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Educational Websites on Slavery: The Dutch-English Case

Producers of web content on the transatlantic slave trade and slavery are as varied as can be. Information can be obtained from museums and other heritage institutions, from organizations of teachers, commercial publishers, national and international organizations (such as UNESCO), and private individuals. Without source analysis, visitors will be surfing into a web of informative texts, textual and visual sources, and audiovisual materials ranging from historical films and documentaries to privately made videos on places of memory. Teachers looking for interesting learning materials also face this flood of information, with sources being written for adults or children, aiming to educate, to convince, or to disturb, sometimes with references for source verification, but often steeped in unverifiable bias, invention, or sheer lies. All of these could be useful in a critical perspective on history teaching, but pedagogical approaches would need to be developed for each case.

With the number and nature of educational historical websites developing rapidly, I will distinguish some ideal types, and in doing so, I will attempt to focus on the core idea behind the design of a website, being fully aware that many hybrid types could be found or will appear in the future:

  • Heritage portals designed to show material and immaterial heritage such as objects of art, photos, audiovisual sources, and written documents. These are often hosted by heritage institutions such as museums, libraries, archives, and broadcasting companies but often do not provide learning assignments.
  • Local projects designed to show visitors the significance of historical locations such as buildings, military objects, monuments, and landscapes.
  • Websites or applications designed as games in (quasi-) historical digital environments.
  • Teaching material portals designed to make available a wide variety of history teaching materials to be used in the classroom. These are often hosted by teachers, organizations of teachers, and non-profit organizations.
  • Educational websites where learning takes place on the website itself. These will usually contain guiding texts, sources of all kinds, and assignments. They may vary widely in how they connect with the learning objectives of a history curriculum. Two basic subtypes may be distinguished: websites whose design is more linear, based on the concept of an online schoolbook (TYPE A) and websites who are more modular, distributing information in a hierarchical learning design (TYPE B).

Teachers who want to use the Internet will have a lot to ponder. The complexity of such decision-making will be illustrated below, where I analyze Dutch historical websites on the transatlantic slave trade from the perspective of historical narrative and pedagogy and compare these with English websites on the same topic.

The transatlantic slave trade and slavery in general have become important fields of academic research, which are still developing rapidly, both inside and outside Europe (Eltis & Engerman, 2011). This development has its own dynamic, but it is also partly driven by commemorations of the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade in England (1807-2007), of the slave trade and slavery in the Netherlands (1813/1863-2013), and of slavery in the United States (1865-2015). Research interests and engagements will vary among individual historians and institutions, but the perceived national historical role of being either perpetrator or victim often makes a difference to research agendas as Western European maritime countries were actively involved in slave trading across the globe, whereas other countries faced loss of population or the effects of slavery on their soil for centuries.

The perpetrator-victim scheme explains, for example, debates about the involvement of African slave traders in the Transatlantic system—to debunk European exceptionalism—or about the presence of slaves in European countries and about slavery as a structural and indigenous characteristic there— to debunk a self-image of European countries as being slave-free societies (Herzog, 2012; Hondius, 2011). Teachers cannot be expected to be fully up to date with the latest research agendas on all topics they teach. It takes time for academic insights to reach the classroom; history textbooks are also said to suffer from a time lag in transforming academic knowledge into knowledge for students.

When, however, certain topics become contested histories, things may change more rapidly. The transatlantic slave trade today is a memory issue in the Netherlands, England, and France, while it is largely absent in the other former slave-trading countries Portugal, Spain, and Denmark (Oostindie, 2009). Where debates have heated up, this is largely because of the presence of minority groups who identify themselves as descendants of enslaved people and who have challenged Dutch, English, and French national narratives for their silence about the forced migration of at least 11 million people as part of chattel slavery. These challenges appear within national contexts and they work out differently. Therefore, in studying educational historical websites it is useful to focus on specific contexts, in this case the Netherlands and England.

In the Netherlands, several new websites appeared in 2013 as part of the national commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in Suriname and the Dutch Antilles. To understand the narrative importance of this phenomenon, a short history of the Dutch national narrative is needed. In the nineteenth century, the main point of reference for thinking about national values in the Netherlands became the time span between the start of its military resistance against Spain (the Eighty Years’ War 1568-1648) and the end of its dominance as a world power (after 1700). In the early nineteenth century, Dutch historians invented the concept of the ‘Golden Age’ for this period. This fitted very well as a specification of the rise-and-fall template in which the history of the Dutch Republic had already been described in the eighteenth century (cf. Zerubavel, 2003). At the beginning of the nineteenth century, this template was extended with a revolutionary period (1780-1813), which had to be silenced or condemned as shameful (Los, 2012; Van Sas, 2004). The old confederate Dutch Republic now became the object of remembrance, and the Golden Age in particular was selected for celebration in the arts, in literature, and in historical scholarship.

