Teaching Module

Children in the Slave Trade

Lesson Plan: Children in the Slave Trade

by Susan Douglass

Time Estimated: two to three 45-50-minute classes


  1. Examine children's experiences in the trans-Atlantic slave trade in terms of their capture, transport, and usage as laborers.
  2. Weigh evidence of the growing number of children taken in the slave trade and the causes and effects of their involvement.
  3. Assess factors in the continuation of the slave trade in the Americas, and in its fluctuation over time.
  4. Assess efforts by abolitionists to draw attention to the evils of slavery through publication of narratives and images involving children and the brutalities to which they were exposed.


  • Printouts of primary sources sufficient for each student to have a full set of the texts and images in the Children in the Slave Trade Teaching Module. 1
  • Six shallow boxes, bins, or baskets in which to collect citations written on half-sheets of paper.
  • Enough half-sheets of paper to allow each student to write 10 responses.
  • Three markers.


If possible, assign students to read as homework the primary sources in the Children in the Slave Trade Teaching Module. This activity will prepare students for writing an essay on the Document Based Question in this teaching module.

Day One

Display the image Advertisement for Sale of Newly Arrived Africans, Charleston, July 24, 1769 [Advertisement]. Ask students to view, read, and reflect on this advertising poster by thinking for 2—3 minutes and jotting down some historical questions it raises, and what element in the source raises those questions. What does it tell us, and what does it make us curious to know, focusing especially on the element of child slavery?

Responses might include: it tells us that children were being imported to the Americas for sale in significant quantities, that they were intended for use as laborers, and this trade began before a significant abolition movement was established. It raises historical questions such as: How many children were involved in the trade, and how did this change over time? How old were the children involved? How did slave owners and traders justify the increased risks and longer-term return on their "investment"?There are many other possibilities.

Divide students into three groups. Each group is assigned two containers, and goes to a corner of the room where chairs are set up. Divide the groups in half to represent opposing sides of each issue listed in the bullets below in #4.

Using the three bullet items of the DBQ, assign each group one issue to discuss using the documents. They will label the boxes per instructions that follow:

  • The first group will read the slave narratives (The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano: Kidnapping, Slave Ship, Middle Passage, Slave Auction; A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Venture A Native of Africa, but Resident Above Sixty Years in the United States of America Related by Himself ; Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil of Slavery: Slave Coffle, Middle Passage ) in order to identify and cite quotations of (a) evidence of the psychological and social damage done by the experiences related, and (b) evidence of the capacity for survival and resilience related by the narrators. Label the boxes "Damage" and "Resilience." Each half of the group will write citations from the documents on half-sheets of paper and place them in the corresponding box. These citations may include word lists, or they may be citations of whole phrases or sentences such as would be used to bolster an argument in an essay.
  • The second group will read the other documents (any of the sources except the slave narratives) seeking evidence of the advantages and disadvantages for slave traders and slave owners. Label the 2 boxes "Advantages" and "Disadvantages." Each half of the group will write citations in support of either side and place the half-sheets in the corresponding box.
  • The third group will look at any of the documents they believe are relevant to the issue of abolition. They will label their 2 boxes "Effective" and "Ineffective." Each half of the group will find citations of evidence that the publication of these documents would be effective in supporting abolition efforts, or might be either ineffective or serve as arguments for the continuation of slavery.

Working within the sub-groups, members will go over their findings on each side of the issue for 5–10 minutes. Then the three groups convene and discuss their findings as a whole on each issue. They will use the chart to prepare a summary of the group's findings, perhaps making a 2-column chart. This should take an additional 5—10 minutes.

Then the class comes together to present and discuss each group's findings on their issue. Part of the discussion could be to see if any of the documents a group DID NOT read are relevant to one of the three issues.

Day Two

The class will address the overarching document based question regarding the role of children in slavery during this period, putting all of the evidence together. The discussion is focused on analyzing the evidence as it illuminates the larger question. This discussion should include what the documents DO NOT reveal, and what type of information or documents might shed additional light on the question.

The students then receive the assignment to draft a DBQ essay using the documents, which would address all of the issues as they relate to the larger question. This will be assigned for homework.

Day Three (Optional)

The third class period could be devoted to reading student essays and critiquing their strategies, use of evidence, etc., first in small groups, and then as a class. Students use these critiques to revise their essays for completion of the assignment.


Advanced Students

  • Assign the third discussion group in #4, above, since their task involves all of the primary sources, and requires a more subtle analysis of them.
  • Have students students search for additional documents and images from The Atlantic Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Americas: A Visual Record, compiled by Jerome S. Handler and Michael L. Tuite Jr. Have them locate other images in the collection that may be relevant to the issue of children in the slave trade, and evaluate these sources in terms of their creators' point of view and their use as evidence.

Less Advanced Students
These students can be given more time and team support, or they can be asked to master just one of the three major issues raised in the document based question and use it to write an essay.

How to Cite This Source

Colleen A. Vasconcellos, "Children in the Slave Trade," in Children and Youth in History, Item #141, http://chnm.gmu.edu/cyh/teaching-modules/141 (accessed April 19, 2014).