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I came across these images of African slaves by accident. I was looking for something else entirely and then – there they were. The problem was that they were in the wrong place and the wrong time. African slaves belong in the 18th century (17th at a pinch), but these were in the Classical Greece gallery at the Ashmolean (1).

African child sleeping with his head against an amphora (pottery model)

Sleeping child (Ashmolean Museum)

Woman’s head (Ashmolean Museum)

Now I know that the ancient Greeks went in for slavery in a big way (Bettany Hughes suggests that between a third and a half of the population of Socrates’ Athens were slaves (2)), but I’d always assumed that they were drawn from neighbouring Hellenic or Mediterranean peoples: definitely no Africans. Yet here they were, working as artisans and craftsmen in a Greek city-state 2,500 years ago.

When I was at school, history was about nations, wars, economics and great men (plus Elizabeth I and Florence Nightingale). History pretty much started with the Greeks and was to do with wars, battles (mainly against the Persians), Alexander the Great and different kinds of columns (Doric, Corinthian and the other one).

Africa wasn’t history. Africa was geography – rivers and mountains and stuff. In history we covered the growth of the North Atlantic “trade triangle” (slaves to America, cotton to Lancashire, tin-trays to Africa). And, whilst we knew that slavery was a nasty business, we probably knew more about the condition of children in English coal mines than American plantations.

Did we learn about the abolition of the slave trade? Probably. Did we learn about the American Civil War? Well we learnt about the Trent affair (which proved that Prince Albert was a great man). Did we mention British blockade runners (not our best national moment)? We certainly didn’t hear about the slaves before or after emancipation (although to be fair, we didn’t hear about the Lancashire Cotton Famine, which was a direct consequence of the War (I’m still cross about this – hungry people have as much right to a history as anyone else)).

Great Zimbabwe (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Hungry people, slaves, the descendents of slaves, Africans, ancient Greeks: everyone has a history, but for too long some people have had more history than others and that diminishes everyone. History has changed since I was at school; African-Americans have seen their history added to the American national story; even Africa has started to acquire a history of complex civilizations, art, architecture and city states. Perhaps, one day, someone will write the history of the little African boy resting his head against a Greek amphora.

Notes: (1) Pottery figures van be seen in the Ashmolean Museum (Gallery 16), both figures are about 2 inches high; (2) Bettany Hughes in  “The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life”, p182; 

Links : Ashmolean Museum, Africans in ancient Greek art (Article, Metropolitan Museum of Art)