The Museum of London at Docklands is a fascinating place telling the story of the East End of London. The galleries on London’s link to slavery are, in my opinion, the most important part of the whole place. Telling this part of Britain’s story is so important if we are to understand the culture and times we live in. However, as Margaret MacMillan points out in her excellent book, ‘Uses and Abuses of History’, nations like to shape their history around the narrative that suits their purposes; the ‘bad bits’ are often left out.
It is to the credit of this museum, then, that this dark aspect of the past is explored in such detail. The exhibition is called ‘London, Sugar and Slavery’ and the link between the economic link between the trade in sugar and the trade in humans is clearly made. It is fitting then that the building housing the museum is an old sugar warehouse and of note that one of the first things you see on entering is a poster advertising a reward for a runaway slave.
The exhibition shows the cruelty of the trade as well as the harsh reality of life on a plantation. Chains and whips have a sinister look when you realise they were used on people. The story of abolition is also shown, though, with the emphasis on those who started campaigning for an end to the slave trade long before politicians became involved.
Throughout the exhibition the role of capitalism in the transatlantic slave trade is made explicit. The voices of the oppressed are matched by those who claimed they (and Britain) would be ruined if the trade were disrupted. Interestingly, it was the campaign to boycott goods such as sugar that forced some politicians to take notice. Even when the trade was abolished, though, compensation was paid by the government to merchants. London grew rich on the profits of the trade so it is just that this gallery is here to act as a reminder of London’s past.
In the final section of this exhibition there is brief mention of the links modern London has with Africa and the old Empire. London’s diversity is part of its strength but there is a bigger story awaiting another gallery space: the way people of African heritage were welcomed or not during the 50s, 60s and 70s. Maybe that is part of Britain’s story still waiting to be told.
Museum of London Docklands is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?