The Mills Plantation Archive. Image Credit: Museum of London
We began our tour of the Museum of London’s ‘London, Sugar and Slavery’ gallery on a hot May morning. We had arrived at the Dockland’s site for a day of talks, performances and reflections on the gallery, a decade on from its opening. Ten years ago, the museum worked with an advisory group formed of academics and community members to install the permanent exhibition, drawing on the museum’s West India Quay location as a site of especial significance in London’s often dis-remembered history as a key actor both in the trade in sugar and slaves and the wider business of slavery, the profits of which continue to benefit the city long after the trade in Africans ended.
I was part of a group that chose to take a guided tour of the gallery before the first panel began. Kofi, our guide, showed us around the highlights of the gallery, starting with a powerful display detailing the journeys of imperial ships and their human cargoes. Numbers can be used to make human history distant and abstract, but the understated gravitas of the opening display was a powerful testament to the sensitive curation that ran throughout the exhibition. Kofi also reflected on his Ghanaian background and how the site at docklands reminded him of the geographies of slavery in Ghanaian ports, where one could “feel” the historical presence of slavery, saying: “You smell something that has been there for thousands of years. You hear screaming and shouting from afar.” This poignant statement echoed in the discussions of historical trauma and inherited memory that ran throughout many of the conversations of the day.
Looking back, facing forward
Students from the BRIT School kicked off the symposium by offering creative responses to their study of slavery. Digital drawings, poetry and musical composition were amongst the artistic responses developed by the students, exploring historical trauma, the legacy of corporate involvement in the atrocities that underscored the sugar trade and what it means to remember slavery in London today.
The second panel featured three researchers presenting on a variety of topics ranging from the material history of copper and its role in slavery to how capital gained by trading in sugar has maintained the influence of some of the most powerful families in Britain today and oral histories of Afrikan reparations activists in Britain. Mined in Cornwall, worked in London and the Midlands and then transported to the Caribbean, the significance of the copper industry to slavery has largely been neglected in the field. However, as Professor Nuala Zahedieh outlined, it’s versatility and mass production were directly related to the growth of slavery into a premier industry in establishing imperial Britain’s wealth.
The second speaker, Dr James Dawkins, presented a provocative study of how the continuation of colonial wealth is evidenced in the intergenerational transmission of privilege. He spoke about the difficulties of conducting research whilst at the same time having to negotiate with archive-holders who remain intent on glossing their historical involvement with slavery and managing the knowledge of his own family’s inheritance of the Dawkins name, as Afro-Caribbeans from the same region of Jamaica as the British family’s plantations.
Esther Stanford-Xosei rounded off the first panel by presenting years of research into the history of action for reparations for the descendants of those forced into slavery. Her research had a unique focus on redressing the loss of cultural identity that was stripped from those who were enslaved slaves and their descendants during the experience of displacement and Christianisation. Using an internationalist framework, Esther’s PhD project identifies key influencers and activists in the campaign for economic and cultural reparations and has collected oral histories, creating an egalitarian bridge between activists as knowledge-holders and the academy.
Before lunch, we heard from Elaine Mitchener, creative influence behind SWEET TOOTH, a theatrical musical engagement with the legacies of slavery which has been performed in numerous institutions, including the Museum of London. Elaine was in conversation with Charlotte Holmes, community engagement lead behind ‘Collecting Birmingham’, a collective curatorial initiative which sought to bring the population of Birmingham into the city’s museums to tell their own story and redress the lack of archival representation of the industrial giant’s history of migration. Representatives from The Young Historians, a collective of young people, mostly of African and Caribbean descent, explained their mission: to redress the underrepresentation of African and Caribbean historians in the academy. S I Martin, author and founder of the 500 Years of Black London walking tours, joined the panel, raising the idea that the memorialisation of slavery is in some ways expected to be performative, a potential glossing of atrocities that is not asked of any other group who carry historical trauma. This provocation generated lively debate amongst members of the panel and audience and interrogated some of themes of the day: how do we represent atrocity in a meaningful way? How can we untangle the binary of oppressed/oppressor to remember catastrophic histories as a collective? How far can cultural interventions go towards making history meaningful and are artistic initiatives enough without economic retribution?
After lunch, we were given a tour of the Museum’s archives, where Dr. Kristy Warren showed us the records from a British plantation. Every detail was recorded meticulously, from the food the slaves were given (cheap rations of cassava) to the tasks they were put on each day. The most interesting details were in the footnotes, where small notes recorded runaways, pregnancies and more. These offered an alternative, relatively hidden narrative of resistance and agency and were fascinating to see.
Finally we heard from Museum Host Matthew Martin, who highlighted the provocative range of responses from visitors to the gallery, ranging from moving experiences of discovering familial histories to disinterest and misunderstandings of the relevance of the gallery as a permanent feature of the Dockland’s site.
We rounded off the day with a poem exploring the sticky-sweet stains of London’s sugar history performed by Kei Miller and musical and filmic performances from Jay Bernard and Michael Brome. To finish, Melanie Abrahams joined Tobago Crusoe for an impromptu calypso performance. Throughout the day, the story of the Windrush seemed to be an unnamed presence threading throughout the discussion, especially in light of the recent scandal surrounding the deportation of first-generation Caribbean migrants from Britain. Tobago Crusoe sang to this with a satirical dig at Theresa May’s aggressive immigration policies during her time as Home Secretary, bringing us full-circle in the story of exchange between the imperial metropolis of Britain and her Commonwealth from slavery to the present day. On a day where much of the world was espousing the idea that Meghan Markle’s entrance into the Royal Family somehow marked the end of a chapter of Britain’s racist history, the conversations, cultural interventions and gallery itself reminded us that we still have some way to go.
Ten Years of the London Sugar & Slavery: Reflections and responses was held at the Museum of London Docklands on 19 May 2018. It was organised by Kristy Warren, Melissa Bennett and the London Sugar & Slavery Advisory Group.
Shelley Angelie Saggar is an independent researcher and museum professional from London. She studied at the University of Leeds and now works on exhibitions, events and youth programmes at Wellcome Collection, London. Her research interests include: disaster fiction, indigenous film and literature and the culinary cultures as practices of healing.