A major initiative by Sadiq Khan’s Commission for Diversity in the Public Realm was announced last week at the Museum of London Docklands, where Deputy Mayor for Communities and Social Justice Debbie Weekes-Barnard set out plans for a new memorial to victims of the transatlantic slave trade.
The Mayor will provide £500,000 towards the project, which City Hall is describing as “the first of its scale and profile in the UK to honour the victims of the slave trade and their resistance to it”. Once completed, it will be located close to the museum at West India Quay, where warehouses in which stored goods harvested by slave labour in the Caribbean still stand.
London already has public artworks created in memory of the transatlantic slave trade. In 2008 Archbishop Desmond Tutu unveiled Gilt of Cain by sculptor Michael Visocchi and poet Lemn Sissay in Fen Court EC3, and Harun Morrison’s horticultural piece entitled The Anchor, The Drum, the Ship came to Gladstone Park, Dollis Hill last October.
However, Weekes-Bernard, who co-chairs the diversity commission, said at the announcement event that the new piece will be unique and of specific importance as it will be focussed on “memorialising the descendants of the enslaved, the slaves themselves and also referencing the role that London as a city played in the development of the transatlantic slave trade”. As such, she believes it will “give Londoners the opportunity to remember one of the darker periods of our history but also to learn about it and provide a space for people to come to to reflect on the impact the slave trade had.”
Speaking to On London, she acknowledged that a general awareness of the slave trade is in inclulcated in London’s schools and that “elements of it are taught well”. Even so, she thinks the new memorial will add depth and further dimensions. “It will give people a space they can come to and it will also kickstart a different type of conversation about the transatlantic slave trade. I don’t think we know as much as we could about the role that our city played,” she said. She thinks Londoners, perhaps especially the young, will be interested to learn the sobering details about “the way some of the wealth has been accrued in our city was developed out of that slave trade.”
Weekes-Bernard and her fellow commissioners will, from the summer, begin a “process of engagement with Londoners and with community organisations” to work out what they want and then recruit an artist to create the memorial. Further “satellite” sites will be chosen across the capital as part of the same project. An education programme is also promised, emerging from a partnership between the commission, the museum, the Canal and River Trust – which is responsible for managing West India Quay – and others.
The Museum of London Docklands, whose building is among those originally constructed to store sugar, has had, since 2007, a permanent London, Sugar and Slavery gallery documenting London’s part from 1600 in the trade triangle that transported Africans to the Americas to become slave labour in the production of sugar, which was then shipped to the capital.
In June 2020 a statue of Robert Milligan, a prominent British slave trader who owned two sugar plantations and over 500 slaves in Jamaica, was removed from its position opposite the Museum of London Docklands, where it had been re-located in 1997, following calls during the height of the Black Lives Matter movement for an end to public monuments honouring slave owners.
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