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Country sheep standing at an outpost

Nursery rhymes are a tool used by education institutions to teach language, stories, composition, and imaginations. Little children are often found crooning these little verses at random occasions. At first glance, these rhymes certainly appear quite random, but there is a rather dark history to their origin.

'Baa Baa Black Sheep' was written in the time of the Trans-Atlantic Slave , at the time when colonization was a fully established movement in many parts of the world. Children in Britain began to sing it in 1879, interestingly, to the same tune as 'Twinkle Twinkle Little Star' and 'Alphabet Song'.


File photo of slave trade during colonisation in Africa Image source: wikimedia commons

If one pays close attention to the rhyme, it addresses a black sheep, which politically is ascribed as a reference to the black man in a white country. Slaves were usually placed on farms and plantations, where they had to work in harsh conditions. Harvesting crops, working with dairy, and shearing sheep would have been the tasks they regularly carried out. calling out to the little black sheep, asking for wool seems likely on the part of the white men and women.

Woolen garments made from black and grey wool, popular in Britain Image source: Photo by Guilia Bertelli on Unsplash

Another possible allusion this rhyme could have been to the Great Custom. During the medieval age in Europe, when England was at the heyday of her wool trade. Again, in the backdrop of colonialism, wool was being exported and imported for cloth. When the Crusades began, Edward I imposed a heavy tax on the people for using wool, to generate extra money to fund the war. The reference to master and dame in the rhyme are possibly to the nobility who might have been able to buy the wool at such exorbitant prices as opposed to the common man ("little boy down the lane").

Today, while little ones sing this rhyme, they know nothing about the history that might have inspired it. It is sung in right earnest about sheep and wool, and many versions have evolved that are far removed from the dark history of the rhyme.


Keywords: Rhymes, Wool, Sheep, Slave Trade, Britain, Great Custom


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