Diving with a Purpose: History and the Slave Trade

Sep 21, 2021 10:07:00 AM / by Dr. Michael Woolf

"Thoughts on Education Abroad" is a monthly column written by CAPA The Global Education Network's Deputy President and Chief Academic Officer Dr. Michael Woolf.


This month, Dr. Woolf  looks into the history of slave trade around the world and discusses how intellectual responsibility and radical empathy allow us to be more aware. He also highlights how experience and having knowledge of history, technology, and science can help us understand reality better.

Enslaved: Recovering the Past

We have voices to speak for the millions who lost theirs.
Kramer Wimberley

I have been watching a remarkable series of documentaries“Enslaved: The Lost History of the Transatlantic Slave Trade.” These have been organized by a United Nations Outreach Program and feature Samuel L. Jackson, who is partly responsible for the funding. The director, Simcha Jacobovici, is the Israeli son of Holocaust survivors. Afua Hirsch is an investigative journalist who guides the viewer into sites in which the presence of the slave trade remains palpable. The Lead Instructor of Diving with a Purpose, Kramer Wimberley, appears throughout and brings moral coherence to the series. A shared objective is embedded in the mission of that organization, to reveal, respect, and commemorate the suffering of the enslaved. Undersea archaeology exposes relics from the many boats that sunk during transportations. These relics restore some kind of individuality to nameless victims; the past becomes the means of creating moral consciousness in the present.

Director, Simcha Jacobovici; Samuel L. Jackson, co-executive producer, and journalist/presenter Afua Hirsch

Caption: Director, Simcha Jacobovici; Samuel L. Jackson, co-executive producer, and journalist/presenter Afua Hirsch.

Photo 2

Caption: Diving with a Purpose identifying remains of sunken slave ships.

The programs reveal any number of surprising pieces of information. We knew that the slave trade was a flourishing global business involving most European countries. Less well known, I suspect, is the fact that of the 12–15 million people enslaved, almost half were sent to Brazil and over 35% to the Caribbean. Estimated numbers suggest that around 4% were sent to America and almost 15% to Spanish America.

The scale of resistance by the enslaved also counters the stereotype of passive endurance and helpless subjugation. Slave ships were designed to make resistance almost impossible. However, as many as 1 in 10 ships saw uprisings of some kind or another.

Photo 3

Caption: Amistad Revolt - July 1839.

One route along the Underground Railroad led to ferry boats that sailed the Great Lakes. The Reed family, committed abolitionists, owned a luxury fleet and captains such as James Nugent, John Burnham, and Thomas Jefferson Titus, aided by legal interventions from Judge Rush R. Sloane (1828–1908), ensured that many of the escaped slaves who reached Cleveland or Sandusky in Ohio were able to find freedom in the town of St. Catherine’s across the border in Ontario, Canada. Escapees were disguised as workers on the “freedom boats.” Both St. John’s Church in Cleveland and the northern depot at Sandusky were known as “Station Hope,” a final stop on the Underground Railroad.

Those who aided escapees on the Great Lakes risked imprisonment and fines in contrast to the rewards available for those who gave up the escaped slaves. They deserve, but do not have, the kind of recognition afforded the figures who rescued Jews in the Holocaust: their own Yad Vashem, a memorial to the righteous.

The Raid on Combahee River in South Carolina, on June 2, 1863, during the Civil War is another event dimmed by time. Harriet Tubman guided 150 Black Union soldiers on an attack that aimed to rescue slaves, recruit men into the Union Army, and destroy wealthy rice plantations. More than 700 enslaved people were liberated.

Photo 4

Caption: The Raid on Combahee River.

One of director Jacobovici’s intentions in making “Enslaved” is to counter “collective amnesia” about these histories. He also exposes the degree of complicity that ran through the fabric of global economics. There is a direct link, for example, between the fashion for the coffee house in Europe in the 17th and 18th century and the slave trade. The coffee plantations in the British colonies of Barbados and Jamaica were worked by enslaved Africans. The increasing popularity of coffee, tea, and chocolate stimulated the trade in sugar produced on Brazilian and American plantations. Indeed, there was a direct correlation between the price of sugar and the price of slaves.

Kramer Wimberley points out that around 1,000 slave ships were lost at sea. Marine archaeology is driven by the need to recognize the past by “searching for our ancestors.” Jacobovici offers related imperative: “I take ‘never again’ very seriously.” For both, knowing about the past is more than important research; it is a moral imperative.

