Last weekend I went to West India Quay, a dock first built in London in 1802 to provide space for the slave ships that worked on the transatlantic slave trade. I’m currently doing the research for a biography of William Wilberforce, the great politician who led the 18 year parliamentary battle to get the slave trade abolished, and who then spent the remainder of his fighting against the practice of slavery itself.
London was an important base for the slave trade. Liverpool was the only UK city that sent more ships and made more profits from the trade, though Bristol and Glasgow also featured heavily in it. The ships would leave the UK from these British ports on the first leg of the journey, down to West Africa. There they would buy slaves from the local traders, in return for guns, cloth and other manufactured goods. The slaves then endured the awful Middle Passage across the Atlantic, to be sold to the plantation owners in the West Indies and the United States. The ships would be emptied of slaves, and would stock up on sugar, rum, cotton, and the other crops produced by the plantations, and would return to Britain, loaded with this cargo, and with immense profits from their Triangular Trade of the UK, Africa and North America.
London was so tied up with the slave trade that there are estimates that in the 1790s up to 25% of our national GDP came through these triangle voyages. And much of that wealth came through our city. Many also speculate that Britain was only able to afford to conquer and maintain the vast extent of the British Empire during the Victorian era, an empire so big that the sun never set on it, because of the profits that had been made through the transatlantic slave trade.
It’s easy to forget this when you stand on the West India Quay, just a small, largely empty stretch of water on the Isle of Dogs. But it is just a five minute walk from Canary Wharf, London’s new financial centre. So there are still fabulous profits being made from near this spot.
Here’s my question. As 21st century Londoners, how relevant is that history to the spirituality of the city we currently live in? Do we need to repent over what happened hundreds of years ago? And when do we stop repenting? I imagine hundreds of people must have visited the docks, and prayed prayers of repentance, asking God to forgive us for the huge crimes our ancestors committed? When is enough? Do we continue repenting, ad infinitum?
Perhaps it’s good for each generation to go there, remember what atrocities were committed from that spot, repent, and vow to live so that crimes like that are never committed again. God hates it when the rich gain wealth through exploiting the poor and the vulnerable. How much must He have been against the slave trade that so many Londoners were involved in…
Mark Williamson also blogs regularly at One Rock International, a training organisation resourcing missionary leaders across the globe. He’s passionate about good films, good food, getting into deep conversations, and going for long walks with his wife Joanna.