How We Moved the Goalposts (Part Three): Curriculum reform with Nelson Mundell

Credit: Julia Rosner

Briony Farrell

In a three-part series, Guardian contributor Briony Farrell ties her research into female beneficiaries of the Atlantic Slave Trade with discussions centred on historical erasure and reform of the school curriculum.

As public awareness of Scotland’s dark colonial past begins to grow, the holes in our school curriculum have become ever more apparent. A large part of Scotland’s failure to understand and recognise its role in slavery comes from the lack of teaching that takes place on the topic at school level, and while petitions, short videos and essays have been shared on the topic of changing history education in British schools, these are actually referring only to the shared English and Welsh curriculum, and Scottish history has – so far – remained relatively untouched.

When I discussed this issue with Nelson Mundell – one of the researchers behind the graphic novel Freedom Bound – he provides interesting insights into the shortcomings within the history curriculum in Scotland. Having worked alongside Professor Simon Newman, Freedom Bound follows the interconnected stories of three enslaved people living in pre-abolition Scotland and was designed with the intention of educating students on the history of slavery within their own country.

Mundell, who alongside his PhD candidacy works as a secondary school teacher, was inspired to create Freedom Bound as “a means of encouraging students, particularly those who struggle with standard reading, to engage with Scotland’s multicultural and complex past.” He found that using graphic novels as a medium to engage students in a simple and thought-provoking manner made for a powerful and impactful learning experience for pupils.

Mundell and Newman’s work on the Runaway Slaves in Britain project uncovered hundreds of individuals who, despite being abducted  from their own country, demonstrated agency and resisted slavery and servitude by running away from their masters and mistresses. Stories such as these help us to move past the typical portrayal of the enslaved as passive victims, when in fact they showed enormous strength both within the merciless grips of bound labour and through their resistance in completely foreign environments.

By transferring their research into this tool for learning, Mundell and Newman aspire to impact the young people of Scotland, with Mundell believing that “education is key if we are to progress as a forward-thinking society”.

Working with Warren Pleece, who had previously illustrated the graphic novel Incognegro, and BHP, a Glasgow based graphic novel press with a focus on diversity, Newman and Mundell provided the research behind the three interlinked tales covered within the book.

Whilst the intention behind the novel was to create an effective learning and teaching tool to complement what is being done in schools, Mundell believes that any progress made in understanding Scotland’s role in slavery has to be matched by inclusion in the SQA curriculum.

Mundell points out that though there is an Atlantic Slave Trade topic at National and Higher History, it fails to mention Scotland’s role within plantation ownership or the impact that slavery wealth had on the development of the country. Whilst the slaving ports of Bristol, Liverpool and London are mentioned, Glasgow is not, and the overall involvement of Scotland is certainly lacking. This topic does make an effort to discuss the horrors of the middle passage and the unimaginable living and working conditions on the plantations across the New World yet does little to emphasise the role of Scots in creating these systems of profiteering, as its focus falls on the years 1770-1807.

Indeed, the largest section of the Atlantic Slave Trade topic centres around when abolitionist campaigning began to gain widespread support both within and outwith Parliament, and more of the nation began to grapple with the moral wrongs of slavery. However, the topic fails to focus on Britain’s role in creating and expanding the slave trade, plantation economies and the institution of chattel bound labour.

Mundell argues that “A greater awareness of Scotland’s role in slave ownership, how we benefitted then and how we still benefit as a society today, can only be a good thing. There are many great areas of history available in schools, but few cover a topic that has such a large legacy and still impacts our day to day interactions with one another.”

He points out that nobody is asking schools to teach students to feel direct guilt about our country’s heritage, there is no use in that. Instead, recognising the legacies of the slave trade, plantation ownership and the degree to which Scotland benefitted – and still benefits – from this wealth helps to aid our understanding of the complexities of today’s society and the enduring inequalities that remain.

Mundell highlights that this failure to discuss Scotland and Britain’s large-scale role in slavery is “part of a wider problem within the curriculum, that of the Western focus of the current SQA curriculum, with only small areas addressing the misdeeds of Britain and Scotland’s colonial past. Likewise, there are many areas that our history curriculum could cover which are not yet given a look in – there are no direct links made to black history.”

There is an overarching failure to discuss the discrimination faced by people of colour throughout British history, such as the Mangrove Nine, a group of black British activists tried for starting a riot at a protest against the police’s targeting of the Mangrove Restaurant in Notting Hill – an important meeting place for black intellectuals and campaigners. Likewise, there is no mention of the key input made by black people throughout British history, despite the prejudice they constantly faced.

We can point to black British subjects who fought for the Allies in the Second World War or the Windrush generation who migrated to Britain as part of its post-war rebuilding efforts. These individuals helped to return Britain to its leading role in the world, but they were still maligned by the government, the press, and the people. These groups serve as just a few examples of the contributions made by black people that remain largely overlooked in the school curriculum.

Mundell highlights the view that teachers have all been extremely positive about the Freedom Bound project including the workshops and teaching resources that have been created alongside it. He remains hopeful that it will be a learning tool that will be used in schools for many years to come.

“Resources such as Freedom Bound can only complement what is being done in schools to an extent, and any progress made in understanding Scotland’s role needs to be matched in coverage from within the SQA and the Social Studies benchmarks in the Broad General Education. A greater light on Scotland’s and Britain’s colonial misdeeds is long past due.”

Mundell notes that amongst the measures he would like to be implemented, the Coalition for Racial Equality and Rights suggested the following benchmark to be added as an addition to current standards:

I understand Scotland’s historical role in empire, colonialism and transatlantic slavery, and the diversity of Scottish society in the past.

In an increasingly global and informed world – and especially considering the heightened interest on black history currently, it seems incredibly backward and parochial to focus purely on Western history. Mundell makes it clear that he is “not seeking to apportion blame on SQA, but to change how the past is being portrayed at an education level.”

While it remains important for students to discuss and appreciate their own Scottish roots and heritage – including positive aspects of this history – room must be made in the school curriculum for honest conversations about the more uncomfortable actions of Scotland’s imperial past.


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