By the 1790s, one quarter of Britain’s income came from the West Indies and much of it from the sugar trade. London established itself as a centre of global commerce in this period – but behind it lay slavery.
The new London, Sugar & Slavery exhibition at the Museum in Docklands looks at how slavery was fundamental to the sugar trade in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Sugar had been considered a luxury item consumed by only a tiny minority. But the rising popularity of coffee through the 1700s led to sugar imports to Britain rising ninefold.
Personal accounts from the slaves themselves run throughout the exhibition. Work on the sugar plantations was hard. There was widespread sexual abuse and rape of women slaves. High injury and death rates meant slave owners had to continuously find more people to enslave.
The exhibition makes a number of important political points. It clearly links the rise of racism to slavery. There is also a lot of space devoted to slave rebellions and to the abolition movement in Britain.
Rebellion was a constant concern and the methods slave owners used to keep control are well documented – including splitting up families and changing slaves’ names.
The exhibition also looks beyond the official abolition of slavery in 1833 and shows how freed slaves were compelled to serve “apprenticeships” lasting six years in the plantations.
Although apprenticeships were abolished after widespread resistance, indentured labour was still used – a form of forced labour that would not be banned until 1917.
In raising these points and in putting ordinary people at the heart of the history of slavery, this exhibition has great relevance for those still struggling against oppression today.
London, Sugar & Slavery
Museum in Docklands, London E14
For more details on London, Sugar & Slavery, go to »www.museumindocklands.org.uk