Akan drum

Teaching ideas

To engage students with the Akan drum and develop their questioning skills, you can ask them to work in groups to devise good questions about it as a ‘mystery object’. Give students an indication of the size of the drum, but don’t tell them anything else. Divide the class into small groups and provide each group of students with a printed picture of the drum, a large piece of paper, a marker pen and a dice. Students take it in turns to shake the dice and to think of a good question about the mystery object beginning with the question word linked to a particular number: 1 – What? 2 – When? 3 – Where? 4 – Who? 5 – How? 6 – Why? Ask teams to pick their most interesting questions and share these with the class.

Show students a picture of the British Museum on the whiteboard and tell them the story of how the drum was collected, brought to the museum and wrongly labelled as an American Indian drum. Ask them to speculate what might have happened next, then tell them the story of the discovery of its true origin. Show students a world map and ask them to do some further speculation about how this West African drum could have travelled all the way to North America. You can then explain the triangular trade, turning your classroom into a map of the Atlantic and doing a teacher-led role play in which students represent goods and people caught up in the triangular trade.

It is important not to present Africans simply as victims in Atlantic slavery, and to give students an understanding of the rich material and cultural heritage of the region from which these people came. The objects and picture in A bigger picture provide a starting point for investigating life in the Asante Empire. Print pictures of the objects in A bigger picture and ask students to work in pairs or small groups to describe them, work out what they are and then make some inferences about the culture that produced them. Show students the engraving of the First Day of the Yam Festival in A bigger picture and show them a clip from the documentary in For the classroom (timing 1:48 – 4:47). Ask them to find interesting details in the picture and to suggest what these reveal about Asante culture.

These activities could lead into one of the following enquiries on the transatlantic slave trade.

What might the Akan drum say?

This enquiry takes the idea of the ‘talking drum’ as its starting point. It uses the Akan drum as a vehicle for students to write an account of the drum’s journey and what it might say about the different situations it encountered. You can begin the enquiry with some of the activities above relating the drum and its significance to Asante culture. It would then be helpful to show the section about talking drums (timing 30:30 – 35:05) from the documentary in A bigger picture. It may help focus the students’ writing if they place the Akan drum in a particular scene, for example using the engraving of the yam festival in A bigger picture. When they have developed enough knowledge about the Asante Empire, students can write the first part of their account: ‘My people, the Asante’. They can begin by describing from the perspective of the drum what they can see and hear and can then go on to describe the main features of Asante culture.

Other parts of the transatlantic slave trade can be tackled in the same way. Develop contextual knowledge of the treatment of slaves on the West African coast, the middle passage, a slave sale, a plantation in Virginia and England in the 1730s. At each stage ask students to write an account from the perspective of the drum. Using visual prompts to place the drum in a particular scene for each aspect should help to stimulate students’ thinking and writing.

How can we tell different stories of Britain’s transatlantic slave trade?

The journey of the Akan drum represents the brutality and terror of the Atlantic slave trade. At the same time, the drum is a potent symbol of the resilience of African culture in America. This could be the starting point for an enquiry which requires students to think about the different emphases which historians could be place on various aspects of transatlantic slavery. At each stage in the narrative ask students to suggest a range of possible subjects. The trade with West Africa could focus on the British slave ports, the link to industries in Britain and the role of African kings; the middle passage could focus on a typical journey, the worst atrocities and acts of resistance; life on the plantation could focus on the cruelty and brutality, but could also focus on the different forms of resistance and the continuities of African culture in music, dance, food, art and crafts. Ask students to make their own judgements about what should be included in a balanced interpretation of the transatlantic slave trade. The enquiry could conclude with a piece of extended writing or an on-line exhibition about Britain’s transatlantic slave trade.

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Akan drum