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Statue of Robert Milligan in Canary Wharf
Statue of Robert Milligan in Canary Wharf before its removal. Photograph: Chrispictures / Shutterstock

We asked an expert about London’s connections to slavery beyond its statues

There is a hidden history of slave ownership in the capital and its signs are everywhere

Chris Waywell

Three public artworks have been in the news in the last week. A statue of the slave owner Edward Colston was toppled from its plinth in Bristol on June 7, rolled down the street and dumped in the harbour. As a response, a statue of slave owner Robert Milligan was removed by the authorities from its plinth outside the Museum of London Docklands and put ‘in storage’. Finally, there was a story about Memorial 2007, intended to mark the 200th anniversary of the abolition of slavery. A permanent memorial to the victims of our country’s slave trade – featuring a striking group of enslaved people and black abolitionists – was proposed 13 years ago to be erected in Hyde Park. It got the go-ahead, it got planning permission, it just didn’t get the £4 million it needed to actually be realised. The government wouldn’t help. Sufficient private donations were not forthcoming. Now it’s back in the spotlight. 

The fates of Colston and Milligan have been a long time coming. But in the light of recent events, the failure to have a permanent memorial in the capital to Britain’s bloody legacy of slavery seems that much more incomprehensible. Other cities like Bristol and Liverpool have confronted and explored the part that the enslavement of Africa played in their histories and fortunes. London has not. Why?

‘London is a unique city,’ says Dr Nick Draper, former director of University College London’s Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slave-ownership. ‘It’s got a much greater concentration of stuff in it than almost any other capital. It’s the centre of power, of law, of art, of finance – it’s all here. There’s a lot that’s happened in London’s history, and slavery is just one part of that. But once you start to look, the signs of slavery and slave ownership are in many, many places.’

Paying off the slave owners

The Legacies of British Slave-ownership project identifies the British individuals and companies that were connected to slavery and profited from it. It has a database where you can search by name and location. I put in Deptford, where I live. It produces one result: Mary Philippa Whitton (née Alldridge) is recorded as being an ‘unsuccessful claimant’ as a mortgagee of two slave estates in the West Indies, one on St Kitts with 133 enslaved and one on the Virgin Islands with 83 enslaved. Mary lived on Union Street, now Albury Street, literally round the corner from where I live. She was trying to claim compensation. After the abolition of slavery, the British government paid out £20 million (the equivalent of more than £2bn today). Not to former enslaved people, but to investors and slave owners who had lost money.

I’m glad she didn’t get the cash, but this lone result troubles me. Deptford was right at the centre of London’s slave economy, the ‘triangular trade’ between Britain, Africa and the West Indies, which saw ships sail to Africa, enslave people, transport them to work on sugar plantations in the West Indies and then bring sugar back to this country. Ships were built and repaired in Deptford, former slaves would have come here, slave owners and investors would have financed voyages that started here. Why is Mary Whitton the only result?

‘The port of London, and London’s maritime history, have been infused by many other things,’ says Draper. ‘Slavery is a piece of that history, but very often it’s invisible unless you look for it.’ 

Part of that invisibility is to do with money. If you put ‘Greenwich’ into the database, you suddenly get a lot more results. That’s because Greenwich, though immediately adjacent to Deptford, and equally involved in maritime trade, has always been much more affluent. There are admirals and generals listed, and compensation claims for many thousands of pounds. If you follow the money, the map of slavery in London suddenly looks a lot different. 

Money talks

‘Bloomsbury was where slave owners went to live,’ says Draper. ‘The estates along what is now the Marylebone Road, including Harley Street, were also a centre of slave owning.’ A search on Harley Street, now famous for posh private healthcare, reveals nearly 40 claims for compensation by affluent residents who owned slaves or invested in plantations. And that’s just one central London street. 

‘Slave owners generally didn’t live in very fashionable areas,’ says Draper, ‘because they were parvenues.’ So, not because of how they made their money, but because they were newly rich from trade, not aristocratically rich from owning land and tenants. A snobbish distinction, but ultimately a futile one. Money talks, and many of London’s slave owners became powerful people. ‘In Marylebone Church, if you look at the plaques on the wall, there are several to people who are connected to Jamaica,’ says Draper. ‘Westminster Abbey: there are a bunch of slave owners buried there. They were wealthy, prominent individuals, who were entitled to bid for a space there, and they got it.’

