Statue of the week, London edition: the slave-owner and the abolitionist

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The other day, after high tea, we went to the excellent Museum of London, Docklands. Out the front of the museum was this statue of Robert Milligan, described in a plaque on the other side of the plinth as a ‘merchant of London’ whose ‘genius, perseverance and guardian care’ were responsible for the creation of the nearby West India Docks. These docks were the place where sugar and other goods from the West Indies were imported into London.

Milligan, it turns out, was a Scot, born in Dumfries. He was also a slave-owner. He grew up on his family’s plantation in Jamaica before moving to London. At the end of his life, he owned 526 enslaved Africans who worked on his sugar plantation in Jamaica. The involvement of Scots in the slave trade is something Scotland has only really started to come to terms with relatively recently – the evils of slavery certainly can’t be blamed on the English alone.

I didn’t see anything about Milligan in the museum, although I may have missed it – it certainly has an extensive section on ‘London, Sugar and Slavery’. What is particularly curious about this statue, though, is that it had been in storage for many years but was re-erected in 1997 by the London Docklands Development Corporation. The bronze relief panel on the front, showing Britannia resting on a lion and various symbols of wealth and commerce, was even recreated because the original had been destroyed. Yet nothing was added to the memorial to recognise Milligan’s involvement in the slave trade and the devastation that trade caused to African people.

Inside the museum, I learned about someone whose relationship to slavery was much more laudable. A short panel about Anne Knight caught my attention because she came from Chelmsford, the town in Essex where we were staying with Fiona’s brother and sister-in-law. Knight turns out to be a fascinating character.

Born in Chelmsford into a Quaker family, she formed a Chelmsford branch of the Women’s Anti-slavery Society. She was one of the few women to attend the World Anti-slavery Convention in London in 1840, and the marginalisation of women at this convention led her to take up the cause of women’s rights. In 1847 she presented what is considered to be the first leaflet calling for women’s suffrage (46 years before women gained the vote in New Zealand, and 71 years before they were allowed to vote in the United Kingdom). She also supported the calls of the Chartist movement for democratic reform in Britain, but criticised those Chartists who argued that enfranchisement of male workers was more important than women’s rights. In 1851 she was involved in establishing the first women’s suffrage organisation in Britain, the Sheffield Female Reform Association,  but by then she was living in France, where she died in 1862. You can see the only known photograph of this remarkable woman here.

A town in Jamaica, established by freed slaves, is apparently named Knightsville in her honour. In her birthplace of Chelmsford, she is commemorated with a plaque and there are some buildings named after her. Surely, though, it is time for Chelmsford to create a statue or some other more prominent memorial to such an important figure from local history?

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