- Title: UK: Pivotal British role in slave trade on show
- Date: 21st December 2007
- Summary: VARIOUS OF WEST INDIA QUAY
- Embargoed: 5th January 2008 12:00
- Topics: History
- Reuters ID: LVA84K92JQOC8KQ2SF1VFP18CG1S
- Story Text: The dark and often denied pivotal role England played in the 18th century transatlantic slave trade, and the legacy that it leaves today, is laid bare in an exhibition in London's Docklands.
A haunting display wall tells visitor that they will not be allowed to speak their own language, not have a home, not be called their real name.
They will be someone's property, to be bought and sold.
The exhibition "London, Sugar & Slavery" in London's Docklands, a stone's throw away from the glistening buildings of Canary Wharf with its veneer of business, money and corporate image, deals with a past that contributed a lot to the glistening buildings and wealth of London but also raises inconvenient questions about Britain's role in the slave trade.
"Not many people know about this history and London's connection to that history," says June Bam-Hutchison, diversity manager and advisor for the exhibition.
"And it's very important for school-children, for the community, for Londoners themselves in trying to find themselves and their identity as people from Africa, from the Caribbean, to know about this history, to talk about it and to acknowledge that history."
"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.
"One of the important functions of a gallery like this is to point out to people, to illustrate to people that this history is not something remote, it isn't something nostalgic, it isn't something that is finished with," said actor and exhibition adviser Burt Caesar on a tour of the exhibition at the Museum in the Docklands, a former warehouse in West India Quay from where many of the slave ships left and to which the sugar returned.
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.
The exhibition includes pictures, writings, personal anecdotes and explanations of the development and eventual abolition of the slave trade, and the legacy of racism 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 Burt Caesar who was born on St Kitts.
"For me there is a personal element in that: not only is it from St. Kitts, but we've come across the name Caesar several times," he told Reuters. "As yet I can't claim direct ancestry, Caesar was a very arbitrary name, the French, the Dutch, the Spanish all had people, enslaved people who were given the name Caesar. What I do feel is a strong sense of kinship with everybody. St Kitts is an island with a population today of
000. So in a sense any of these people could have been an ancestor of mine."
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.
Burt Caesar explained the special inhumanity of the slavery in the Caribbeans: "somebody could be wrapped in these chains," he says holding the shackles, "for simply preaching in a church. The whippings, the flailings, the humiliations, the degradations were just extraordinary, beyond a normal state of just restitution, there was something sadistic about it."
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.
It highlights Britain's role in the struggle but also its dark past in the slave trade.
June Bam-Hutchison sums up the incentive for the telling the tale.
"So here's a sugar warehouse directly linked to the blood, sweat and tears of the enslaved African people who have been taken from Africa to the Caribbean and the produce brought right into these walls that we seen around us here today."
"And it's a place that symbolizes that crime against humanity and an injustice."
- Copyright Holder: REUTERS
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