An important feature of the Golden Age template was its maritime foundation, oriented very strongly toward the East in geographical terms. The Dutch East India Company (VOC) became one of the main objects of national pride, without mentioning how slavery had been an essential part of its colonial empire. The slave trading companies operating on the African and Caribbean coasts gradually lost their place as being key players in the Golden Age altogether. This explains why most Dutch wall charts are devoted to important political moments and places of the Golden Age, with none of them portraying a scene connected with slavery in the East or with the slave trade in the West, both terms obviously expressing a Eurocentric view.

This emphasis on seventeenth-century maritime glory has been challenged fundamentally only since the turn of the millennium (Nimako & Willemsen, 2011; Oostindie, 2011; Van Stipriaan, 2001, 2007). In 2002, a national monument was unveiled in Amsterdam as the central location for a national commemoration of the abolition of slavery on the 1st of July every year. Since then, publicity in books, on television, and in other media has increased (Lechner, 2008). After a decade, history textbooks still hardly mention slavery in the Dutch East Indies, but the transatlantic slave trade has found its place in the curriculum, due to revisions implemented around 2007-2010 (Van Boxtel & Grever, 2011). The Dutch history curriculum is now structured in ten eras with abstract characteristics. European colonialism in the West, the slave trade, and the emergence of abolitionism is placed as characteristic number 29 in Era 7 (1700-1800). For primary and lower secondary education, there is also the Canon of the Netherlands. This addition to the general curriculum presents 50 ‘windows’ (mostly historical) from which to look at the Dutch past. Slavery is topic 23 (right after Spinoza) and is restricted to the Atlantic world under the subtitle ‘Human trafficking and forced labor in the New World’. It dates this phenomenon between circa 1637 and 1863. Obviously, the question now is how this topic should be taught. What kind of stories and which historical perspectives will be selected? This change is also accompanied by questions about what vocabulary should be used (e.g. slave/enslaved and abolition/emancipa- tion) and how we should deal with moral judgment.

Part of the increased media exposure is the emergence of a variety of historical websites on the slave trade and slavery in Dutch historical culture. To show what kind of variety teachers will encounter, I will first turn to three new Dutch history websites (2013) with educational purposes. Slavery and You (www.sla- vernijenjij.nl, Dutch language) is an educational website (TYPE B) designed by The National Institute for the Study of Dutch Slavery and its Legacy (NiNsee), which was founded in 2002 and was closely involved in the annual commemoration of the Dutch abolition of slavery. Slavery and You provides historical information and examples and is open about its mission and use of terminology. Students can learn about different points of view on slavery and its legacy, in the past and today, and are invited to do research themselves and contribute to a weblog. The website does not include assignments aiming to foster historical thinking skills. Though students are invited to think for themselves, there is also a strong tendency to combat modern racism as emanating from historical forms of slavery. In emphasizing continuity of racism, the website displays the emancipatory mission of the Institute as an active player in the politics of memory in the Netherlands.

The website Slave Trade in the Atlantic World (www.atlanticslavetrade.eu, Dutch/English language) was designed as a collaborative effort of Erasmus University Rotterdam, The Royal Tropical Museum Amsterdam, NiNsee, and history teachers in secondary schools. This website (TYPE B) has the same objective of teaching students about transatlantic slavery and its heritage today, but in some ways is the opposite of Slavery and You. The website’s mission is to foster awareness of slavery heritage as a dynamic phenomenon to be studied historically. The website is a design with nine separate historical issues and closed assignments that aim to foster historical thinking. Students can choose from the opening screen where they want to start, which means there is no prescribed time order. All sorts of historical sources and heritage materials have been included, and students encounter a plurality of perspectives encouraging them to think about historical contexts and their present significance. The website invites students to form opinions but does not directly connect historical slavery to modern racism. Students can draw such conclusions, but they will need their teachers to organize debates about such topics in the classroom. The results of the assignments, therefore, can be printed or sent by email.