Exploitation and ‘philanthropy’

The fact that none of this is common knowledge isn’t lost on Draper. The Legacies of British Slave-ownership has spent ten years examining and cataloguing these claims, and teasing out the connections. It’s like a team of forensic accounts trying to nail some crim with an account in the Cayman Islands. Only 200 years too late.

There are physical reminders of slavery in London too, of course. Street names and houses. Statues. The kind of thing that Sadiq Khan’s newly instituted ‘diversity commission’ will be investigating and evaluating. There’s the legacy of John Cass in the East End. Cass was a big investor in slavery but paradoxically used his money philanthropically at home. Educational charity the Cass Foundation has announced that it is taking down a statue of Cass from the front of its building, stating that ‘some of the wealth gained by Sir John Cass was through means of slavery and human exploitation, and we recognise, acknowledge, and understand the public hurt and anger that comes from this’.

‘A permanent change’ 

For Draper, the removal of such tributes to slavery is not a new debate, but he does see the current climate as representing a shift. ‘There has been a permanent change,’ he says. ‘Two statues [Colston and Milligan] that have been problematic for a very long time are no longer there. I don’t think they will go back up, and that’s an important step.’

He points out that the statue of Robert Milligan in West India Dock was even equivocated about by the Museum of London Docklands. When it opened its London, Sugar & Slavery gallery in 2007, the statue of the slave owner outside wasn’t removed, but the museum did put a bag over his head. 

This kind of indecision has characterised the capital’s acknowledgement of its connections to slavery for a very long time. There has been no systematic study of slavery and London published. In 2007, English Heritage failed to find locations to put up blue plaques to former slaves and black abolitionists Olaudah Equiano and Ottobah Cugoano and black British composer Ignatius Sancho. Community initiatives like Nubian Jak have been forced to take these issues in hand themselves and put up their own plaques. 

Draper points to other institutions that have failed to address the problem: ‘[slave owner] William Beckford’s statue is in the Guildhall [in the City of London], and the Guildhall has had lots of time to get its head around it and I don’t think they’ve done anything.’

Our collective failure

‘The current intensity of feeling arises because nothing has been done for so long,’ says Draper. ‘London has been very poor in recognising the history of the enslaved people themselves. Anger has built up and in the end it’s found no other outlet but by tearing down the damn statues, and that’s a failure by us collectively: by historians, by the London Mayor’s office, by society.’

London’s identity as a slave-owning city has been largely erased along with the industries which facilitated it: shipbuilding, trade, manufacturing. The docks are gone, replaced with gleaming corporate serrations. The factories and warehouses have been demolished or turned into galleries and chic flats. ‘London is still an international centre,’ says Draper, ‘but it’s been dematerialised. That’s why West India Dock and Canary Wharf is such a powerful site, because on one side you have the sugar warehouses where the physical expression of slavery and empire was stored, and on the other, you have these huge bank buildings, which is the modern version of the same thing.’

Looking beyond the statues

Other ports are defined by being ports. The docks are the centre of life: everything else exists to support them. London is different. You can have a huge international port in London and then not have it, and the vast city carries on. Thousands of people lose their livelihood, centuries of trade and history vanishes, the metropolis barely blinks. In other places connected to trade and slavery, it’s been different. The legacy of Edward Colston has been hotly debated in Bristol for years. In Liverpool, something else happened: ‘They embraced their slave-trading past and acknowledged it,’ says Draper. ‘The council, the universities, everybody said “Yes: this was a slave-trading centre.” They were the first city to apologise for their involvement in slavery. The International Slavery Museum is there, and they made slavery part of their urban revival.’

In a way, statues and monuments act as societal circuit-breakers. Their creation and destruction is symbolic. They’re put up under one regime or in response to one wave of prevailing public feeling, and often come down under a different one. We’re used to seeing statues of dictators being pulled down. But what then? We have our moment of spectacle and we move on? Whatever the findings of Sadiq Khan’s diversity commission, however many monuments to those involved with slavery are quietly disappeared, the real legacy of the forcible enslavement and exploitation of millions of people over centuries remains all around us in London in the form of wealth. And that’s going to a be a whole lot harder to take down.

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