Robert Spellman reviews the new display, Indo + Caribbean: The Creation of a Culture at the Museum of London Docklands as well as its June Street Party.
To coincide with Windrush 75, the 75th anniversary celebrations of the arrival of Empire Windrush to Great Britain on 22 June, 1948, Museum of London Docklands has added a new display – Indo + Caribbean: The Creation of a Culture – to its London, Sugar and Slavery gallery.
The museum itself will mark its 20th birthday on 10 June with a street party featuring Vanity Milan, star of Ru Paul’s Drag Race. This night is part of a year-long anniversary programme celebrating and exploring the history of London’s East End.
Indo + Caribbean: The Creation of a Culture
Indo + Caribbean: The Creation of a Culture, explores the much underrepresented history of Indian indenture in the British Caribbean and the Indo-Caribbean story in London.
Following the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, British planters were desperate to source the next cheapest form of labour for their plantations, most of which produced sugar. India was already within the British Empire and offered a vast labour resource. And so between 1838 and 1917 nearly 450,000 Indians undertook the five-month boat journey to the Caribbean within a system called “indenture”. This transition, between African enslaved labour and the start of Indian indenture, was instigated by the planter Sir John Gladstone and his tireless petitioning of the British government.
Indenture contracts stipulated low pay for the worker, minimal basic provision and a commitment of up to five years. Some Indians recognised an economic opportunity, while others signed up to escape a society in which they were social outcasts. Some were forced or tricked in to signing. But in the main, recruiters relied upon the extreme poverty and famine in these territories, and the promise of a better life, to get the numbers required.
Once committed, the individual got a taste of the conditions to come at the port depots of before sailing. Conditions were poor and shockingly for them, all Hindu castes were thrown together before boarding ships bound for the Caribbean like the Hesperus or Whitby. The journey across “dark waters” was very dangerous and in 1865 the Eagle Speed perished and 260 migrants died. On board, illness was rife and women faced sexual violence. Laws made to improve the journey were usually ignored.
The exhibition will display:
- The transition between enslaved African labour and the start of Indian indenture, including letters petitioning the government from planter Sir John Gladstone.
- The journey from India to the Caribbean, examining the poor conditions on board and strong bonds forged between migrants as they crossed the Kala Pani or “dark waters”.
- Life in the Caribbean for indentured labourers, addressing the difficult conditions faced by migrants and the impact of their arrival.
- Indo-Caribbean Londoners today, exploring migration to the United Kingdom and drawing on personal stories of London’s Indo-Caribbean community.
The display features Gladstone’s letters, shipping company records, papers from the Parliamentary Archives and personal miscellany such as postcards, jewellery, photographs, film and artwork.
Shereen Lafhaj, Curator at the Museum of London, says, “As we mark the 75th anniversary of Windrush this year, Indo + Caribbean is a chance to learn more about Britain’s colonial footprint and the diverse communities from the Caribbean that have enriched our city. Exploitative and often shockingly cruel, Indian indenture was a system that nonetheless produced a unique culture, where individuals found agency to forge a new life. We hope this will be a starting point for people to find out about this lesser known aspect of our history.”
In a run-up to the Windrush 75, the Museum of London Docklands marks its 20th anniversary with a street party celebrating the history, cultures and communities of the East End. Headlined by drag queen Vanity Milan, the late-night event will include food stalls, pop-up bars, live performances, talks, film screenings and a makers market featuring the best of its local neighbourhood. The event is part of a year of programming for the anniversary celebrating and exploring east London.
The Drag Race finalist the iconic drag queen Vanity Milan will make a star appearance at the event, hosting the museum’s East End pub quiz and party pioneers Hackney Showroom will lead the evening’s entertainment with their outdoor stage, the Bobby Dazzler. They’ll be throwing a party on the quay with a line-up of live music and performances throughout the night.
A unique makers market will showcase the best small businesses selling everything from handmade ceramics to jewellery and fine art and there will be Jamaican patties and filled roti, rum cocktails and craft beer on sale.
The museum’s galleries will stay open late with a range of curated talks, tours and film screenings that bring new light to London’s history. From the origins of street parties to the iconic Notting Hill Carnival, the event will take a deep dive into the festivities that bring Londoners together.
Indo + Caribbean: The Creation of a Culture
The Museum of London Docklands, 19 May – 19 November.
For tickets, visit: https://www.museumoflondon.org.uk/museum-london-docklands.
Main image: Museum of London Docklands exterior © Museum of London. Background image: MoLD 20th Vanity Milan (c) Museum of London-Vanity Milan.