Despite their different approaches, both these websites try to overcome the traditional Eurocentric narrative of the triangular trade as being essentially an economic topic of the past. The TYPE B website of the Zeeland Archives (www.eenigheid.slavenhandelmcc.nl, Dutch language), however, deliberately takes this more traditional view. Archives usually model education activities on the sources they preserve for future generations. In this case, as the province of Zeeland and the town of Middelburg in particular was a major player in the slave trade, the Zeeland Archives contain rich sources from the slave traders’ perspective, including ship journals. This explains why the website allows students to follow the slave ship d’Eenigheid on its triangular route in 1761-1763, based on the journal of the ship’s first mate, to get an idea what a journey was like in terms of locations, speed, and daily routines. Obviously, if you take this angle for an educational design, this makes it more difficult to include other perspectives; where Slave Trade in the Atlantic World shows the middle passage from both upper and lower decks, with some fictional biographies of enslaved, the Zeeland Archive website keeps strictly to the journal and the slave trader’s perspective. On the other hand, the website does use the more politically correct vocabulary of ‘enslaved’ instead of ‘slave’, and the assignments also stimulate children to think about the feelings of the enslaved. Barely supported by contextual evidence, however, such assignments amount to what one might call ‘everyday’ empathy rather than historical thinking exercises (Lee & Ashby, 2001).

Apart from these three different players with three different ambitions on the same subject, there is more. Teachers may also want to consider the website of the Amsterdam municipal archive, a heritage portal which displays a careful choice of the archive’s sources relating to slavery, meaning to support research by young students although it offers no assignments or suggestions. The educational website of the Royal Tropical Museum in Amsterdam focuses on its mission to foster understanding of cultural exchange and wants to be a partner in creating new cultural expressions. This educational website (TYPE B) introduces students to slavery and music, promotes historical knowledge, and encourages students to master particular musical rhythms and to create their own music sampling and mixing. The national Slavery television series, which ran in 2012 and provoked much-heated debate, can still be viewed from a heritage portal website, with five episodes of 55 minutes each. A junior version on a separate portal is available for younger children, linking historical forms of slavery to modern ones.

Finally, the Canon of the Netherlands offers a website, which can best be labeled as an educational website TYPE A. It provides descriptive texts and subtexts for every window, some (audio-) visual sources, links to heritage institutions and—for this topic—references to slavery trails in Amsterdam and Middelburg. The text on slavery is balanced, although it can be interpreted as somewhat inconsequent. It speaks of ‘human trafficking’ in the title, but uses the word ‘slaves’ in the text. This shows the difficulty of language, as the word ‘slave’ in an English version can easily be substituted for ‘enslaved’, whereas the Dutch language only allows for a longer description, literally: ‘those made slaves’ (totslaafgemaakten). Together, the Dutch websites considered here seem to largely represent the varieties in the memorial landscape of the Netherlands on this topic.

The memorial landscape in England is a little different. Here, the bicentennial of the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade was celebrated in 2007, leading to many exhibitions and educational activities (Smith, Cubitt, Fouseki, & Wilson, 2011). The commemoration also stimulated debate about the history curriculum, with as a result that the transatlantic slave trade became a compulsory topic for Key Stage 3 (11-14 years) in the United Kingdom in 2009. Although the topic has lost that status in the new history curriculum in England of 2013 and became a non-statutory topic, it is still being taught in most schools.

Anti-Slavery International played an important role in the curriculum debate, referring to Unesco’s website Breaking the Silence, which was online since 1998. Anti-Slavery International was founded in 1839 as a successor of the first Anti-Slavery Society in the United Kingdom, with the ambition to continue the anti-slavery mission in the world at large. Its website makes this progressive plot clear through the time line in the ‘About us’ section. The website also offers educational materials under the ‘Resources’ section, in which the rise and progress narrative from slavery to full modern human rights is also dominant. This strong emphasis on continuity between the past and the present is shared by the Dutch Slavery and You website hosted by NiNsee, although the latter—due to its recent founding as a Dutch institute—neither has a progressive narrative nor shares the international activism of Anti-Slavery International.

A different approach to teaching and learning is promoted by the website Understanding Slavery Initiative (www.understandingslavery.com). This website was funded by the government to support teachers and is a unique collaboration of six important English museums, located in London, Liverpool, Bristol, Hull, and Bath. All have collections that are connected with the transatlantic slave trade. The website is less a heritage portal than a portal with teaching materials supporting certain learning objectives. Instead of prescribing certain values and ways of thinking, all kinds of heritage materials have been digitized to make students reflect on past-present relationships for themselves. The website, therefore, covers topics ranging from old African kingdoms in coastal areas to legacies in modern countries everywhere. These have no prescribed narrative order. In all these characteristics, this approach resembles the Dutch website Slave Trade in the Atlantic World, although the latter is a product of collaboration between different kinds of stakeholders (not only museums) and is not a portal but an educational website TYPE B.

Next to these two websites, there are also local projects such as slavery trails, showing the heritage of such cities as London, Liverpool, and Bristol, and there are portals giving entrance to teaching materials. Despite differences in national context, teachers in both in the Netherlands and England face the same challenge of having to clear educational paths through the jungle of history and heritage sites on slavery, both on the web and in physical space.

 
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