Never Again

African history didn’t start with slavery. African history was interrupted by slavery.
Kramer Wimberley

Knowledge of the past is a pre-condition for avoiding the barbarism of the past. “Never again” means nothing unless we are aware of the histories, poetry, memoirs, and lost artifacts of those who suffered. Marine archaeology recognizes the significance of relics; they objectify memory and acknowledge the humanity of the dispossessed. But, archaeology is also a metaphor for unearthing otherwise buried human experience. To do so, it is necessary to listen to the voices of those who came before us. Diving with a Purpose is a literal and metaphorical action.

These explorations demonstrate the need for alignment of scientific methodologies, technical precision, and creative historical research: interdependence upon integrated modes of thought and action. Nevertheless, populist political rhetoric elevates the value of STEM subjects at the expense of other forms of knowledge, a distinction further enforced by differential funding. We are witnessing a widespread international assault on the value of the arts and humanities.

In my own country, for example, Gavin Williamson, the Secretary of State for Education in Boris Johnson’s government has announced major cuts in arts education with a smug indifference to the fact that the annual contribution of the creative arts to the UK economy is estimated at £111bn.[1] In Skills, Jobs and Freedom (an odd, troubling collocation), Williamson asserts that:

The record number of people taking up science and engineering demonstrates that many are already starting to pivot away from dead-end courses that leave young people with nothing but debtand our reforms will open the way for them to embrace the opportunities offered by degree apprenticeships, higher technical qualifications, modular learning and our flagship Institutes of Technology. [2]

The dismissive term “dead-end courses” typifies a persistent prejudice.

In The Guardian, journalist Gaby Hinsliff asks “Is Boris Johnson really going to sacrifice arts degrees for the Conservative cause?” She observes that: 

There seems little room in Williamson’s vision for considering what teenagers actually like and are good at, or what society values more than money, or the fact that if every 18-year-old chose to read maths tomorrow then the earnings premium attached to that subject might not survive a market suddenly flooded with mathematicians. [3]

Gavin Williamson has a degree in Social Sciences from the University of Bradford. 

Boris Johnson read Literae Humaniores at Balliol College, Oxford, the study of the Classics, ancient literature and philosophy. 

STEM and the Humanities

I have great respect for the cluster of disciplines collected under the general heading of STEM. There are any number of examples of the ways in which scientific intervention has improved our lives and there is no need for me to go through endless reiteration. A few, perhaps less obvious examples, will suffice. 

Electric light fundamentally altered urban experience. For Dickens, Conan Doyle, James Thompson and other recorders of nineteenth century London society, darkness brought danger, hidden, illicit activity. Street lighting turned the night into space for entertainment and social interaction. Urban space was transformed.

The development of railways shrunk geographical space, brought some prosperity, created the British seaside,  and developed the USA as a nation. Mobility, for entertainment, education, and commerce, became possible for a much wider section of the population than was previously possible. For the Victorians, the railway became a symbol of progress.

Photo 5

Caption: Technological progress.

I need say little about the advance in medicine from the barber-surgeon (the red on the traditional barber poles represents blood) to the experts who save and improve all of our lives. Thinking of the dentist in this context is seriously disturbing.

Photo 6

Caption: The traditional barber’s pole.

Where would be without the computer? Despite the ominous presence of HAL 9000 in the1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey, we have control. We can switch it off. Humans cannot do what computers do, at least not at the same speed but computers can never what we do, express emotions, love and hate, cry and laugh, hope and fear, imagine things not as they are but as they might become. People made computers. Computers did not make people. 

But, there are ambiguities. Science has increased our capacity for slaughter in an astonishingly short time. The Gatling Gun in the American Civil War was capable of firing more bullets more rapidly than ever before. The Holocaust saw the industrialization of genocide. The Atomic Bomb and beyond offers a dystopian vision. Science brings hope for the future and fear of a man-made apocalypse. Invention has brought both better life and more efficient death.

In imagination and history, there are scientists and doctors who represent corrupted distortions, heightened by our expectation that these professions are committed to wellbeing and health. Sax Rohmer’s Dr. Fu Manchu combined oriental wiliness with scientific depravity, as did Ian Fleming’s Dr No. Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen (1862–1910) became famous not only for the murder of his wife but, ironically as the first murderer caught by the relatively new scientific invention of wireless telegraphy. In our time, Dr. Harold Shipman (1946–2004), was found guilty of 15 murders though estimates of his real number of victims go as high as 250.

Albert Einstein, probably the most influential scientist of the modern era was awarded The Nobel Prize in Physics in 1921. A refugee from Nazi persecution, he also well understood the perverse potential in science:

Penetrating research and keen scientific work have often had tragic implications for mankind, producing, on the one hand, inventions which liberate man from exhausting physical labor …but on the other hand …making him a slave to his technological environment, and—most catastrophic of all—creating the means for his own mass destruction. [4]

Further, his recognition of the significance of the humanities represents a profound refutation of the idea of a hierarchy of knowledge. 

