Thomas Clarkson’s campaign chest

Teaching ideas

Start by showing students the closed chest and ask them to predict what is going to be inside. Move on to the photo of a closed drawer and ask again; discuss what the labels on the drawers might indicate. Look at the three photos of objects and identify as many as possible, consider where they may be from and why someone might have collected them together. Tell them about Thomas Clarkson and what he did with the chest.

Ask students to explore the contents of Clarkson’s chest using the interactive website Thomas Clarkson’s Box in For the classroom. Ask them to list the different sorts of objects and to comment on what they may have to do with slavery. Review why each object has been included. Discuss the origins of the contents and explain that these goods were not typically traded in the triangular trade. So what impact would these objects have on a British person? Discuss Clarkson’s argument that trading these goods would be an alternative to trading kidnapped human beings.

Show students the painting Planting the Sugar Cane, in For the classroom. Discuss what the image shows. What impression do the students think people would have of slavery if this were the only image they had seen? Show students some of the objects used to restrain and punish enslaved people from Clarkson’s chest or the Understanding Slavery website - see For the classroom. How would these objects change people’s impressions of slavery?

Develop students’ understanding of the purpose of the chest with a role play based on the meetings Clarkson would attend to present the contents of his chest. Ask students to prepare by selecting three objects from the chest to use to convince their audience to join the abolition movement. They should then consider a response for each object from someone in favour of continuing the slave trade. Role play a meeting, with students taking turns to present opposing views. Discuss how strong each argument is and evaluate the value of the objects as evidence.

Show students the portrait of Clarkson in For the classroom. Ask students to annotate the portrait with words that describe Clarkson and the way he is represented here. Why has the chest been included in the portrait? Consider the date of the print. Why do students think such a print was produced after the abolition of the slave trade?

Clarkson supported Olaudah Equiano and promoted his book. Ask students to use the links in For the classroom to research Equiano’s book and his campaigning activities. Why do students think Clarkson supported and encourage Equiano? Why was Equiano such an effective writer and campaigner? Do they think that Clarkson or Equiano was the more important in achieving an impact on the abolition movement?

European abolition movements began after the transatlantic slave trade had become well established, but the African victims of the trade had long been fighting against their enslavement. Ask students to use the links in For the classroom to research violent and non-violent ways enslaved people resisted enslavement. Ask students to work in small groups to curate a chest of evidence that represents resistance. Students should select and research six pieces of evidence, which must include at least one object, one painting or print and one document.

Clarkson visited Liverpool, Bristol and London to collect objects and eyewitness accounts as evidence. Use this as a basis for students to investigate the ways in which these three cities were involved in the slave trade.

Why did the British campaign for abolition of the slave trade succeed?

Use Clarkson’s chest to identify the two basic planks of the campaign: respect for other human beings and alternative economic approaches. Using the resources in A bigger picture and other resources, list the approaches of the campaigners: organisation, consumer action, lobbying politicians, recruiting influential people, legal challenges, creating a campaign identity, raising awareness. Explore the success of each of these approaches in the two main areas and evaluate which of the two had the most impact.

Who benefited from the abolition of slavery?

Start this enquiry with the abolitionist print in For the classroom. Identify the characters shown. What do students think the message of this print is? Ask students to create thought bubbles for each of the characters. Tell them that the print was made in 1833 and investigate what had happened between 1807 and the Abolition Act of 1833, including the Barbados (1816), Demerara (1823) and Jamaica (1831) rebellions. Introduce the receipt from Guyana in For the classroom. Ask students to identify who was being compensated and why. Discuss the impact of the abolition on plantation owners who received compensation despite having profited from slave labour and on the freed slaves who were not compensated. Use this as a starting point for exploring the apprenticeship of slaves after 1833 and the continuing relationship between Britain and the cotton plantations of north America. At the end of the enquiry students could create revised speech bubbles for the abolitionist print.

Abolition campaigners in Britain such as Clarkson raised awareness of the cruel treatment, oppression and murder of enslaved people far away and out of sight of British people, whose demands for products such as sugar were met by the exploitation of slave labour. Ask students if they can draw parallels with the present day. They could work in groups to identify a cause they would like to raise awareness of, and to design a chest for a modern campaign. Direct them towards website of relevant campaigners: Anti-Slavery International campaigns about modern slavery and is a useful starting point - there is a link in For the Classroom. Ask them to select a fixed number of objects and other resources that will make the strongest impact, for example, images, audio, video, verbal testimony. Groups should evaluate each other’s selections.

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Thomas Clarkson’s campaign chest