George Hibbert: Collector, Philanthropist … Slaveowner
By Bethany McGlyn, WPAMC Class of 2020
Prior to our British Design History field study, I wrestled with how best to spend the free day allotted for us in London. I assumed that I would need a break from museums after a week of visits to some of London’s most famous institutions, and expected that I’d rather spend my free time taking a much-needed nap in my hotel room. That all changed when I heard about the Museum of London Docklands. I had never heard of the Docklands museum until University of London professor Angus Lockyer sang its praises while giving our group a walking tour of the city. Angus called the Docklands museum the most important museum in London. After visiting, I have to agree.
I was hesitant at first—I know little about maritime history and expected to be confused, if not bored, as I wandered through the Grade I listed, early nineteenth century sugar warehouse that houses the museum. If I’m being honest, my motivation for visiting the Docklands museum was not a sudden interest in maritime history, but the urge to experience “London, Sugar & Slavery,” a gallery at the museum dedicated to London’s troubling and often overlooked role in the Atlantic Slave Trade.
I was fascinated by the gallery’s seamless integration of images, objects, text, and technology, as well as the careful attention that was clearly paid to vocabulary and tone throughout the exhibits. (Unfortunately, many of the museums visited on our trip struggled with their interpretation of slavery – if they mentioned it at all. A blog post for another time, perhaps!)
Of the many things I learned while exploring the gallery, the story of George Hibbert (1757-1837) stuck with me most. Hibbert is perhaps best known for his collections of art, rare books, and botanical specimens and the substantial philanthropic contributions made throughout his lifetime. At the Docklands museum, Hibbert’s financial success is put into perspective. George Hibbert was born into a family made wealthy through the ownership of several sugar plantations in the West Indies—plantations that continued to exploit the labor of enslaved people and generate wealth for Hibbert throughout his adult life. In addition to the many plantations Hibbert owned, he worked for West India trading firms and chaired the West India Dock Company.
Hibbert’s many investments in the institution of slavery meant that his financial, professional, and social standing depended on the continuation of the Atlantic Slave Trade. He lobbied Parliament to keep slavery legal. Eventually a Member of Parliament himself, he opposed vigorously the work of antislavery activists and used his position to rally against the 1807 Slave Trade Abolition Bill and the 1833 Slavery Abolition Bill.
Hibbert used the wealth he generated from enslaved men, women, and children to create a public identity as a collector and philanthropist that masked his role as slave trader and owner. Among his collection of art and rare books was a Gutenberg Bible. He supported charities such as the Royal National Lifeboat Institution and the City of London Lying-in Hospital. His access to elite groups such as the London Institution and the Linnean Society was made possible by his deep involvement in (and profits from) slaveholding.
I left the museum feeling inspired to ask more of the objects I will encounter as I continue my education at Winterthur. While many of the objects collected by George Hibbert do not have obvious connections to slavery (like the Gutenberg Bible), they are entangled with the money generated by the labor and lives of millions of enslaved Africans and the politics used to manipulate public opinion.