Sunday, 28 September 2008

The visit to the museum

Yesterday I went to the Museum in Docklands. Its housed in a beautiful old wharf building in West India Quay which was originally built to house sugar brought back from the plantations in the West Indies. Ships sailed from here carrying manufactured produce which was traded for enslaved Africans in west Africa. These people were then shipped across the Atlantic in horrendous conditions (around a third died on the journey) where they were forced to work in sugar plantations. The same ships brought the sugar, molasses and rum back to London.

Its particularly appropriate, then, that a decent section of the permenent exhibition of the museum is about this trade. 'London, sugar and slavery' actually has some of the best exhibits in the museum and tells the tale in an engaging way. We often hear William Wilberforce eulogised as the father of abolition, so it was good to learn that it was only after there had been an influx of women into the movement that the Anti-Slavery Society changed its objectives to the immediate abolition of slavery. Wilberforce didn't think enslaved Africans were ready for freedom straight away, and in 1823 sabotaged an abolition bill presented to the House of Commons by the more radical Thomas Fowell Buxton.

Although I knew about Toussaint L'Ouverture and the Hatian revolution, a slave rebellion which defeated the French colonial forces and founded the free black state of Haiti, I didn't know that there were also armed rebellions against the British. The 'Maroons' formed a kind of guerilla army and fought British colonial forces in Jamaica. The museum also highlights, as CLR James did, that when slavery was abolished it was at least partly because some economists were starting to argue that free labour was a more efficient way of developing British capitalism.

The rest of the museum also contains some fascinating history focused on the Docklands area. Being a modern kind of museum, it is replete with reconstructions, interative screens and scale models, most of which work quite well. There's a moment near the beginning when its possible to hear three different recordings of Tony Robinson being annoyingly excited about the early history of London simultaneously, but thankfully this doesn't last past the first section. Further on you can investigate the 1889 London Dock strike or find out the origins of Lloyds insurance.

Unlike some London museums, this one isn't free, but your £5 will get you a year's entry. There's enough in the museum to make this worthwhile, and if you've never been to the Docklands its worth seeing this bizarre area of London. To get there we took a commuter catamaran from Embankment to Canary Wharf Pier which I can also recommend.

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