Teaching Module

Children in the Slave Trade


The primary sources are designed to provide a well-rounded examination of children's experiences in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The sources written by Olaudah Equiano, Venture Smith, and Ottobah Cugoano are excerpts of their published accounts of their personal experiences in the slave trade as children. Each of these sources offers a different perspective that will be of great value to students. While Venture Smith and Olaudah Equiano were rescued some time after their kidnappings, Ottobah Cugoano worked in the fields of a West Indian Plantation before obtaining his freedom in England. Equiano's narrative is particularly important, because (despite his young age) Equiano made the Middle Passage in the hold of the ship rather than in private quarters with the rest of the children.

By juxtaposing these narratives against images of the slave trade, students can begin to understand the brutalities of enslavement. In the first image, students see children chained in the same manner as adults in a slave coffle, which they can relate to Equiano's narrative. A second image depicts an advertisement for a slave ship that had recently docked in Charleston harbor listing an equal number of children and adults for sale, while a third shows a great number of children in the cargo of the liberated slave ship, Dhow. These two images, combined with quantitative evidence on the estimated number of children who traveled from Africa to the Americas from the 16th to the 19th centuries enable students to see shifts in supply and demand as more children entered the trade beginning in the 18th century. Students can then read the Dolben's Act of 1788, an English law that helped contribute to an increased number of girls and children in the trade.

Lastly, students can see the growing demand for children in an excerpted request made by Playden Onely to the members of the Royal African Company in 1721 for 130 children to be taken from West Africa to the West Indies for sale as slaves further supports the quantitative evidence supplied. After the success of this voyage, Onely contracted the RAC to deliver 500 children annually to specifically designated ports. While we have no evidence to support whether these voyages actually took place or for how long, Onely's contract request shows a growing demand for children before abolitionist sentiment came to a head in the late 18th, early 19th centuries, contrary to the accepted belief that children were a risk on Atlantic plantations.

Discussion Questions

  • After reading excerpts from Equiano, Smith, and Cugoano, do you think that children received special treatment during the Middle Passage based on their age or size? Why or why not? Does the image of the slave coffle change or support your opinion?
  • Prior to the threat that abolitionists posed to the future of the slave trade in the middle of the 18th century, children were seen as risky investments by slave traders and plantation owners. Why do you think that this was the case? What risks would children have posed?
  • After abolitionism began to threaten the slave trade, and plantation owners began to fear its demise, children were no longer seen as risky investments. Why the change in planter and trader opinion? What benefit could a child bring to a trader or plantation owner? Why would children suddenly make a good investment?

How to Cite This Source

Colleen A. Vasconcellos, "Children in the Slave Trade," in Children and Youth in History, Item #141, https://cyh.rrchnm.org/items/show/141 (accessed August 10, 2021).