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Doing it for Themselves

United Nations' International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition (23 August)

by Brian Radcliffe

Suitable for Whole School (Sec)


To explore the idea that our future largely lies in our own hands (SEAL theme: Motivation).

Preparation and materials

  • You will need a leader and two readers.
  • You will also need a bag of sugar (it doesn't matter which kind) and a bowl.
  • Have available the song ‘I want to break free’ by Queen and the means to play it at the end of the assembly.


Leader: This  . . . 

pour the sugar from the bag into the bowl

. . .  has been the cause of one of the greatest acts of inhumanity in the history of the human race. It's sugar.

During the eighteenth century, Europe developed a craving for this product, which is grown largely in the Caribbean, particularly on the islands of Jamaica and what is now known as Haiti. As I'm sure you've learned, sugar is a labour-intensive crop. It requires large numbers of workers to cultivate and harvest it. African slaves were brought over to the islands in large numbers to work on the sugar plantations. This was the slave trade.

The 23 August has been designated by the United Nations as a day for us to remember the slave trade and its abolition. Today I'd like us to focus particularly on a series of events that contributed to the ending of this inhuman trade in people.

Reader 1: In 1789, Haiti was known as Saint Domingue and the population consisted of three main groups of people.

Reader 2: First, there were the white colonials, largely French born, who were in control of the sugar and coffee trades.

Reader 1: Next, there were the mixed race mulattoes – the children of French bosses and their slave mistresses. Often mulattoes received good training and education and were given a certain measure of freedom.

Reader 2: Finally, there were the slaves – Africans brought from their home countries by force, exploited and abused. 

Leader: The first two groups appeared to hold all the power. They had to because the slaves outnumbered them by a factor of ten to one. So, the bosses maintained control by a system of extreme violence. Brutally, they exploited the land and the people in order to make their profits.

Something significant was happening on the other side of the world, however.

Reader 1: On 14 July 1789, in France, revolutionaries stormed the Bastille. The French Revolution was in full swing.

Reader 2: On 26 August 1789, in France, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen was published, which declared that all men are to be free and equal.

Leader: The French bosses on Saint Domingue took this to mean that they could now assume total control of their island, without reference to any officials back home in France. 

Reader 1: The mulattoes took this to mean that they were the equals of their bosses and began to press for a share of control.

Reader 2: The slaves took this to mean that they deserved their freedom from a brutal and oppressive regime.

Leader: It all came to a head during the night of 22 to 23 August 1791, when groups of slaves, under the leadership of mulattoes, revolted and overcame their bosses. There was horrendous bloodshed, many battles involving French, British and Spanish forces, but, within five years, Haiti became a free republic.

You're probably thinking that this assembly is nothing but a history lesson. In one sense you'd be right – we're dealing here with events that happened well over 200 years ago – but the United Nations encourages us to look back at those events and do three things.

Reader 1: First, we can look into what happened. Maybe we've never heard of the slave rebellion in what is now Haiti. Finding out about it does help us to realize that it was, to a great extent, slaves themselves who initiated the ending of the slave trade. Also, what happened in Haiti had an influence all over the world. Other slave groups rebelled. Supporters in Europe and America raised the issue with their governments. It took a long time, but, eventually, slavery was abolished.

Reader 2: Second, it encourages us to consider the fact that, even today, there are men, women and children who live like slaves. The news frequently features stories about slavery, not only in Africa and Asia, but also in our own country. There are immigrants whose passports are confiscated by unscrupulous gangsters who then force them to work for little or no pay, in degrading conditions. 

Leader: Finally, we're encouraged to realize that, just like those slaves in Haiti, we have a role to play in shaping our own lives. They didn't wait for the bosses to change or the revolutionary government in France to change their situation. When they realized that they had the right to be free and equal, they took it into their own hands to gain their freedom. They took the initiative.

Time for reflection

Are you satisfied with your life right now or are there aspects you'd like to change?


Who's going to make those changes happen?


What can you do to start the ball rolling?


Those slaves began the process that resulted in their freedom. Maybe today we can also start something that will change our lives forever.

Dear Lord,
Thank you for the possibility of change.
Thank you for those people who want to help us.
May we have the courage to initiate the process ourselves.


‘I want to break free’ by Queen

Publication date: August 2015   (Vol.17 No.8)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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