Museum of London Docklands

Museum of London Docklands

I’ve been to the main Museum of London site several times but this was my first trip out to Docklands. It’s well worth a visit – entrance is free and it’s great for families (I went on a Sunday afternoon and there were lots of family friendly activities taking place). For adults, many of these activities take place away from the main galleries so there aren’t too many kids under your feet!

The ten free galleries begin from the third floor taking you through in a sequential order from 1600 to the present day (like a less stressful version of Ikea). I specifically went to visit the London, Sugar and Slavery gallery but spent time in all of the galleries. For anyone who like the Victorian Walk at the London Wall site, Sailortown is similar, a recreation of the area around the docks in the mid nineteenth century.

The museum is housed in No.1 Warehouse at West India Quay which was built during the period of the slave trade and would have stored the sugar from the plantations who prospered from slave labour. As well as looking at the slave trade, black presence in Britain generally is examined, contradicting the common perception that there was no black community in the UK until the 1940s. There was a known community in Seven Dials, and the port area was a key entry point for merchants, traders etc. The painting May Morning by John Collett which shows a street scene. Here a black servant is shown joining in a traditional London festival in the 1770s. No one looks surprised to see him there, despite this being at the height of the slave trade, showing that he wasn’t as unusual a sight as many might suppose.

At the entrance to this section is a large black board, names and figures inscribed in stark white. These are the names, captains, owners and destination of the slave ships that set sail from London. I noticed that a lot of people stopped here for a while, I suppose just to think about the numbers of people transported on those ships in shocking conditions. There is a diagram of a slave ship showing how 609 men, women and children were crammed in and transported in horrific squalor. They were seen and talked about as goods, not people, and so their living conditions were not a concern.

From my own research I know that slavery existed in Africa long before the Europeans got involved. Slaves were often traded to settle debts or captured during wars. Crucially these slaves had rights and could even rise to positions of power and wealth. It was the European influence that resulted in the dehumanisation of slaves.

The slave trade was nicknames the ‘Triangular Trade’ after the route the ships took. First they would sail from Europe to Africa laden with goods such as guns, iron bars, alcohol and copper and bronze bracelets known as manillas). Enslaved people would be marched to the coast, those who survived what could be hundreds of miles of walking would be stored like goods in a warehouse while they waited to be sold. Once purchased they would be transferred to the ships, but even then they could face a wait of up to several months in the ship’s hold whilst waiting for the captain to purchase the numbers he wanted. To pay for the food and water needed to keep the slaves alive the ships also loaded gold, ivory and cloth to sell in the Caribbean or back in Europe.

Conditions on the ships were as awful as the warehouses, and it was said that a slave ship could be smelt from as far away as five miles. Some captains looked after their cargo, protecting the slaves from abuse and letting them have exercise (this could be for moral reasons, or for the purely financial aim of selling healthy slaves on arrival). Others played a numbers game and just crammed as many as possible into the ships. Revolts were violently stopped, and there were many cases of suicide and infanticide by mothers desperate to save their young children from the life ahead.

The third side of the triangle was the return journey. The revenue from the slaves purchased goods such as sugar, coffee, cocoa, cotton and tobacco which could then be sold back in Europe.

It was the Quakers who first began the British movement towards emancipation, forming the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade in 1787. This society was supported by leading African abolitionists such as Olaudah Equiano who bought himself out of slavery. It is worth noting that many of the factors which led to the ending of slavery arose from the actions of the slaves themselves. They were not a passive and helpless people relying on the help of wealthy whites. After the successful slave revolt in Hispaniola, Haiti in 1791, and several failed attempts in Jamaica, it became clear that relying on enslaved labour could be unstable and expensive, and that paid labour could be more profitable.

Freetown in Sierra Leone was founded by British abolitionists in 1787 and populated by both rescued Africans, and also black Londoners who wanted to escape poverty. The British public came on board and in 1792 the West Indian sugar boycott began, with up to 300,000 people giving up sugar leading to the decimation of sales. In 1807 the Abolition of the Slave Trade bill was passed but this was only the first step as it only banned the trade of slaves and so slave owners were free to continue on with those they already owned.

The belief had been that the abolition of the trade would lead to a gradual decline in slavery. This did not happen though and so the Anti-Slavery Society was founded in 1823. They weren’t keen on women though and so the Birmingham Ladies Society for the Relief of Negro Slaves was established in 1825. On the 1st August 1834 slavery in British territories became illegal, slave owners receiving £20 million in compensation for the loss of property. Many slaves were left without housing or clothing and had to leave their homes in order to find work.

This is a great gallery giving an objective view of the facts surrounding British involvement in the slave trade and its legacy. There is also an exhibit commemorating the Caribbean voluntary service in World War I, showing the names of the fallen. The museum as a whole represents all of the docklands communities well, and I would highly recommend it.


Museum of London Docklands, No. 1 Warehouse, West India Quay, London, E14 4AL. Free entry. Open 10am – 6pm daily.

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