London's Museum In Docklands Obtains Unique Slave Trade Archive

By Graham Spicer | 12 December 2006
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photo of a page from a 1777 journal listing names of slaves

The archive helps to explain London's major role in the transatlantic slave trade. © Museum in Docklands

Museum in Docklands has acquired a significant archive of 18th century papers detailing London’s central and lesser-known role in the transatlantic slave trade.

The rare documents were the working papers of Thomas Mills and his son, John Mills, who were West India merchants and plantation owners and cover the periods 1752-1771 and 1776-1777.

“The acquisition of the Mills papers is the most significant addition to the Museum in Docklands’ collection since it opened in 2003 and provides a window into London’s history as a slave port,” said David Spence, director of the museum.

photo of a cover of marbled cover of a book with the words j mills estate at nevis account of working negroes

The Mills' journal records the activity at the family's plantations in St Kitts and Nevis. © Museum in Docklands

The documents help to shed light on the economic importance of the slave trade in London and include letter books, inventories and invoice sheets for the Mills’ sugar plantations in St Kitts and Nevis along with the plantation journal for 1776-1777.

The journal details the daily work of the ‘negroes’ on the estates and lists the names given by plantation managers to them along with their age, employment and ‘condition’, also detailing their rations and treatment as well as the daily quantities of sugar, rum and ‘melasses’ made there.

A small receipt is attached to the book stating the compensation paid by the government after the abolition of slavery in 1834. The sum of just over £872 was not paid to the enslaved Africans, but was remuneration for Mills.

photo of a page from an eighteenth century journal

. © Museum in Docklands

The journal will be on temporary display at the museum until Friday December 22 2006 and the papers will form part of the museum’s permanent slave trade gallery, opening in autumn 2007 during the bicentenary of the abolition of the transatlantic trade.

This will be the only dedicated gallery examining London’s role in the slave trade. It will show how the trade shaped London’s development and how its effects can still be seen in the capital.

photo of an eighteenth century receipt

A receipt is attached to the inside cover of the journal - it details the payment made to the Mills' in compensation for the abolition of slavery. © Museum in Docklands

Burt Caesar, actor, director, and member of the museum’s consultative committee developing the gallery, said:

"For all British citizens of West Indian origin the Mills papers are vital documents in the often hidden or ‘lost’ history of slavery in the islands. As someone born in St Kitts, and now living in London, these papers are even more important.”

“On a personal level, there may be a direct family connection : a ‘Caesar’ is listed in the Mills papers. And on the grander scale of historical legacy, they provide further evidence of the long established link between the West Indies and England. My fellow Kittitians and I are descended from survivors of one side of a brutal and profitable trade which always had London at its centre."

close up photo of a page from an eighteenth century journal with a list of names on it including the name caesar

Burt Caesar's family name appears in the documents. © Museum in Docklands

The museum building itself is housed in a former sugar warehouse at No1 West India Quay, and is one of the most significant surviving buildings involved in the commercial side of the slave trade.

London was a major slave trading port for more than 200 years and records show that around 77 ships sailed from the West India dock to West Africa between the opening of the dock in 1802 and the British government’s abolition of the slave trade in 1807.

Between them they purchased 24,962 Africans who were then taken to the Americas and sold to work on the plantations; a recorded 3,136 did not survive the journey. These Africans were just a fraction of London’s total slave trade.

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