described his experience of the Middle Passage, Cugoano reflects on why Africans enslaved and sold other Africans:

Thus seeing my miserable companions and countrymen in this pitiful, distressed and horrible situation, with all the brutish baseness and barbarity attending it, could not but fill my little mind with horror and indignation. But I must own, to the shame of my own countrymen, that I was first kidnapped and betrayed by some of my own complexion, who were the first cause of my exile and slavery; but if there were no buyers there would be no sellers. So far as I can remember, some of the Africans in my country keep slaves, which they take in war, or for debt; but those which they keep are well fed, and good care taken of them, and treated well; and, as to their clothing, they differ according to the custom of the country. But I may safely say, that all the poverty and misery that any of the inhabitants of Africa meet with among themselves, is far inferior to those inhospitable regions of misery which they meet with in the West Indies, where their hard-hearted overseers have neither regard to the laws of God, nor the life of their fellow-men.

In looking at these two sources, students can understand how slavery existed in Africa before the arrival of Europeans and how that arrival altered the choices of African slavers. The second source helps students see how the slave plantation system developed by Europeans was a new institution that fundamentally differed from the existing practice of slavery in Africa.

African Voices

The passage from Ottobah Cuguano also reminds us that as teachers, whenever possible, we need to center the voices of Africans, including both men’s and women’s, in our discussions of the transatlantic slave system. Textbooks provide important context and details for understanding the transatlantic slave system, but it was the 13 to 15 million Africans forcibly transported from Africa who suffered the worst aspects of that system. It may be easy to rely on the graphs and maps in the textbooks (there is a place for those graphs and maps!), but we don’t want to reproduce a system that silences Africans. Whenever possible, we should find ways to include as many African voices as possible. In subsequent essays, I plan to weave in as many African voices as possible.

I understand that the graphic descriptions of violence in these narratives may be challenging. I have always begun any discussion of these sources with trigger warnings about the sources. In debriefing these classes with my students, many have shared that they learned most from the primary sources written by Africans because they simply didn’t know what was happening. They acknowledged the challenge of reading the sources, but they also appreciated the opportunity to wrestle with this difficult topic by reading African voices for themselves.

Many Consequences

Given the relative lack of discussion of slavery and the slave trade in the broader public and the sometimes narrow ways in which the topics have been taught, students often don’t understand the many ways in which the transatlantic slave system produced a wide variety of consequences for all the parties involved directly and indirectly. As teachers, we need to help students see not only the immediate economic effects using maps of the triangle trade, but we also need to introduce them to the extensive cultural, environmental, political, and social effects. We also want to introduce some of both short-term and long-term consequences.

Equiano by Daniel Orme, frontispiece of his autobiography (1789).,_W._Denton_-_Olaudah_Equiano_(Gustavus_Vassa),_1789.png

There are many ways in which we can begin to teach about the effects of the transatlantic slave system. I have often preferred to consider the effects along geographic lines: in Africa, in the Americas, and in Europe. Olaudah Equiano’s narrative of his life is an excellent resource for helping students understand how slaving affected the lives of people in Africa. In the first two chapters, Equiano extensively described the community in which he grew up and how the existence of the transatlantic slave system affected everyone:

We have firearms, bows and arrows, broad two-edged swords and javelins: we have shields also which cover a man from head to foot. All are taught the use of these weapons; even our women are warriors, and march boldly out to fight along with the men. Our whole district is a kind of militia: on a certain signal given, such as the firing of a gun at night, they all rise in arms and rush upon their enemy.

It also helps to introduce students to the more long-term consequences of the transatlantic slave system. In recent years, there have been a wealth of resources being produced that explore the ways in which transatlantic slaving shaped our present-day world. I especially like Maya Lothian-McLean’s Human Resources (Apple PodcastsSpotify) podcast. In each episode, Lothian-McLean, who identifies as being descended from both Black African Slaves and White slave owners, explores different ways in which the transatlantic slave system has shaped different aspects of modern Britain. She has discussed a wide variety of topics such as the connections to Cadbury’s chocolate, English pub culture, and the British monarchy. The personal nature of these episodes helps reminds us that transatlantic slaving is still very much shaping our present-day lives.

