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You are in: London > History > Abolition > London, sugar and slavery

West India Docks 1814. Courtesy Museum of London

West India Docks 1814. Museum of London

London, sugar and slavery

A new permanent slavery exhibition has opened to the public at the Museum in Docklands but not without a little controversy, writes Kurt Barling

The capital was once the fourth largest slavery ports in the world and second only to Liverpool in Britain. 

But, merchants in London, probably more than in any other financial centre in the world, profited from the slave trade because it was the business hub of the triangular trade.

Slavery is not a comfortable subject for any museum to deal with and there will be those who accuse the curators of the Museum in Docklands of being too political in mounting this permanent exhibition. 

The curators are unapologetic in displaying the barbarity and cruelty of a trade which saw millions of Africans shipped to the New World and fortunes being made by London merchants, amongst others, as a consequence.

The Museum staff approached the subject with a view to including the views and expectations of as many outside experts as possible.

By appointing a group of experts to advise them on the most informed approach they were bound to stray away from the narrow confines of traditional museum culture and protocol.

Colin Prescod, from the Institute for Race Relations and who sat on the advisory panel, takes the view that anything which challenges centuries of misinformation on the relationship between London and the slave trade is bound to be political. 

The “London, Sugar and Slavery” exhibition in some ways de-sanitises some of London's untold involvement in an institution which endured in the British Empire for nearly three hundred years. 

Director David Spence believes it will help new generations of Londoners to better appreciate the contribution made by the slave trade and slaves themselves to Britain's modern prosperity.  

The exhibition also sheds light on the first nationally orchestrated political campaign to force Parliament to bend to the will of ordinary people. 

"The Museum in Docklands is itself part of the story of slavery, or at least the building in which it stands is"

 The widespread boycott of produce manufactured with slave labour forced the government to eventually consider the concerns of the abolitionist movement.

The exhibition puts forward persuasive evidence that 1807 became one of the defining moments in British democratic life where ordinary citizens many of them Londoners put humanity before profit. 

Of course the campaign did not end there because although the transportation of slaves from Africa to the New World may have been stopped but the markets in slaves were not.

Across the British Caribbean slaves were still bought and sold.  It took a further 26 years of campaigning to eventually abolish slavery itself across the British Empire. 

The museum presents evidence of the euphoria surrounding the 1833 Abolition Act but also makes it clear that the slave owners were awarded substantial amounts of compensation for their “loss of property”. 

£20,000,000 of public money was made available to those who lost these important “assets” to emancipation. 

 The government also sanctioned the use of apprenticeships which bound many former slaves to their masters for several more years.

The Museum in Docklands is itself part of the story of slavery, or at least the building in which it stands is.  It is one of the many physical legacies of the slave trade in the capital. 

The building is the last remaining part of West India Quay which was completed in 1802.   The merchants, who invested in the development, did so expressly to protect the product (particularly sugar) and profits of the slave trade. 

Of the 353 original investors putting up a minimum of 500 pounds a piece (that's around £50,000 in today's money), nearly all lived within a few miles of the docks. 

Few areas of the London economy remained untouched by this pernicious trade
Of course one of the most permanent legacies of the slave trade and Empire are the millions of descendants of slaves who now live in Britain.

Cy Grant a great-grandson of a Guyanese slave helped to open the exhibit.   Over the past 60 years he has been a leading contributor to modern multicultural Britain. 

Courtesy of Museum of London

Photo Courtesy of Museum of London

Grant says it is refreshing that a history which has remained for the most part locked in the folklore of individual families can now be openly discussed.

Grant draws a parallel between the collective British amnesia over the slave trade and the forgetfulness of the contributions black servicemen and woman made to the British fight against tyranny in Word War Two. 

Both he believes are symptoms of Britain’s reluctance to give imperial citizens credit for its global status.

Cy Grant found himself a Prisoner of War in Stalag Luft III between 1943 and 1945.  Incarcerated with other RAF officers he was present when the so-called Great Escape took place in 1944.  

After the war he faced the type of blatant discrimination which the Museum exhibit indicates was a direct legacy of attitudes fostered during slavery.  

At another commemorative event held at the Home Office this week the government Minister Vernon Coaker announced that Slavery will now become a compulsory part of the history curriculum in schools. 

Perhaps future generations will now be able to get a more rounded appreciation of the reason Britain is where it is and why it is has long been a nation of many peoples.

Vernon Coaker also claimed that the scandal of modern day human trafficking is a reminder that slavery is not just a horror affecting past generations. 

The British government is renewing its commitment, he said, to eliminating all forms of slavery.

Speaking at the same event the Reverend Jesse Jackson drew on the American experience of civil rights to challenge modern leaders to see that the freedom from slavery was only ever a prerequisite in what he describes as the ongoing struggle to achieve racial equality.

All of these delicate issues inevitably provoke intense views and stimulate strong debate.  Ultimately people have to choose how to engage in this debate. 

In this sense it is intensely political.  For those who prefer their museums plain (some might say sterile) this new permanent exhibit will remain a huge challenge.

last updated: 09/04/2008 at 09:21
created: 15/11/2007

You are in: London > History > Abolition > London, sugar and slavery

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