This brilliant thread by historian Robert Saunders on how we should teach and understand the history of slavery is one of the smartest responses to the historical illiteracy of TPUK.

First published in March 2020.


Of course we teach the abolition of slavery – but not in this crude fashion.

It is a fascinating subject, showing how popular pressure could operate on a pre-democratic system; how women’s political activism drove change; how new forms of religion rewrote old economic ideas.

We explore how slave resistance in the colonies drove abolitionism in Britain, inspiring domestic liberation movements like Chartism, while expanding how Britons understood ‘freedom’. And we ask how and why those slaves were then written out of their own story of emancipation.

We ask why slavery was replaced by unpaid ‘apprenticeships’, requiring further emancipation campaigns; why compensation was paid to slave-owners but not to slaves; and how new forms of control were constructed that kept political and economic power in the hands of the planters.

We recall that, before abolishing slavery, the empire first practiced it for over a century, trafficking human beings on an industrial scale. We ask who profited from slavery and who profited from its abolition – and how the balance of economic advantage might have changed.

We explore the complex relationship between racial prejudice and the slavery debate, showing how abolitionists themselves held very different views on race and racial hierarchy, and how ‘scientific’ forms of racism subsequently fed off triumphalist visions of abolition.

We study figures like Elizabeth Heyrick, the Quaker woman who demanded “Immediate, not Gradual, abolition”; Mary Prince, the first black woman in Britain to publish a memoir; and the Baptist missionary William Knibb. We explore the arguments and interests they sought to challenge.

We ask why people who were not more wicked or corrupt than we are today might have supported slavery, or simply have accepted its existence. We consider how moral opinion is formed, how it is sustained, and how we explain radical movements of opinion across time.

What we don’t do is to reduce history to a scorecard, as if abolishing slavery outweighs practising it or as if railways balance out racism. The past is so much more interesting than that – and our students are so much more sophisticated.

Tweets posted on 28 February 2020 by @redhistorian.

[This piece was first published as a Twitter thread and turned into the above article on 10 March 2020 with the purpose of reaching a larger audience. It has been minorly edited and corrected. | The author of the tweets writes in a personal capacity.]

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