The Persistence of Resistance

Because of how sources and textbooks sometimes present transatlantic slaving, students sometimes assume the slavers were successful. The reality is more complicated. Even though both Black and White slavers benefitted from the transatlantic slave system, they never fully succeeded in making the system acceptable. One of the ways in which we can help students is by showing them the many and repeated ways in which enslaved Africans resisted their enslavement. Equiano is again an excellent resource since he describes the many ways in which enslaved Africans resisted in Africa, on slave ships during the Middle Passage, and in the Americas. The very act of his telling his narrative is itself an act of resistance since he wrote the narrative to help the abolitionist cause.

Revolts by enslaved Africans, 1500-1850. Source unknown.
Revolts by enslaved Africans in the Caribbean, 1791-1848. Source:

While Equiano can help students see the individual ways in which enslaved Africans resisted, maps can be a useful tool for highlighting the number of revolts by enslaved Africans. I have often used these maps with students. I begin by asking students to identify what is on the map. Encourage the students to look at the keys, identify the different geographic regions, and pay attention to the years. After the students have fully identified what is on the map, I ask the students to explain what “story” the mapmaker is trying to tell. With a few clarifying questions, students will come to understand that revolts by enslaved Africans occurred everywhere in the Americas and throughout the era of the transatlantic slave system.

The Case for Many Classes

In reflecting on the different themes, topics, and sources that can be used to teach about the transatlantic slave system, it quickly becomes clear that the topic is too big to cover in one or two classes in the typical high school world history course. And given the reality of how much the system has fundamentally shaped the modern world in which we live, we need to spend a significant amount of time discussing this important topic. I have wanted to make sure that Black students in my courses feel that I fully include their history in the course, and that I’m doing so in ways that highlight the resistance and agency of Black people. I also want to make sure that White students understand the ways in which the Americas and Europe have been shaped by slavery and that it continues to shape the structures of White society.

Because of these goals, I usually spend between five and ten class periods teaching the transatlantic slave system. I spread these class periods out over the entire first half of my modern world history courses, so students can see the ongoing centrality of the system to the development of the modern world. By circling back to the topic of the transatlantic slave system, students can begin to see how the system changed and remained the same over 400 years. In this way, teaching the transatlantic slave system is an excellent topic for helping to see change and continuity over time.

This approach to teaching the subject has also shaped how I plan to talk about the system. My plan is to spend the next five weeks until the October 15 essay looking at different aspects of the transatlantic slave system. In tomorrow’s essay, I will talk about the period before 1400 and before the emergence of the system. On 23 September, I will focus on the origins of the transatlantic slave system between 1450 and 1650. The following three weekly essays will then consider the peak of the transatlantic slave system between 1650 and 1850, resistance to the transatlantic slave system from 1450 to 1850, and then the abolition of the transatlantic slave system in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

If you have any comments or suggestions, please share them with me. Folks who have subscribed to the newsletter may comment below. I can also be reached on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and email.

I would like to thank the many students I have taught over the years. Their feedback has been especially important for helping me think about which aspects of the transatlantic slave system are the most important to be learning about.

Further Reads

Anthony Hazard. The Atlantic slave trade: What too few textbooks told you.

Kwasi Konadu. "Historical Significance of Transatlantic Slaving"

Howard French. “Built on the bodies of slaves: how Africa was erased from the history of the modern world.” The Guardian.


Cugoano, Ottobah. Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil and Wicked Traffic of the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species in Pioneers of the Black Atlantic: Five Slave Narratives from the Enlightenment, 1772-1815, edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and William L. Andrews. Washington D.C.: Civitas Counterpoint, 1998.

Equiano, Olaudah. The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano. Foreword by David Olusoga. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2021.

Konadu, Kwasi. "Naming and Framing a Crime Against Humanity: African Voices of the Transatlantic Slave System, ca.1500 - 1900" in African Voices of the Global Past: 1500 to the Present, edited by Trevor R. Getz, 1-36. New York: Routledge, 2014.

Thornton, John. Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400-1800. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

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Jamie Larson