LONDON (Reuters) - The dark and often denied pivotal role England played in the 18th century transatlantic slave trade, and the legacy that leaves today, is laid bare in a new exhibition opening in London’s docklands on Saturday.
“London, Sugar & Slavery” charts the rise of the Triangular Trade when ships sailed from London to West Africa to load up with slaves and take them in deplorable conditions to the Caribbean to work on sugar plantations.
There the slaves were disgorged to work under whip and chain on the British-owned plantations and their places taken by sugar cargoes destined for the booming British market — few got out, many died and some were brought to England as domestic serfs.
“This is not black history. This is our history,” said curator Tom Wareham on a tour of the exhibition at the Museum in Docklands, a former warehouse in West India Quay from where many of the slave ships left and to which the sugar returned.
“We have to own this, admit it and acknowledge it’s part in our heritage,” said Wareham, adding that the most up-to-date estimate puts the number of slaves taken across the Atlantic at 25 million — but that excludes families then born into slavery.
The permanent exhibition reveals the central role London’s merchants played in the slave and allied sugar trade, noting the the massive wealth that was accumulated by a few at the expense of the misery of millions.
It includes pictures, writings, personal anecdotes and explanations of the development and eventual abolition of the slave trade, and the legacy of racialism it left behind.
Among the exhibits are ledgers recording the daily activities at plantations on St Kitts and Nevis owned by Thomas and John Mills.
Among the slave names that appear in the papers is the family name Caesar — a poignant fact for actor and exhibition adviser Burt Caesar who was born on St Kitts.
“This makes it very personal to me,” he told Reuters. “There might be no family connection between me and them because names were allocated in a fairly arbitrary way. But then again there might be.”
“This is an old story, but it is still going on. This is not taught in schools here. I want people to go from here asking more questions that the exhibition can hope to answer,” he added.
The exhibition is part of celebrations to mark the 200th anniversary of Britain’s abolition of the slave trade after a campaign by politician and philanthropist William Wilberforce in favour of the emancipation of slaves persuaded the church, the public and finally parliament.
The last item in the exhibition is a chain and manacles that were worn by slaves.
Visitors are invited to heft it to feel the weight the slave would have had to carry while performing heavy manual labour for 14 or more hours a day under scorching Caribbean heat.
Reporting by Jeremy Lovell; editing by Paul Casciato