How Important Were the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, Slave Revolts, and the Abolitionist Movement?

by Alan Singer

The short answer, the wrong answer, is that the trans-Atlantic slave trade, slave revolts, and Abolitionist movements were not very important if high school students are preparing for the Advanced Placement® World History exam.

Ways of the World, A Global History with Sources (4th edition, 2019) by Robert Strayer and Eric Nelson is the Bedford/St. Martin’s Advanced Placement® aligned global history textbook, although a small note on the back cover alerts purchasers that the College Board, the group that owns the AP® trademark and markets the tests for high school students, “does not endorse” the “product.” Ways of the World is over 1,200 pages long, and although the authors cannot fit every piece of human history into one textbook, they certainly try. To help students and teachers decide what is important to know for the World History AP® test, pages are bordered with AP® exam tips, AP® “Digging Deeper” hints, and AP® analyzing evidence clues, themes, and comparison questions. In fact, overstressed students can probably skip the 1,200 pages of text and just look at the illustrations and the various “hints.”

The big problem for me as a historian and teacher, with the textbook, the AP® test, and the entire AP® program, is that every event and piece of information in human history seems to get equal weight, although the authors manage to ignore the role of soccer (football) and other sports as examples of cultural diffusion and global integration. Major historical forces that receive short shrift because they are buried in chapters with otherwise unrelated material are trans-Atlantic slave trade, slave revolts, and Abolitionist movements.

On page 709, in a two-inch high box in the lower right-hand corner of the page labeled AP® Exam Tip, students learn that “The abolition of slavery in the Atlantic world is considered one of the greatest political and social achievements of the nineteenth century. This is an important turning point to take note of.” It is such a major event that it merits two and a half pages of text and approximately 1,500 words. The textbook also has approximately two pages on the Haitian Revolution (703-705), two charts on the volume of the trans-Atlantic slave trade (637-b), and a sub-chapter on “Commerce in People: The Transatlantic Slave System” (612-623) that includes a map of the Atlantic world with slave trade routes, two graphs, three images, and a sub-section on the impact of the trans-Atlantic slave trade on Africa.

In the AP® Exam Tip box on page 617 students are alerted to “Pay attention to this discussion of important factors in the development of the Atlantic slave trade.” However, coverage of the trans-Atlantic slave trade is imbedded in Chapter 14, Economic Transformations, Commerce and Consequences, 1450-1750 (pgs. 593-637). The chapter starts with details on “European and Asian Commerce” (594-603), “Silver and Global Commerce” (604-607), and “Fur in Global Commerce” (607-612), before the slave trade is introduced and covered as just another example of expanding global commerce. The chapter ends with a “Reflections” section comparing economic globalization in the past with the present. Missing is any discussion of capitalism as a transformative force in global history, the way the trans-Atlantic slave created the conditions for 19th century European imperialism and colonization in Africa, and the role played by the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the sale of slave produced commodities in developing the political, financial, and commercial institutions, the infrastructure, and the accumulation of capital that made possible the Industrial Revolution and European dominance over much of the rest of the world.

There are several other major educational and historical problems with the way Ways of the World presents the trans-Atlantic slave trade, slavery and slave rebellions. More than half of the pages in the sub-chapter “Commerce in People: The Trans-Atlantic Slave System” are used to discuss the whether the “Atlantic World” is a meaningful concept, early enslavement of Slavic people, the Islamic slave trade, and slavery in pre-Columbian Africa. However, in one paragraph on page 616 students do learn that “The slave system that emerged in the Americas was distinctive in several ways,” including its size, inherited status, and race. Apparently, these distinctions are so important that they merit two sidebars, one calling for students to compare different systems of enslavement and another asking them to analyze evidence in a picture.

Information on slave revolts is scattered and initially minimal. On page 619 students learn that “about 10 percent of the transatlantic voyages experienced a major rebellion by desperate captives, and resistance continued in the Americas, taking a range of forms from surreptitious slowdowns of work to outright rebellion.” Chapter 16, “Atlantic Revolutions, Global Echoes, 1750-1900” (691-733), opens by stating “The Haitian Revolution was part of and linked to a much larger set of upheavals that shook both sides of the Atlantic world between 1775 and 1825” (691). On page 704 students are told that in Haiti “something remarkable and unprecedented had taken place, a revolution unique in the Atlantic world and in world history,” yet this “remarkable and unprecedented” event merits only two and a half pages, much of it centered on the horrors of the revolution and its destructiveness.

In the same chapter, Ways of the World’s authors finally address the movement to abolish slavery, another “remarkable transformation” in human affairs. Because of space, the section conflates two different movements, opposition to the trans-Atlantic slave trade and opposition to slavery, into one. While the chapter credits slave revolts for their role in propelling abolition, it does not explain how and why the abolitionist movement was finally successful. Much credit is given to “Enlightenment thinkers” and religious dissenters, but economic transformation in Europe and the United States brought about by the Industrial Revolution is ignored.

As a historian in a teacher education certification program, I evaluate student transcripts to see if they meet minimum state certification requirements for social studies. New York State requires a minimum of two courses in American history, two courses in Western Civilization (European history), and two courses in “Non-Western” history (something other than the United States and Western Europe). In recent years more high schools are offering and more students are taking AP® history classes using textbooks like Ways of the World. Unfortunately, many students use AP credit to substitute for genuine college history classes where they actually analyze historical events and trends. Textbooks like Ways of the World and the proliferation of AP® courses that focus on memorizing minutiae and test prep may also explain why students don’t want to major in history when they get to college.

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