The International Slave Trade was in force between the mid seventeenth and the late nineteenth centuries. Although it was abolished in 1838 it didn’t magically stop on that date.
And in that time millions of men, women and children from Africa were treated as if they were subhuman, disposable objects, moving parts of a machine, whose sole purpose was to make even more money for the wealthy European traders.
Every great English country house I visit has a history to tell; and when I look into that history I look for the words “business interests in the West Indies“, and then I know that the grandeur of this house rests upon the exploitation of those enslaved Africans.
So complex is the tapestry of wealth and advancement and progress and exploitation of human lives in the International Slave Trade, that we cannot ever extricate ourselves from the fact that many of the institutions upon which we rely for the comfort and privilege of our lives here in this Western consumer society, are founded upon the misery and pain of millions.
In William Walton’s choral work Belshazzar’s Feast there is a powerful bass aria in which the singer enumerates all the wealth and magnificence of Babylon, over which King Belshazzar reigned. The once-mighty city of Babylon in Iraq has been described as “a microcosm of human history.” The bass sings:
“Babylon was a great city,
Her merchandise was of gold and silver,
of precious stones, of pearls, of fine linen,
of purple, silk and scarlet,
All manner vessels of ivory,
All manner vessels of most precious wood,
of brass, iron and marble,
Cinnamon, odours and ointments,
Of frankincense, wine and oil,
Fine flour, wheat and beasts,
Sheep, horses, chariots, slaves
And the souls of men.”
Just so during any economy which relies upon the labour of enslaved people. And I must admit the words of that aria flashed into my mind while I was walking round the Sugar and Slavery Gallery at the Museum of London Docklands.
If you visit this gallery, you’ll find yourself totally absorbed and caught up in an imaginative, interactive experience, in which you examine and reflect upon and enter into the heart of that slavery experience. You’ll consider all the facets of racism, both during those times, and up to the present day; and quite possibly, during the time you’re walking through the gallery, you’ll be drawn to identify with those who suffered, and will feel personally responsible and involved in that massive crime against humanity.
If you’re in London, I urge you to include the Museum of London Docklands on your list of places to visit; it has many other galleries, too, telling you of London’s history, and you will find it a thoroughly engrossing experience.