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24 September 2014

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You are in: London > TV > Television > TV Features > London's slave paper trail

Documents at Docklands Museum

Documents at Docklands Museum

London's slave paper trail

For 250 years one family has kept the evidence of its involvement in the 18th and 19th century slave trade tucked away in private family records.

For 250 years one family has kept the evidence of its involvement in the 18th and 19th century slave trade tucked away in private family records.  

Now this family record of the past has gone on display at the Museum in Docklands.  

As Kurt Barling writes, the daily books of occurrences from one of the Mills family plantations on the Caribbean island of St Kitts and Nevis offer a rare glimpse into London’s active involvement in the slave trade.  

It is a rare find but unlikely to be unique.   Across Britain there are probably other personal archives that have yet to come to light, so prevalent was the entrepreneurial enterprise which led to so many Africans being enslaved in the New World.

The Mills Papers are in remarkably good condition.  They cover a period of nearly thirty years over which the Mills plantations prospered.   Hand written in several specially prepared notebooks is a record of the daily activities on the estates in the West Indies.

The books illustrate quite simply how organised and everyday the business of running a plantation with slave labour was.  The ledger books are printed in a fashion like any accountancy book would be to be purchased off the shelf.  

Whilst some of the pre-printed pages record the numbers of steers and heads of cattle, and other necessaries, the most glaring one is “the list of negroes on the estate”.   All these slaves were accorded first names.   Not an African one amongst them. 

All the children are given ages although no one over six has their age recorded.  It is not yet known why.

The rare archive is a two-way record of the plantation managers’ observations for the benefit of John Mills, owner of the estates, who by then had returned to London a wealthy man.   There is also the letters outlining John Mills’ responses. 

The 18th century papers illustrate how central was London’s often overlooked role in the transatlantic slave trade.

Such was the profitability of the slave economies of the West Indies that within two generations many plantation families bought their way into the landed gentry and Parliament.  

Docklands Museum

The Mills family business was sited opposite Bishopsgate Church at 2 Great St Helen’s and was a short walk from one of the finest regency Crescents built in London and still standing just behind the London Metropolitan University site at Tower Hill. 

No.11 The Crescent was the former office of Camden, Calvert and King London’s biggest slave trading company.  The Crescent was built as an investment by the company.  Property has always been a “safe-as-houses” proposition in the capital. 

Once the trade was abolished in 1807, Camden Calvert and King soon became one of the leading shipping companies transporting prisoners to Australia.

The papers have potentially huge historic significance.   Until historians have analysed them much will remain unknown. 

The implication is for understanding London’s role in the triangular trade; where ships left the London docks to transport slaves to the New World and then return laden with the produce that the slave economies were busy cultivating.

Intriguingly there is also an addendum note at the front of one of the books accounting for the 872 pounds, ten shillings and seven and a half pence compensation paid by the British government to the Mills family on emancipation in 1833.  

This sum is equivalent to around £100,000 in today’s currency.  Such was the exactitude of the economic return demanded to free British slaves.   

The Museum in Docklands is ironically a testament to that profitability.    It is housed in West India Quay which was part of a docks development proposed to George III in 1799.   Finally gaining consent in 1800 the new state of the art docks at West India Quay were built by 1802 funded by venture capital from the City of London.   There is still a plaque commemorating this at the entry to the modern Quay on Hertsmere Road.

These docks allowed an inbound quay for ships unloading sugar, tobacco, rice, spices and other goods to be stored safely and an outbound quay where goods could be loaded for dispatch.  

It is estimated that in the years 1802 to 1807 when the slave trade itself was outlawed by parliament 77 ships sailed from the dock to West Africa where they purchased 24,962 Africans from African slave sellers who were then transported to the Caribbean. 3136 Africans were recorded as not surviving the journey.

It is not at all easy to glean much about the lives and personalities of the enslaved Africans from the papers; they were designed as an inventory not character profiles.

One extraordinary irony of the Mills Papers is that they’ve come to the Museum in Docklands at a time when they are being advised by black actor Burt Ceasar on the plans for a permanent exhibition on slavery in the capital. 

Burt is a Kittitian; a person who hails from St Kitts.   He is a descendant of slaves and like many West Indians, living in societies that place great store on genealogy in tracing family heritage, the journey can rarely be taken back beyond the 1800s.   

There is a tantalising prospect in the Mills Papers that Burt may have identified information about his ancestors.  This has yet to be confirmed, but the prospect of this genealogical jigsaw giving Burt a route back to his African origins is profoundly moving.

St Kitts is full of slave folklore precisely because the records have largely been unavailable to build a more comprehensive picture of its African past.   In common with much of the Caribbean outside Guyana the African story is not well told.

One such folkloric tale is of recently enslaved Africans walking on mass into the sea to drown themselves, much to the consternation of their owner planters, in the belief that their souls would continue on and return to Africa. 

In one of the ledger books the name Ceasar appears as a six year old boy.  Many of the other names are also familiar to Burt as the surnames of children he was at school with on St Kitts thirty years ago.  It is not an exact science when the African’s were recorded as property rather than human beings but for Burt it is he says an important start in rebuilding the history of those two communities.

The Mills family went into politics and they built a lot of property as investment.   The story of that family is also not clear from the papers.   There is still a lot of information yet to be discovered which will clarify this truthful past. 

But as the Mills Papers show our diverse present in the capital is umbilically linked with Britain’s slave owning past.

last updated: 19/05/2008 at 18:24
created: 19/12/2006

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