Personal Narratives as Advocacy Tools:
Efforts to End the Transatlantic Slave Trade

Sarah Thomson, M.Ed.
Independent Scholar
Social Studies Teacher, North Carolina

Course: U.S. History or World History
Syllabus Section: Transatlantic Slave Trade
Audience: Secondary Students

Background Information

This lesson is an opportunity to introduce students to the concept of primary source narratives and their function in our construction of historical understanding; however, ideally the instructor establishes these concepts earlier in the course. Because this lesson could be taught in both U.S. and World History courses, the necessary prior knowledge differs for each. In a World History or World Studies course, students should have an understanding of ancient kingdoms (such as Mali) that interacted via trade with other parts of the African continent, and event parts of the Middle East and India prior to the 1600s. This sets the stage for West African interaction with Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries. In a U.S. History course, this lesson follows the question: How did we all get here? Students should understand how and why Europeans arrived in the Americas, including their motivations for exploration and colonization. The Transatlantic Slave Trade began in the 1500s and was banned by both Britain and the United States by 1807, shortly after the publication of the two primary source documents within this lesson.

Scope and Sequence

In this lesson, students will delve into the Transatlantic Slave Trade by examining individual primary source perspectives on the Middle Passage. Students will use guiding questions to evaluate the reliability and influence of two different primary source documents. This lesson is intended to take up two 60-minute class periods, and best serves as an introduction to the Slave Trade and Middle Passage. This lesson could be incorporated within a secondary U.S. History or World History course.

Objectives

At the end of the lesson, students will be able to:

  1. Explain how most African-Americans originally came to the Americas, under what conditions, and for what reasons.
  2. Evaluate how the Transatlantic Slave Trade impacted the lives and psychology of Africans in the 1700s.
  3. Analyze primary source documents for perspective, bias, and reliability.
  4. Analyze how personal narratives can be used as an advocacy tool, and evaluate whether these source were effective in bringing an end to the Slave Trade.

Common Core Essential Standards

RH.11.1. Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, connecting insights gained from specific details to an understanding of the text as a whole.

RH.11.6. Evaluate authors' differing points of view on the same historical event or issue by assessing the authors' claims, reasoning, and evidence.

RH.11.8. Evaluate an author's premises, claims, and evidence by corroborating or challenging them with other information.

*Note: These come from the national Common Core Reading and Writing Standards for Literacy in History/Social Studies 6–12, starting on page 61, available online: http://www.corestandards.org/ELA-Literacy/RH/introduction

Materials Needed

  • Internet Access to AASC and other websites
  • Falconbridge Primary Source
  • Equiano Primary Source (Adapted and Advanced versions)
  • Amazing Grace (2006) DVD (or equivalent clips from YouTube)

Essential Questions

  1. How did the Transatlantic Slave Trade change the lives of individual Africans during the 1700s?
  2. Given your existing knowledge of the institution of slavery and events of the 18th century, why was the Slave Trade allowed to exist?
  3. Were the Falconbridge and Equiano publications effective in bringing an end to the Transatlantic Slave Trade? Why?

Instructional Procedures

As a warm up activity, have students complete the KNOW and WANT TO KNOW sections of a K-W-L chart. Students most likely have prior knowledge of the Transatlantic Slave Trade from previous courses, therefore this is an opportunity for them to share and ask questions about what else they want to learn. Give students 2–3 minutes to jot down notes about what they already "know" of the slave trade, and what else they want to know. Record and discuss student responses as a class.

Alternatively, have students look at two primary source images of Slave Ships and answer the warm up questions below:


  1. What do you see in these images? Describe 5–10 items in detail.
  2. What do you think these images show? Why were they created?
  3. What do you still wonder or want to know about these images?

Display a map and draw out the route that Europeans (Spanish, Portuguese, British) would take to western Africa and then the Americas in the 1700s. Explain that this horrific journey was also known as the "Middle Passage." Introduce Olaudah Equiano as an important historical figure who wrote about his experiences on the Middle Passage, being sold into slavery. His book, published in London in the 1780s, sold 50,000 copies in just two months. Explain to students that we will look at some primary sources from the time, to learn more about what was happening and how the slave trade affected individuals. Before diving into primary source analysis however, we will watch one or two film clips from Amazing Grace (2006). In these clips Equiano (played by an actor) takes us through a slave ship and describes what the journey is like. This is a bit of a preview to the primary source analysis, or a Before Reading Activity.

The following are two suggested film clips from Amazing Grace (2006):

  • Olaudah Equiano and Thomas Clarkson's explanation and demonstration over dinner of how slaves travel the Middle Passage (18 min. from film start)
  • Olaudah Equiano takes William Wilberforce to the East Indian dock in London (44 min. from film start)

If you do not have access to the DVD, the film is also available online: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TBjvQ7GN47I

Invite students to share any thoughts before transitioning to the primary source analysis.