It is not enough to teach man a speciality. Through it he may become a kind of useful machine, but not a harmoniously developed personality. It is essential that the student acquire an understanding of and a lively feeling for values. He must acquire a vivid sense of the beautiful and of the morally good. Otherwise he—with his specialized knowledge—more closely resembles a well-trained dog than a harmoniously developed person. He must learn to understand the motives of human beings, their illusions, and their sufferings in order to acquire a proper relationship to individual fellow-men and to the community. [5]

No pursuit of knowledge is without ambiguity. The line between what we understand as magic and what we call science has moved throughout our history. Imagination and technology are not opposites but interdependent ways of understanding reality. Who would read books without the democratization of printing? It takes a particular kind of intellectual blindness to argue that one form of knowledge is superior to another. By painful experience, we have learned that scientific thinking does not suffice to solve the problems of humanity. If we seek to undo injustice, to decolonize thought, the tools are demonstrably those primarily derived from the humanities. We cannot discover injustice in a laboratory.

Our lives are enriched by experience beyond functionality. Knowledge of books, music, theater, art, and so on gives us leisure that is richer than ignorance. Simply put we need chemists and physicists. We need historians and literate humans. Understanding contemporary reality calls for the integration of diverse perspectives. This is an interdisciplinary world.

Consequences of ignorance of the past are dramatically demonstrated in “Enslaved.” Other examples abound. Donald Trump’s slogan “America First” recalled, if you knew it, the “American First” movement of 1940–1941 which opposed American intervention in World War II and became dominated by Nazi sympathizers such as Charles Lindbergh. Had the Russian, American, and British governments understood something of Afghan history, thousands of lives would have been saved and much misery averted.

In education abroad, history has a central place if we hope to teach students something about where they are studying and where they come from. If we know nothing of the past that has formed us, we may be tempted to believe that we occupy a unique personal universe. Instead, we are all raindrops in a storm.

What would it mean if what we know of the past now is all that we will ever know, if no further research or teaching is properly funded? We would live in a perpetual, ill-informed present. Blind to what brought us to this point. Deaf to the voices who speak from that past. George Romero produced a series of films that began with Night of the Living Dead in 1968 and continued through several iterations. The common theme is the threat of zombies upon increasingly menaced remnants of conscious humanity. Zombies do not know who they are, where they are, or where they came from. They have lost their humanity.

Einstein’s metaphor of the “trained dog” is, like that of the zombie, an appropriate metaphor for the body without some consciousness of the past.

The Biggest Problem

You have to make a space to talk to the dead, to welcome them in.
Edmund de Waal [6]

Jacobovici’s principle of “never again” can only work if you know what happened in the past. It takes diving with a purpose, radical empathy and imagination to feel the pain of others. The alternative is that the anguish of the dead, the injustices inflicted upon them, will become indistinct shadows. Lost in a mist of ignorance. Without some knowledge of human history, we are factory-farmed animals who see only what is immediately in front of us, living in cruel cages unaware of the world beyond. 

All educators have an intellectual and moral responsibility to oppose stupidity and prejudice. If there is no support for the study of history and other critical humanities, that which is buried will remain so. Those who denigrate these as minor, secondary, irrelevant fields of study, “dead-end courses,” promote blindness and deafness, zombie sensibilities. A fool is still a fool whether wearing the trappings of power or not.


[1] According to government statistics at DCMS Sectors Economic Estimates 2018: GVA - GOV.UK (


[3] The Guardian, 20 May 2021, 

[4] “A Message to Intellectuals,” August 29, 1948, 

[5] Einstein, Ideas and Opinions, trans. Sonja Bargmann, New York: Three River Press,1954, p. 66.

[6] Letters to Camondo, London: Chatto and Windus, 2021, p. 112.


Thanks, Mike!

CAPA_Michael Woolf Headshot

Dr. Michael Woolf is Deputy President for Strategic Development of CAPA: The Global Education Network. Mike has had much of his career in an international context. Prior to working in mainstream international education, he completed a PhD in American Studies and taught literature at the universities of Hull, Middlesex, Padova, and Venice. For four years he worked as a researcher-writer for BBC radio. He has held leadership roles in international education for many years and has written widely on international education and cultural studies. Much of his work has focused on areas of strategic development with particular focus on the status and credibility of education abroad within the wider academic community. He serves on a number of boards and was a member of the Board of Directors of The Forum on Education Abroad from 2006 to 2012. He was the recipient of the Peter A. Wollitzer Advocacy Award (2020) from the Forum on Education Abroad. 'Thoughts on Education Abroad' is a monthly column of short essays sharing his thoughts and expertise on the subject.


Topics: London, England, International Education