London, Sugar and Slavery: In Autumn 2007, Museum in Docklands, One of Britain's Few Surviving Buildings with a Direct Link to the Slave Trade, Will Open the Only Dedicated Permanent Gallery Looking at the Trade of Sugar and Enslaved Africans Which Connects London with West Africa and the Caribbean. David Spence, Director, Reveals the Mills Papers, a Key Element in the New Gallery

By Spence, David | History Today, March 2007 | Go to article overview
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London, Sugar and Slavery: In Autumn 2007, Museum in Docklands, One of Britain's Few Surviving Buildings with a Direct Link to the Slave Trade, Will Open the Only Dedicated Permanent Gallery Looking at the Trade of Sugar and Enslaved Africans Which Connects London with West Africa and the Caribbean. David Spence, Director, Reveals the Mills Papers, a Key Element in the New Gallery


Spence, David, History Today


As to the child that TM had by Melia, my wife hath wrote to Miss Rice to take care of her and when Dr Mills comes home I intend to send for her, but as to the mother she belongs to me and I don't choose to make her free ... I left with T Mills at Olivees, Franky and her Daughter Betty and Betty's two sons, Ned and Cesar, as I hope I shall never be obliged to return to St Kitts again I would now have them all sold ... I can truly say that Betty is as good a Negroe as ever came into a house ... As to Ned and Cesar they are fine boys, however the price of them I shall leave intirely to yourself, get as much as you can and pray tell Somerset to make a choice of a Master for himself as I am willing to get rid of all except Pembrooke and his family. They I will not sell ... as long as I live.

From Thomas Mills to Robert Colhoun, November 17th, 1757

The recent acquisition by the Museum in Docklands of the papers of Thomas and John Mills, West India Merchants and plantation owners, opens a window onto the role of London merchants in the slave trade and sugar plantations. Letter books record the day-to-day business conducted between Mills' plantations on the Caribbean islands of St Kitts and Nevis and the family's office in New Broad Street in the City of London. The matter-of-fact descriptions of where to buy the most compliant enslaved Africans, and their value to the Mills' sugar plantations are abhorrent to us today but were treated as commonplace in seventeenth and eighteenth-century London.

The Mills papers are evidence of the workings of one the most lucrative trades conducted by London businessmen, and help draw a picture of a city that was at the centre of the slave trade. The extent of London's role is often overlooked because of the focus on British ports that became preeminent as the trade developed, such as Bristol and Liverpool. The fact that London was Europe's largest port, and the slave trade only one of many of its mercantile activities, has served to diminish the relative scale of London's involvement. However, only ships from Liverpool, Rio de Janeiro and Bahia carried more enslaved Africans than those sailing from London, and London was Britain's largest slave port until it was eclipsed by Liverpool in the second half of the eighteenth century.

London's involvement was not just as a port, but also a leading financial and commercial centre, producer and consumer. The City supplied credit that underwrote the trade, and insured the ships and the goods they carried, both material and human. Lord Mayors, Aldermen, Members of Parliament, Bishops as well as business men and women all shared in the profits from the trade. The web of slave-related businesses permeated every part of the capital and every class of society from the Governor of the Bank of England to the corner-shop keeper. Whether through shareholding, trading, manufacturing, retailing or eventually through inheritance, profits from human misery filtered through to many individuals conscious or not of its origins.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries ships which had carried enslaved Africans to the West Indies also carried hogsheads of sugar from the plantations to the Legal Quays and wharves of London. The sickly sweet smell from the baking houses at Ratcliffe brought forth sugar for consumption in huge quantities as kitchens and coffee houses across the city demanded more and more sugar, putting dainty cakes in the parlours and fuelling the working poor with sweet tea.

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London, Sugar and Slavery: In Autumn 2007, Museum in Docklands, One of Britain's Few Surviving Buildings with a Direct Link to the Slave Trade, Will Open the Only Dedicated Permanent Gallery Looking at the Trade of Sugar and Enslaved Africans Which Connects London with West Africa and the Caribbean. David Spence, Director, Reveals the Mills Papers, a Key Element in the New Gallery
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