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  • Writer's pictureSara-Jane Armstrong, MA

The Museum of London Docklands & Britain’s Role in Slavery

What is the Museum of London Docklands?

The Museum of London Docklands is a museum dedicated to London’s numerous former docks that explains the history of the River Thames and the Port of London, and its link to the transatlantic slave trade.

Museum of London Docklands

History of the Museum of London Docklands & Britain’s involvement to the Atlantic slave trade

Colossal vessels crammed with sugarcane swept into London’s docklands for centuries, delivering spoils to plantation owners – the self-entitled ‘Jamaican Kings’. Dock workers unloaded sloshing barrels of Caribbean rum and splitting sacks of coffee, hauling away a ship's worth of sugar, little of which they’d get to taste or benefit from. Oceanic routes for the empire’s trade in goods all ended here. British businessmen hoarded exorbitant wealth on the docks of the River Thames, ransacked from the colonised world and from the bloodied hands of African slaves.

The Museum of London Docklands teaches visitors about Britain’s central role in creating, conserving, and capitalising on the transatlantic slave trade. Housed inside a former warehouse on the West India Docks built at the behest of sugar plantation owners, the museum tells the story of London’s docklands, from the early 17th century to the modern day. The original windows remain shackled by dense iron bars, to prevent the theft of the precious and exceedingly profitable sweetener. The museum took up residence in the building in 2003, and its extensive exhibition ‘London, Sugar & Slavery’ is a permanent fixture.

Between 1662 and 1807, British colonial ships were responsible for the trade of 3.5 million Africans. Of this number, they successfully transported nearly 3 million to the Americas to be sold into slavery, the rest of the bodies being discarded at sea. Britain profiteered more from the transportation of stolen people than almost any other country on earth. Being so far detached, geographically, from much of its former colonies which it kept at safe length across the ocean, London still struggles to confront its history as a prolific slaving centre. This museum is furthering that struggle.

At the start of the 18th century, the British government profiteered solely by selling the rights for corporations to establish slaving routes through British waters. The state made trillions of pounds for what was conceived as sales in flesh - alongside incalculable profits from the cultivation of sugarcane, tobacco, coffee, cotton, and other goods harvested by British-owned slaves. Its profits brought prosperity to Britain, to London, and to the Docklands in particular.

The museum documents these central horrors of the slave trade, but also the social conditions empowering it. Exhibits portray the rising demand for sugar in the capital, for tea and coffee, for chocolate, for indulgences that sent the prices of Caribbean goods skyrocketing. It juxtaposes this informative, deft tracking of commercial trends with the spiked collars that carved the throats of the enslaved.

The exhibition’s most bone-chilling feature is – rather like Britain’s part in the slave trade, after years of denial – less than eye-catching: a chart, listing the ships that sailed from London Docklands. Its column headings indicate the names of the ships, the captains, and the dates of their departures. It includes the African destination they were bound for and the number of enslaved Africans they had transported on each ship. Rows upon rows of British names stretch away; in the corresponding African rows, there are no names, just numbers. It places into sharp perspective the explicit and inescapable enormity of the docks’ place at the heart of the transatlantic slave trade.

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