Museum In Docklands To Lift Lid On London's Role In The Slave Trade

By 24 Hour Museum Staff | 20 February 2007
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a photograph of a man looking closely at documents

Burt Caesar, actor, director and member of the Museum’s consultative committee developing the new gallery at Museum at Docklands inspects a recently acquired archive detailing London’s central role in the transatlantic slave trade. © Museum In Docklands

Museum in Docklands has revealed details of a new permanent gallery that will expose the forgotten extent to which London profited from the transatlantic slave trade.

The new gallery, called London, Sugar and Slavery, will open in autumn 2007 to mark this year’s bicentenary of the Act to abolish the transatlantic slave trade. It will be the only permanent gallery in London that examines the city’s involvement in transatlantic slavery and its legacy.

The Museum has promised a gallery that will reveal how London’s involvement in slaving and the sugar trade has shaped the capital since the 17th century and will challenge what people think they know about the transatlantic slave trade.

“This is not a history that has been widely told, and yet it is vital to the understanding and appreciation of London’s identity,” said David Spence, Director of Museum in Docklands.

a photograph of a round table

The Buxton Table at which negotiations over the Abolition Act were hammered out. © Museum in Docklands

“The bicentenary isn’t just about black history, it’s about British history. Many people will find it uncomfortable, but to understand this history is to understand many facets of society today, such as attitudes to race, and the melding of British, African and Caribbean culture."

"It also deepens everyone’s knowledge of the factors that have shaped London’s physical, cultural and economic landscape.”

The exhibition promises to debunk the myth that London was a minor player in the trade by showing how it funded much of the city’s industrial and financial success. From Jamaica Road to the Bank of England, from the merchant houses of Blackheath to the nation’s art collections, profits from this most lucrative trade shaped the metropolis.

Between the opening of the West India Dock in 1802 and the British abolition of the slave trade in 1807, official records show that as many as 77 ships sailed from the Dock to West Africa where they purchased over 20,000 enslaved Africans who were transported to the Americas and sold to work on the plantations. Of this number more than 3,000 did not survive the journey.

a photograph of an old ledger with writing in it

The working papers of Thomas Mills and his son, John Mills, former plantation owners and West India Merchants will be featured in the exhibition. © Museum in Docklands

Official records are now thought to underestimate the scale of the trade and it is believed one million enslaved Africans were trafficked by London merchants between 1618 and 1730 making London Britain’s largest slaving port.

“The largest building project in the world in the year 1800 was privately funded by sugar plantation owners who built West India Dock and its warehouses for sugar imported from the West Indies,” said Mr Spence.

The ships returned to the Dock with their cargo of sugar, destined for the boiling houses of Radcliffe Highway and consumption in the coffee houses and kitchens of London.

“Today, Number 1 Warehouse is home to the Museum in Docklands," added Mr Spence. "It is a unique historic artefact that stands as a powerful testament not only to a chapter in the development of British history but also to the history of the African Diaspora.”

an old photograph showing sugar sacks hanging between warehouses

A photograph from the early 1930s shows the continued importance of the sugar trade. Sugar bags in Blood Alley, West India Dock. © Museum in Docklands

London, Sugar and Slavery will also show that it was not just a few evangelical parliamentarians who abolished the transatlantic slave trade, but rather a widespread grass roots movement that included people freed from enslavement.

The words of ex-slaves who wrote about their experiences will be given prominence together with the stories of thousands of ordinary citizens who lobbied collectively. The role of women who campaigned with their purses by boycotting sugar that had been produced by enslaved Africans will also be featured.

Perhaps the most challenging part of the gallery will shed light on the vital role that Africans played in liberating themselves from enslavement. Their resistance to accepting a life of slavery and their rebellions in the Caribbean islands forced the British establishment to re-think its economic and foreign policy and inspired the public to help campaign for abolition.

The gallery will include personal accounts, film, music and over 140 objects including the Buxton Table at which negotiations over the Abolition Act were hammered out, and the recently acquired Mills papers. The latter have helped to shed light on the economic importance of the slave trade in London and include letter books, inventories and invoice sheets for sugar plantations in the West Indies between 1776-1777.

an old photograph showing men hoisting sugar sacks into a warehouse

Hoisting sugar into Warehouses circa 1900. © Museum in Docklands

Visitors will be encouraged to record their own responses to the subject in a video booth and on a comments wall. There will also be a performance area and exhibition space.

London, Sugar and Slavery is part of a series of events and projects planned by the Museum for 2007 and 2008 to commemorate the abolition of the slave trade. Plans also include the announcement of the intention to apply for UNESCO World Heritage status for the Museum building and surrounding area in recognition of its importance as a site of memory for the African Diaspora.

The Museum will also launch a website that unmasks London’s slaving heritage, and stage a specially commissioned play that will be performed in Africa, the Caribbean and Britain – the three corners of the triangular slave trade.

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