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Pupils learn the horror of slavery

Primary school children are marking the bicentenary of the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade with a series of poetry and music events, as Sheree Mack tells Tamzin Lewis.

Primary school children are marking the bicentenary of the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade with a series of poetry and music events, as Sheree Mack tells Tamzin Lewis.

Poet Sheree Mack was right not to underestimate the abilities of 10 and 11-year-olds. Her residencies in three South Tyneside primary schools encouraged children to think about the effects on the human cargo of the transatlantic slave trade.

The results were impressive. When asked what they had discovered about the trade, one pupil responded: "I have learned that fear is the most uncontrollable thing in the world."

Another wrote "I have learned that today in parts of the world children are slaves."

This year marks the bicentennial of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Bill, which was passed by Parliament in 1807. It was not the end of slavery, but was a landmark step on the path to the total abolition of the trade and liberation of slaves.

Sheree, 34, has been working with schools as part of her role as writer-in-residence at Newcastle's Lit & Phil Library. She has spent months researching books and political tracts which relate to slavery, shedding light on the North-East's involvement in the slave trade and its abolition.

This research has inspired Sheree to write poetry which she has used in turn to encourage school children to write their own individual and also collective poems, such as those featured here.

She has also worked alongside Ernie Young of South Tyneside Music Service, who has composed music to be performed by children at three special Masquerade events in Newcastle, South Shields and Gateshead. The musical event will involve drumming, other percussion and a choir.

Working with Mortimer, Toner Avenue and Hedworth Lane primary schools, Sheree explains how she asked children to consider different aspects of the slave trade.

She says: "The idea is to bring history into the present using drama, poetry, music and art and the children have risen to the occasion.

"Sadly, a lot of primary school age children don't know anything about slavery or the slave trade.

"Now this is a compulsory subject from the age of 14 upwards, but it has previously been taught as something which went on in America, without Britain having anything to do with it. I welcome the idea of it as a compulsory subject but it needs to be a broad history.

"A lot of work is going on this year to unearth hidden stories locally and I think this should be fed into the education system. It is all about trying to make people more aware."

Between 1450 and 1850, it is estimated that out of 24 million people enslaved by Europeans in Africa, only 10 million survived to reach the Americas and the Caribbean.

The trade consisted of Europeans exporting manufactured goods to the west coast of Africa, where they were exchanged for slaves. These slaves were then sold for huge profits in the Americas and traders used their profits to buy goods such as sugar, cotton, coffee, tobacco and metals, which were then shipped back and sold in Europe.

Charles Grey, the second Earl Grey, (he of Grey's Monument fame) supported the anti-slavery cause and was Foreign Secretary and Leader of the House of Commons when the Bill for the Abolition of the Transatlantic Slave Trade was passed.

Masquerade will be a mix of music performed by the children, their poems, audience participation and readings by North-East writers including Sheree, Maggie Tate, Pauline Plummer and John Halliday.

The first event will be at Brunswick Methodist Church in Newcastle which was a general meeting place for anti-slavery campaigners in the early 19th Century. Speeches by the Anti-Slavery Society were made there and, in 1820, The Newcastle upon Tyne Society for the gradual abolition of Slavery in the British Dominions was established at the Literary and Philosophical Society.

* Masquerade is at: Brunswick Methodist Church, Newcastle, June 30. Tickets: (0191) 232-1692; Temple Park Leisure Centre, South Shields, July 2 (0191) 456-9119; The Sage Gateshead, July 4 (0191) 443-4661. All performances are at 7pm.

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