Recently I visited the London, Sugar and Slavery exhibit at the Museum of London Docklands. It was an exhibit I was keen to see but I was also apprehensive, too accustomed to our museums presenting the British Empire as exceptional in its benevolence and focussed on innovation to expect an honest account.
I quickly found my apprehension to be unwarranted. The very first panel opened with the assertion that London’s growth was build upon “one of the greatest crimes against humanity”, and from then on the exhibition was unflinching in showing how, to this day, the wealth of London and the UK is directly linked to the trade of enslaved men, women, and children.
The displays are extremely well laid out, with a lot of thought given to how such a horrific subject should be explained to children. I thought the questions posed to children were excellent at demonstrating how normal people do monstrous things. (E.g. Was this man… (a) a celebrated gardener, (b) an important and influential businessman, or (c) a man who bought and sold men women and children? The answer to which was, of course, all three.)
The panels that show the links between British commerce and the slave trade are particularly good –extensive business networks implicating those who at first glance would appear unconnected. A map of the trade triangle states that in the eighteenth century “half of all Africans transported across the Atlantic into slavery were carried in British ships”; it is impossible to see the displays of ceremonial staves and fine china, the pictures of elaborate buildings, without understanding that British wealth has its foundations in the enslavement of people.
Near the displays of fine china is a case containing the diary of a plantation overseer, a machete, and an iron collar. The overseer writes in a detached, matter-of-fact way about unimaginable punishments. This part of the display seemed to me to be surprisingly small. This may be an understandable choice to avoid torture porn, though if it is a choice it is one I’m conflicted about. I don’t want to see such objects, but I vividly remember doing so when I visited the Slave Museum in Juffureh, Gambia, and the visceral reaction I had to seeing them is one that will stay with me – you may be able to disengage by not fully reading some text but you cannot avoid the horrors such objects evoke.
That tentative criticism aside, the sound and visual display that plays every fifteen minutes is hugely affecting, and a week later I can still hear the voices that echoed around the exhibits. I was also pleased to see that though abolitionism was covered, the influence of the Haitian revolution and the campaigning of freed Africans was given due prominence. That the British abolitionists were not portrayed as unquestionably moral was also refreshing, instead noting how they dissociated themselves from campaigns of self-liberation, and how Wilberforce, while against the slave trade, was opposed to the immediate end of slavery. (He was also opposed to women becoming involved in the abolitionist campaign – he failed, and women are noted to have been influential in the Anti-Slavery Society finally supporting an immediate end to slavery.)
If there was one other display I would have liked to have seen it would have been some information on the research done by the Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slave-ownership at UCL. This research showed that slave-ownership was not exclusive to the upper classes, that “widows, clergymen and shopkeepers; ordinary members of the middle-classes” also owned enslaved people and received compensation when they were freed. The exhibition is good at showing how Britain’s wealth today has its foundations in slavery – showing how widespread slave-ownership was would, I think, help in demonstrating that its legacies are not just to be found in the City or the ports, or in our institutions, but in our culture and society as a whole.
The London, Sugar and Slavery exhibit is one of nine permanent exhibitions at the docklands museum. If you have time for only one of them, make it this one.