While in London in January 2019 for my dead celebrity research trip, I was able to spend an afternoon in Canary Wharf to visit the Museum of London Docklands with my friend, Ziggy. As a big fan of the main Museum of London location, I was keen to visit their Docklands outpost – specifically to see their permanent exhibit ‘London, Sugar & Slavery.’
The building the museum inhabits was built during the “transatlantic slave trade, to store the sugar from the West Indian plantations where enslaved men, women and children worked” (per their website). I thought the exhibit ‘London, Sugar & Slavery’ was very thoughtfully done with great care and respect. Beginning with a list of ships and the number of enslaved people it stole. While some museums and exhibits may only tip their toes into the murky water of slavery, the Museum of London Docklands jumps right in and forces you to immediately confront it.
A lot of time was spent fully explaining sugar, the slave trade, the rational people sold themselves on, and the “triangle trade” between Africa, North America/the West Indies, and England/Europe. The exhibit was mixed with videos, paintings, drawings, photos, maps, primary documents and objects. It allowed this big, heavy, complex issue to be broken down into manageable pieces of information – and this made the exhibit accessible to visitors of all ages.
From there, it showed how the practice of chattel slavery evolved over the years, and the various ways punishment was enacted by white slave owners to hold their power and control over the populations they enslaved.
Following this, exhibit then focused on resistance to slavery – both from enslaved people themselves and abolitionists who worked from outside the system.
The exhibit went on to explore how slavery touched many areas of life, and can still be felt in contemporary times. It was powerful and moving. I wish I had taken more photos to share here, but I was just really focused on learning as much as I could and reading all the displays. This is an ugly and hard to grapple with part of our collective histories – and it’s one we cannot look away from or ignore, or pretend never happened.
The remainder of the museum was equally interesting, interactive, and thoughtfully done – where you can learn about trade expansion, ships and sailors, how the river Thames and its’ docks shaped London, the Empire era, how the docklands operated during the London Blitz, and the regeneration of the area since WWII.
The Museum of London Docklands is always free to enter and open daily. You can learn more and plan your own visit by clicking here.