London, Sugar & Slavery Opens At Museum In Docklands

By Sara Wajid | 09 November 2007
poster showing red and white bags of sugar with the logo 'London Sugar and Slavery' on it

London, Sugar and Slavery is Museum in Docklands’ new permanent gallery exploring the capital's dark past – and its role in the transatlantic slave trade.

Sara Wajid looks at Museum in Docklands’ new gallery exploring London’s dark past – and its role in the transatlantic slave trade.

Museum in Docklands has opened London’s first permanent exhibition about the transatlantic slave trade. The story of ‘London, Sugar and Slavery’, as the new space is called, is literally in the very bricks and mortar of this four storey museum, a former sugar warehouse built to store produce from the Caribbean.

The West India Dock, where the museum is situated, was built in 1802 and paid for by sugar merchants, plantation owners and slave traders.

Now this ambitious gallery, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund (£506,500) and Renaissance in the Regions (£230,000), puts the ‘trade’ firmly back into ‘slave trade’. Through 140 objects, art, film, a sound and light installation, traditional exhibition panels and interactive screens the visitor is left in no doubt of the economic importance of sugar and the slave trade to London, once the fourth largest slaving port in the world.

black and white photo of a warehouse with lots of horse drawn carts, barrels and sacks in front of it

No.1 Warehouse West India Quay in 1910

The high-tech gallery opens with an understated black and white chart. The column headings are self-explanatory: name of ship, tons, captain, principal owner, cleared port of London, embarked African slaves, number of enslaved Africans, destination.

This simple list speaks volumes: the ships listed from a single decade fill the wall, giving the visitor an immediate sense of the scale of the trade. In the ‘number of enslaved Africans’ column, 960 is recorded for one ship. The destination, Demerera, in this context, is almost poetic.

Ships sailed from London to West Africa, where they bought enslaved Africans, travelled onto the Caribbean to sell them and buy sugar before returning to London. This broad global history is consistently balanced against the small, domestic, local one.

photo of a brick warehouse

The warehouse in its current incarnation as Museum in Docklands

As Professor Catherine Hall, advisor on the gallery says, “‘London, Sugar & Slavery’ has helped me to think about my city; how the fruits of slavery are built into the environment in which we live; and how relationships between people, right into the present, have been shaped by that history. The gallery is a must for all Londoners.”

Delicate abolitionist sugar bowls, glass trading beads made in Hammersmith and clay tobacco pipes in the form of African heads sit alongside maps, timelines and highly crafted 1,000-year-old West African artefacts.

Bit by bit, the seemingly incomprehensible crime against humanity is made comprehensible. It is at once Afro-centric and London-centric.

photo of the bowls of three clay pipes in the shape of men's heads

Tobacco pipe bowls moulded in the form of African heads were very common in the 1800s. © Museum in Docklands

Until the 1600s sugar was regarded as a luxury commodity only available to the wealthy. After 1700 drinking coffee became increasingly popular in England and the demand for sugar increased.

Imports to Britain expanded by 800 per cent and merchants quickly realised that fantastic profits could be made from sugar production. But it required a mass supply of cheap labour.

By the late 1600s London’s slave trade activity on the west coast of Africa was organised by the Royal Africa Company and after 1750 by the Company of Merchants Trading to Africa. Over 3,100 ships departed from London to carry nearly a million Africans into slavery.

an engraving showing slave traders bartering over an enslaved African on a shoreline

Engraving by JR Smith after a painting by G Morland 1788. Unusually it shows an African slave trader in the background. © Museum in Docklands

Learning this history while standing in the very dock from where slave ships set sail does shift your sense of the city.

The story may be about sugar, but sugar-coated it is not. Manacles and graphic images of torture produced by the abolitionist movement are on display. For the accidental or casual visitor this is a clear, responsible and engaging introduction to a potentially overwhelming history.

a gallery shot showing a round table before a glass cabinet

One of the newly-designed galleries

But even an informed visitor should find something new. For instance the 1814 engraving by JR Smith shows a highly unusual depiction of an African slave trader.

Interpretive devices such as the specially commissioned short film by director Stephen Rudderwhich shows Londoners reciting the words of abolitionist Olaudah Equiano help emphasise that African people were the prime agents of resistance to slavery.

painting of a man wearing breeches and tights surrounded by barrels

A Portrait of Lloyd Gordon as Robert Wedderburn by Paul Howard, (2007) © David Parry/PA. The new portrait of Wedderburn, activist and abolitionist, by Paul Howard, has been commissioned as a response to the Museum’s painting of George Hibbert, slaver and chairman of the West India Dock Company, by Sir Thomas Lawrence (1811)

In fact, it is now estimated that as many as one in four slave ships experienced a revolt. Finally, be sure to spend at least 14 minutes in the gallery to catch the unmissable sound installation: your visit isn’t complete without it.

To comment on the issues raised by the gallery, visit the 'London, Sugar & Slavery' website.

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