The West India Dock, where the museum is situated, was built in 1802 and paid for by sugar merchants, plantation owners and slave traders. Dockland museum opened in 2003 in a grade I listed early-19th century Georgian warehouses
The museum houses a large collection of historical artefacts’, models, and pictures in 12 galleries and there is also a children’s gallery called the Mudlarks.
The displays are in chronological order The periods covered range from the first port on the Thames in Roman times to the closure of the central London docks in the 1970s and subsequent transformation of the area with commercial and residential developments. The Museum of London Docklands hosts talks and events connected with the docks.
This was London’s first permanent exhibition about the transatlantic slave trade.
Its the story of ‘London, Sugar and Slavery’, its literally in the very bricks and mortar of this four storey museum, a former sugar warehouse built to store produce from the Caribbean.
The gallery, was funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund (£506,500) and Renaissance in the Regions (£230,000.
The exhibits takes in 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.
The exhibition 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.
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.
On display are 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 laid out and is not easy reading.
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.
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.
It is estimated that as many as one in four slave ships experienced a revolt. Regrettably slavery carried on for more years that it should have done.
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