As an additional or alternative Before Reading activity, have students read the following background information on Olaudah Equiano and the Transatlantic Slave Trade:

Provide students with a copy of the Falconbridge primary source (adapted version below), or direct them to the original source online: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part1/1h281t.html. Model how to read a source like this, and show what you are looking for through annotation. Use the Discussion Questions below to guide the modeling process.

Falconbridge Primary Source:
"THE MEN NEGROES...ARE...FASTENED TOGETHER...BY HANDCUFFS"

Headnote: Here, Alexander Falconbridge, a surgeon aboard slave ships and later the governor of a British colony for freed slaves in Sierra Leone, offers a vivid account of Middle Passage.

The men Negroes, on being brought aboard the ship, are immediately fastened together, two and two, by handcuffs on their wrists and by irons riveted on their legs. They are then sent down between the decks and placed in an apartment partitioned off for that purpose. The women also are placed in a separate apartment between the decks, but without being ironed. An adjoining room on the same deck is appointed for the boys. Thus they are all placed in different apartments.

But at the same time, however, they are frequently stowed so close, such that there is no other position than lying on their sides. In each of the apartments are placed three or four large buckets, of a conical form, nearly two feet in diameter at the bottom and only one foot at the top and in depth of about twenty-eight inches, to which, when necessary, the Negroes have recourse. It often happens that those who are placed at a distance from the buckets, in endeavoring to get to them, tumble over their companions, in consequence of their being shackled. These accidents, although unavoidable, are productive of continual quarrels in which some of them are always bruised.

Source: Alexander Falconbridge, An Account of the Slave Trade on the Coast of Africa (London, 1788).

Falconbridge Discussion Questions:

  1. When was this source written? What else was happening at that time?
  2. Who is Falconbridge and what work did he do on the slave ships? How might this experience influence his perspective on the morality of the Slave Trade?
  3. Falconbridge later governed a colony for freed slaves. What does this reveal about his personal convictions?
  4. Why do you think Falconbridge published this account?
  5. Were there any words that seemed unfamiliar or unusual to you? Write them down and try to determine their possible meaning from context.

After modeling, divide students into small groups or partners to read through and analyze the Equiano primary source, using the same structure and guidelines. Provide students with a copy of the Adapted Equiano Source (below), Advanced Equiano Source (below), or the original, full text online: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/15399/15399-h/15399-h.htm

Adapted Equiano Source:
"Is It Not Enough that We Are Torn From Our Country and Friends?"

Head Note: Here, former slave Olaudah Equiano describes the horrors of being sold into slavery and traveling along the Middle Passage in the 1700s. Equiano was kidnapped from his family when he was 11 years old, taken to Caribbean and then to Virginia. He was later sold to a merchant and purchased his freedom in 1766.

The first thing I saw when I arrived on the coast was the sea, and a slave ship. This filled me with astonishment, which was soon converted into terror, when I was carried on board. I was immediately checked to see if I were sound, by some of the crew. I persuaded myself that they were going to kill me.

When I looked around the ship, I saw a multitude of black people of every description chained together, every one of their countenances expressing sorrow. I was overpowered with horror, and I fell motionless on the deck and fainted.

I was soon put down under the decks, and there I received such a stench as I had never experienced in my life. Between the stench and the crying, I became so sick that I was not able to eat. I now wished for the last friend, Death, to relieve me. But soon, to my grief, two of the white men offered me food and, on my refusing to eat, one of them held me while the other flogged me severely. I had never experienced anything of this kind before. I would have jumped over the side, but I could not; and besides, the crew watched us very closely who were not chained down to the decks. I have seen some of these poor African prisoners most severely cut, for attempting to jump, and whipped every hour for not eating. This indeed was often the case with myself.

At last we came in sight of the New World. Many merchants and planters now came on board. They examined us and they also made us jump. We were sold in the usual way, which is this: On a signal given (as the beat of a drum), the buyers rush in and make choice of who they like best. Without a second thought, relations and friends are separated, most of them never to see each other again.

Why are parents to lose their children, brothers, sisters, husbands, or wives? Surely, this is a new "improvement" in cruelty, which adds fresh horrors even to the wretchedness of slavery.

Source: Adapted from The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African. Written by Himself. London, 1789.

Advanced Equiano Source:
"Is It Not Enough that We Are Torn From Our Country and Friends?"

Head Note: Here, former slave Olaudah Equiano describes the horrors of being sold into slavery and traveling along the Middle Passage in the 1700s. Olaudah Equiano was kidnapped from his family when he was 11 years old, taken first to Barbados and then to Virginia. He was later sold to a Quaker merchant from whom he purchased his freedom in 1766.


