Slavery and Sources

Teaching history from a global perspective calls for decisions about what to focus on, what to minimize, and what to ignore.  Slavery in the Atlantic world definitely falls into the “focus on” category.  Its history is integral to the history of capitalism and European colonialism, and for understanding the nature of early democracy and social justice movements.  It is also integral to understanding contemporary debate about commemoration, for understanding wealth inequality in the Americas, and ideas about race.  It’s no wonder that slavery is an important topic in LABR 2P93, the global labour history course I am teaching for Brock University’s Department of Labour Studies.


When lecturing about slavery in the Atlantic world I raise the issue of source material. Much of the primary source material for this history was created by individuals and institutions involved in the slave trade, and in maintaining slaves as an oppressed underclass of workers. There is an abundance of anti-slavery source material too, including the publications and records of the transnational abolitionist movement that emerged in the eighteenth-century. My point of emphasis is that records from both of these perspectives offer insight into the past, and must be read critically.


This Slate video and article is an accessible, informative resource rooted in the records of slave-traders.[i] The interactive graphic displays the trans-Atlantic voyages (and some to Europe) of slave ships from the sixteenth- through the nineteenth-centuries.  Researchers in a multi-national, multi-institutional research project collected the data underlying the graphic from original archival sources, and from previously compiled datasets. The project’s website is a major resource.[ii] Collectively, these records tell the quantitative story of the slave trade’s international scope, its expansion and intensification over time, and its connection to commerce and profit.


“The Atlantic Slave Trade in Two Minutes” interactive graphic is a visualization of these patterns, and an attempt to engage an audience using the power of images. That’s precisely the reason the video appealed to me. As a lecturer, I know that talking about shipping records is yawn-inducing, but discussing images of shocking brutality, rebellion, and escape, is attention-grabbing. Abolitionists knew this too, and they wanted to reach an audience with a high illiteracy rate, and so they often used images to get their message across.  Among the most famous first appeared on a medallion produced by English abolitionist Josiah Wedgewood (1730-1795).  It depicts a male slave in chains, partially kneeling and raising his hands as in prayer, or supplication, and evoking Christian brotherhood with the words: “Am I not a man and a brother?”[iii]


From Wikipedia:


The image depicts something of the historical reality of slavery, but a critical reading of the image, informed by historical context, reveals more layers of meaning. For example, the term “brother” suited the progressive Church societies so active within the abolitionist movement by characterizing common humanity as Christian.  By emphasizing masculine identity, the phrase also seems to have suited patriarchal assumptions about bearing legal rights and speaking up for oneself. The fact that this image became one of the most commonly reproduced images in the fight for abolition suggests that it reflected the typical perspectives of the movement, and the white audiences that abolitionists targeted.


To contrast this depiction of slave liberation I displayed another easily accessible image, that of the Emancipation Statue in Bridgetown, Barbados.


From Wikipedia:


It also known as the Bussa statue, after the leader of an 1816 slave revolt. Bussa is not appealing for freedom, he is free; his chains are broken, his fists are raised, he is rising up. The figure evokes the muscular version of masculinity, and celebrates the forcible taking of freedom rather than calling for moral action on behalf of the unfree.


The statue was designed by Barbadian artist Karl Broodhagen (1909-2002), and erected in 1985, about 200 years after Wedgwood’s medallion first appeared. The fact that it is not a source from the era of Atlantic slavery is part of what I wanted students to think about. The difference in context helps us make sense of the content of the two items, or the meanings they communicate, as do the differences in their creators and intended audiences.  Wedgwood was appealing to whites, who were free and some of them wary of slave rebellion. His image calls for moral action, and certainly for reform, but with whose words? Broodhagen’s Bussa speaks from the perspective of the slaves from whom so many in Barbados are descended, and is revolutionary in character.


This forceful opposition to slavery was always a part of its history in the Atlantic world, but this is not the history prominently memorialized, as it is in Bridgetown, in all areas of that world.[iv] This piece from The Washington Post discusses criticism in Benin of the memorialization of a slave-trader as a sort of “father” of the country.[v] In the United State the controversy about statues memorializing men who championed slavery has become well-known, and has spurred the American Historical Association to issue a statement and generate a bibliography of resources on the topic.[vi] The removal of Confederate statues, in New Orleans, for example, is evidence that control over the official memory of the US past is shifting.  In Richmond, Virginia, the former capital of the Confederacy, there are plans to memorialize Nat Turner, the leader of an 1831 slave rebellion.[vii]



Nathan Smith, “Slavery and Sources,”, 5 February 2018,



[i] Andrew Kahn and Jemelle Bouie, “The Atlantic Slave Trade in Two Minutes,” 25 June 2015, Slate,


[ii] Voyages: The Trans-Atlantic Slave Database,


[iii] The National Museum of American History, “Antislavery Medallion,”


[iv] See this piece by Samuel Sinyangwe for a recent perspective on this issue: “I’m a black Southerner. I had to go abroad to see a statue celebrating black liberation.” Vox, 17 August 2017,


[v] Kevin Sieff, “An African country reckons with its history of selling slaves,” 29 January 2018, The Washington Post,


[vi] “Historians on the Confederate Monument Debate,” American Historical Association website,


[vii] John Haltiwanger, “Amid Confederate Statue Controversy, Slave Uprising Leader Nat Turner Included on Richmond Monument,” 21 September 2017, Newsweek,


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