Earlier this week I visited Free at Last?; an exhibition about slavery, in All Hallows by the Tower and on a ship moored in the Thames. The exhibition explores the history of the transatlantic slave trade, and about slavery and human trafficking in the world today.
The centre of the exhibition is a visit to a ship similar in design to the slaver Zong, In 1781, the Zong was embarking on the 'middle passage', taking slaves from West Africa to England. The ship was overloaded, and malnutrition and disease took their toll on slaves and crew. The captain, Sir Luke Collingwood, decided to put the remaining sick slaves overboard, in order to make an insurance claim for loss of cargo in transit. This shocking action, whilst legal in English law, contributed to public opinion turning against the slave trade, and the success of William Wilberforce's 1807 parliamentary bill.
The exhibition told a lot of stories and imparted a lot of information through poster displays, but it was a little light on historic artifacts. The ship isn't a replica of the Zong (as claimed in the publicity), but a modern construction built to a similar design. For all that, it's a bold undertaking for a Christian charity to have undertaken.
In the hold of the ship are replica manacles, and a slave berth showing that the slaves would have had more room if they were chained into a coffin. There were no toilet facilities below deck, and the conditions were unsanitary in the extreme.
While talking to one of the volunteers staffing the exhibition, I learned that the Mayor of London withdrew a significant contribution to the costs of the exhibition because of its Christian content. I tried to resist being embroiled in a Daily Mail-style conversation about all that's wrong with the Mayor, but if the story was reported to me accurately, it is sad that faith content is a bar to the mayor supporting an otherwise worthwhile initiative. Had the exhibition contained content about another world religion, I wonder if the decision would have been the same.