WORD BANK
sound – healthy/normal
multitude – large crowd
countenances – faces
flogged – beat
wretchedness – misery

The first object which saluted my eyes when I arrived on the coast, was the sea, and a slave ship. This filled me with astonishment, which was soon converted into terror, when I was carried on board. I was immediately handled, and tossed up to see if I were sound, by some of the crew; and I was now persuaded that I had gotten into a world of bad spirits, and that they were going to kill me.

When I looked round the ship too, and saw a large furnace of copper boiling, and a multitude of black people of every description chained together, every one of their countenances expressing dejection and sorrow, I no longer doubted my fate; and, quite overpowered with horror and anguish, I fell motionless on the deck and fainted.

I now saw myself deprived of all chance of returning to my native country, or even the least glimpse of hope of gaining the shore, which I now considered as friendly. I was soon put down under the decks, and there I received such a salutation in my nostrils as I had never experienced in my life: so that, with the loathsomeness of the stench, and crying together, I became so sick and low that I was not able to eat, nor had I the least desire to taste anything. I now wished for the last friend, Death, to relieve me; but soon, to my grief, two of the white men offered me eatables; and, on my refusing to eat, one of them held me fast by the hands, and laid me across, I think, and tied my feet, while the other flogged me severely. I had never experienced anything of this kind before. I would have jumped over the side, but I could not; and besides, the crew watched us very closely who were not chained down to the decks, lest we should leap into the water; and I have seen some of these poor African prisoners most severely cut, for attempting to do so, and hourly whipped for not eating. This indeed was often the case with myself.

At last we came in sight of the island of Barbados. Many merchants and planters now came on board. They put us in separate parcels, and examined us attentively. They also made us jump. And sure enough, soon after we were landed, there came to us Africans of all languages.

We were taken immediately to the merchant's yard, where we were all pent up together, like sheep, without regard to sex or age. After a few days we were sold after their usual manner, which is this: On a signal given (as the beat of a drum), the buyers rush at once into the yard where the slaves are confined, and make choice of that parcel they like best. In this manner, without a second thought, are relations and friends separated, most of them never to see each other again.

Are the dearest friends and relations, now rendered more dear by separation from their kindred, still to be parted from each other, and thus prevented from cheering the gloom of slavery, with the small comfort of being together, and sharing their sufferings and sorrows? Why are parents to lose their children, brothers, sisters, husbands, or wives? Surely, this is a new "improvement" in cruelty, which, as there is no advantage to it, adds fresh horrors even to the wretchedness of slavery.

Source: Adapted from The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African. Written by Himself. London, 1789.

Equiano Discussion Questions

  1. When was this source written? How long after the Falconbridge publication? Why do you think they were published so close together?
  2. What is the author's purpose in writing this? Why did he publish a book about the horrors of the Middle Passage?
  3. How does Equiano know about the slave trade and the journey through the Middle Passage? Does this put him in a good position to report these historical events?
  4. Pick out one phrase that seems believable and realistic. What makes this statement believable?
  5. Pick out one phrase that seems questionable, or unrealistic. What makes this statement questionable?
  6. Which author is more reliable, Falconbridge or Equiano? Why?

When students have finished, invite groups to share some of their responses from the activity. Explain that both Great Britain and the United States banned the Transatlantic Slave Trade in 1807, approximately twenty years after these narratives were published. Use this information to discuss what role these publications had in bringing an end to the Slave Trade. Discuss how personal narratives can be used as advocacy tools, and whether they are effective in this regard. If time permits, share another clip from Amazing Grace (2006). I recommend the confession of a former slave ship captain (at 1:25 min from film start).

Extension Activity

Have students research how personal narratives have been used to effect change within oppressed communities throughout U.S. History. They could look at examples from the American abolitionist movement, including The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845). They could also look at examples from the African American Civil Rights movement and the Chicano Rights movement.

Additional Resources

Saillant, John. "Equiano, Olaudah." Encyclopedia of African American History, 1619–1895: From the Colonial Period to the Age of Frederick Douglass, edited by Paul Finkelman. Oxford African American Studies Center.

Keough, Leyla. "Equiano, Olaudah." Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience, Second Edition, edited by Kwame Anthony Appiah and Henry Louis Gates Jr. Oxford African American Studies Center.

Carey, Brycchan. "Equiano, Olaudah." African American National Biography, edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham. Oxford African American Studies Center.

Shields, E. Thomson. "Equiano, Olaudah." American National Biography Online, edited by Mark C. Carnes and John A. Garraty. Oxford African American Studies Center.

Costanzo, Angelo. "Equiano, Olaudah." The Concise Oxford Companion to African American Literature, edited by William L. Andrews, Frances Smith Foster, and Trudier Harris. Oxford African American Studies Center.

Oxford University Press