London's slave trade
The key role London played in the global slave trade is one of the city's shameful secrets. With next year marking two centuries since the abolition of British slavery, we asked David Lammy, MP for Tottenham, and historian Arthur Torrington OBE to visit Greenwich to unearth the truth - and discuss the lessons we can still learn
London is built on blood money. It might be uncomfortable to think about, but it’s all around us. From the powerful financial institutions of the Bank of England and the Stock Exchange to our bustling high streets, London’s present economic and political power forms a direct link back to its trading prowess in the eighteenth century – a prowess that depended on the trade of millions of African men, women and children into brutal slavery. By the mid-eighteenth century, London was Britain’s biggest slave port, bigger even than Bristol and Liverpool. But London was also the place where the movement to abolish slavery took root, and on March 25 1807 the Abolition of Slavery Bill was passed, forbidding the trade in the British Empire. With the capital gearing up to commemorate the bicentenary of this historic legislation next year, we joined Tottenham MP and Minister for Culture David Lammy and historian Arthur Torrington OBE on a journey through London’s slave history.
1, West India Quay (Museum in Docklands)London was at the heart of the ‘trade triangle’ that fuelled the slave trade. Traders left here with manufactured goods, such as guns, and exchanged them for slaves in Africa. The slaves were then taken across the Atlantic (the ‘middle passage’) and sold to plantation owners in America and the Caribbean for sugar, tobacco, rum, rice, cotton and tea, all of which were shipped back to London. It’s estimated that
11-12 million Africans were transported across the Atlantic for slavery. During the 1720s alone, nearly 200,000 Africans were transported in British ships. Packed into tight spaces with little food and water, thousands died en route. Built in 1803, Warehouse 1 was the first docklands warehouse built to hold the fruits of this trade: sugar, coffee and rum. The building, now the Museum in Docklands, has on display the table on which William Wilberforce and other abolitionists drafted the Abolition of Slavery bill.
Torrington at Warehouse 1
The whole of this dock area, which was built in the 1790s specifically for the West Indies sugar trade, was 30 acres long. It was the biggest engineering project in the world, an extraordinary thing. It was built with wealth coming into the country from the sugar trade and from selling slaves. People don’t realise that this history is right here.
My first first real awareness of the slave trade came when I was about 11, watching Alex Haley’s ‘Roots’ on TV in the 1980s. I think for most black people in this country over the age of 30, that would have been their first exposure to the slave trade. ‘Roots’ followed on from a cultural shift that had begun in the ’70s with reggae, with the Rastafarians and Bob Marley writing about Babylon, central Africa and Zimbabwe. ‘Roots’ resulted in a surge of interest in Africa with a lot of people trying to work out which African country they came from. Being exposed to that pain and death, the inhumane treatment, rather than being angry, I was shocked because it wasn’t just about the slave story. My most powerful association with that period was seeing black people on television; the shock of just seeing a whole black cast for an hour. My parents are from Guyana, which was important in this story. We were talking about the sugar trade – demerara sugar comes from the Demerara river in Guyana. Guyana became even more successful when indentured workers [labourers, primarily from India, shipped in to work on the plantations in exchange for food and accommodation] arrived there after the end of the slave trade.
But my parents didn’t talk about the slave trade at all. It’s little anecdotal bits, where a particular relative might have come from and what you look like. When I was about eight or nine years old, a relative came and said, ‘Those eyebrows, that’s the Indian blood in you.’ I said ‘What?’ But my great, great grandmother, she was from Calcutta and was probably an indentured worker.
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Excellent and worthwhile data on history the Empire will not publish. We should know more of the truth so that present generation can understand how the Empire became rulers of so many colonies.
Thank you so much for publishing this article. It does an amazing job of making links we don't like to acknowledge