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Sugar and the City

Updated: Jun 12, 2020

Update: this blogpost was first published at midnight on 9 June 2020. Following an intervention by Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London, and a petition begun by Ehtasham Haque, councillor for the ward of Blackwall & Cubitt Town on Tower Hamlets Council, the Canal and River Trust arranged for the removal of the statue of the slave-owner Robert Milligan from outside the Museum of London Docklands that same evening.

We would like to applaud all those involved in campaigning for the removal of the statue.

The first two photographs were taken on 9 June and the third on 8 June, the day before the statue was taken down.

Canary Wharf breathes money and modernity, but the ancient warehouses that surround it bear silent witness to the slave trade. In their midst stands the Museum of London Docklands, located on West India Quay, right at the heart of the former sugar business. It's fitting that the museum's permanent exhibition, London, Sugar & Slavery, offers an insightful and balanced perspective into our dark past, the reality of the 'triangular trade' and Britain’s exploitation of African slaves, and the abolition movement at the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th.

Yet, as soon as you leave the museum and set foot on the infamous West India Quay, funded in part by the profits of slavery, and designed to increase those profits by making the import of slave-grown goods more efficient, you bump into a statue: the sculpture of Robert Milligan, right in front of the museum's main entrance.

Who was Robert Milligan?

A slave-owner.

The owner of two sugar plantations in Jamaica, where 526 enslaved Africans were forced to work.

An anti-abolitionist.

And the driving force behind the construction of the West India Docks.

And now Robert Milligan stands proudly there, like any respectable and honourable gentleman, remembered for establishing the beautiful quay that was built with the blood of slaves, thumbing his nose at the Docklands Museum. Canary Wharf abounds with contemporary sculptures, yet no bank has funded an artwork about the horror of slavery to replace the nauseous presence of this slave-owner.

The monument to Milligan hasn’t always stood there. After being put into storage in the 1940s, the London Docklands Development Corporation thought it appropriate to re-erect this statue in 1997 (note the date, not 18-something as you might have imagined). You might have thought they would have known better. They didn’t even bother to amend the inscription which recognises Milligan's role in the slave trade.

If you look closely, you may notice that someone has subsequently added their own comment to the inscription: 'slave owner'. Seemingly some trouble has been taken to remove this graffiti, but not, ironically, the statue itself.

That is not all. The original bas-relief on which the statue stands had been lost, and so in 1998 a reproduction was made, depicting Britain receiving Commerce. Couldn't the Development Corporation have commissioned instead an artwork depicting slavery and its role in the building of West India Quay?

Have you choked enough yet? Next to the re-erected statue is a new development, named Spire London, which will see the construction of the tallest tower in the UK. The developer (Greenland Group) has marketed the area with billboards tallking about the rich historical heritage of West India Quay, calling it 'the golden age'.

A marketing campaign celebrating the immense wealth created by slavery. Seriously? That makes me sick. What’s more upsetting is that this campaign is right in the shadow of the museum, using old imagery and documents to give it an 'historical' feel, praising the 'golden' heritage of the West India Quay in order to sell luxury flats.

Tactless? Tasteless? Insensitive? Offensive for sure. You wonder if the developers have ever set foot inside the Sugar & Slavery exhibition. Probably not.

And that’s what bothers me. The buildings, streets and statues around the museum commemorate the owners and traders of enslaved people. If you were not curious enough to go inside the Museum of London Docklands to learn about the sugar trade, you might never realise that West India Quay and the 'honourable' statue of Robert Milligan standing outside have anything to do with slavery. Even a panel installed by British Waterways London avoids the topic. It’s all about the great 'golden past' of West India Quay, and nothing about the slave-owner and murderer who campaigned against the abolition of slavery because 'it was a necessary part of the British economy, keeping profit margins high and trade goods in ready supply'.

In 21st century Britain, we can’t walk past these relics of slavery as if it never existed, as if the slave-owners who laid the foundations of our modern-day wealth didn’t have blood on their hands. Wouldn't the statue be better displayed in its proper context, in the gallery of the Museum of London Docklands? And shouldn't the museum's immediate surroundings reflect its views (and public opinion) instead of completely ignoring the existence of the sugar and slavery exhibition, as if West India Quay and the Museum of London Docklands were in two different hemispheres?

Follow-up (12 June 2020)

To remove the statue of a slave-owner isn’t hiding history. Keeping commemorative statues of slave-owners is hiding history. It’s hiding the reality of the wealth of Great Britain.

The events of the last few days, the dumping of the statue of Edward Colston into Bristol Harbour and the dragging of Robert Milligan from its pedestal have themselves made history.

These statues should be put in a museum, to be seen for what they are: not a vandalised sculpture of mediocre quality, but a powerful artefact that now shouts its anger at slavery and Britain’s dark past.

Some argue that the views of the past have to be seen in the context of the time, that the statues should continue to stand prominently in the cities of the UK so we can learn from them.

But how can we confront our past, judging those views when there is no context, when the word slavery is not mentioned, as if it never existed, when slave-owners are called merchants or planters, and when we honour them for the great 'benefits' they brought to Britain?

Instead, let’s teach British children about the realities of British Imperialism and Colonialism: consider signing this petition.

Karen Eeckman for Cradles and Labels

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