This resource was created by Leeds Museums and Galleries | The Discovery Centre
When talking about sensitive topics such as slavery, racism and colonialism with your class, some of the language, terminology and ideas of the past are offensive today and need framing in terms of their historical context. Carefully using source material (letters, diaries, objects) as historical evidence is not a promotion of historical ideas, but a reminder of how easily humans can use propaganda and ideology to dehumanise others. To help with this framing, you may wish to talk about ground rules with the class, and look out for language around ‘otherness’ and difference.
- KS2 History: A study of an aspect or theme in British history that extends pupils’ chronological knowledge beyond 1066 (British Empire)
- KS2 Citizenship: Think about the lives of people living in other places and times, and people with different values and customs
- KS2 Citizenship: Research, discuss and debate topical issues, problems and events
James Wiles stated the apprentice labourers ‘behave very ill generally; they have no idea of freedom ... they will never work unless compelled to do so, not even for hire; all the laws in the world will never make black white’. We now see this view as abhorrent and racist. As a piece of historical evidence, it has many layers – personal, societal, legal and state. To unpick these, try framing and beginning a discussion with the questions below:
- The apprentice labourers ‘behave very ill generally’ - what does James mean by this?
- What has shaped his experience?
- ‘they have no idea of freedom’ – what does freedom mean to you?
- What do you think it meant to James?
- Does this differ, and how, to the enslaved people’s view of freedom?
- Why would James think this?
- Whose voice is missing here?
- ‘they will never work unless compelled to do so, not even for hire’ – what does James mean by this?
- What does this tell us about his view of slavery and the system?
- ‘all the laws in the world will never make black white’ – what does James mean by this?
- Which laws?
- What does this tell us about James’ view of others?
- What does this tell us about different people’s legal status at the time?
- What world views underpin ‘make black white’?
- Should one person try to change another?
- What does James’ use of the word ‘they’ do to the sense of the sentence?
- Use this to explore the value systems based on ‘us and them’.
As a plantation owner and member of the legal system living and working in Jamaica, we hear James’ voice and his world views through the letters he write concerning his business interests. We only hear about Albertina and Roger through limited, transactional records: their compensation claim records, those relating to their life events (births, deaths and marriage registers) and the census records. We have no indication of how they felt about where their wealth came from, whether they thought about the people they held enslaved, and what happened when the ongoing financial support was removed from them. Their voices are not heard either, and no-one is either purely good or purely bad. Use the framework below to inspire discussions:
- Albertina is of ‘independent means’. Can you describe what this means?
- Where will her wealth have come from?
- How do you think she felt when her income was removed?
- Would the compensation have been enough to live on?
- Roger uses wealth potentially gained from his plantations to buy art. When he dies, these artworks are inherited by his son. The painting is eventually donated to a museum (by someone else).
- How do you feel about that?
- Does it change your view of the artwork, or the museum it’s housed in?
Ethical note about living descendants:
We don’t know whether James, Albertina and Roger have living descendants, where they are in the globe, or how they might feel about their ancestors. Whilst framing the actions of the past within the relevant time period and a modern context, we have to be ethically aware and respectful of people’s family histories.
Use the historical discussion around the stories of James, Albertina and Roger to discuss contemporary issues around modern slavery. Where, when and why does this still happen? What can we do to change our society now? How can we make society better for everyone?