Born in Dumfries in 1746, Milligan moved to Jamaica in his early 20s and made his money from the operation of two large sugar plantations. His interests were always more in commerce than in management, so in 1779 he moved to London and continued to trade in commodities (and human beings) from there. He took a house in the City and joined the Society of West India Planters and Merchants, a pressure group opposing plans to abolish the slave trade. Records show that at the time of his death 526 slaves were engaged on his plantations at Kellet's and Mammee Gully.
Milligan's merchant friends were increasingly concerned by thefts of cargo when their ships unloaded in London, so pressed for the construction of new private docks to the east of the City. A long battle ensued between those preferring Wapping and those preferring the Isle of Dogs, with the latter eventually winning out after some heavy parliamentary positioning. Robert's cunning negotiations ensured that the new West India Docks had a monopoly on all cargoes returning from the Caribbean, including sugar, molasses and rum. For tax reasons two parallel basins were constructed, one for import and one for export, each surrounded by a secure ring of warehouses. One of those warehouses is now the Museum of London Docklands, and Milligan's statue stands right outside.
The statue was erected in 1813, four years after Milligan's death, having been commissioned by his appreciative fellow directors and proprietors. Somewhat unflatteringly, the statue portrays the merchant with a portly paunch. Its plaque eulogises him as A Merchant of London To Whose Genius, Perseverance and Guardian Care The Surrounding Great Work Principally Owes It's Design, Accomplishment And Regulation. The front of the plinth prominently features a bronze bas-relief of Britannia being hailed by the female figure of Commerce while seated on the head of a lion.
On the Foundation Stone unveiled on the day the docks opened, preserved just around the corner, the entire project is praised as an Ornament to British Commerce. In Milligan's world trade was king, and the slavery that enabled it a silent partner. Indeed I couldn't find a single mention of slavery on the information panels and construction hoardings nearby, only several references to the sugar trade, long a convenient way of whitewashing the truth to make it sound more acceptable. The slave trade officially ceased five years after the West India Docks were completed, and two years before Milligan's death, but you can bet he fought that decision every step of the way.
Only if you go inside the museum is the slave trade addressed, but then comprehensively so. In 2007 its 18th century seafaring galleries were replaced by a hard-hitting permanent exhibition entitled London, Sugar & Slavery (which I reviewed favourably at the time). It starts by celebrating African culture before going on to detail how white men ripped away boatfuls of human traffic to a life of servitude overseas. A strong focus is also placed on the abolitionists who later fought to change the system, but even their excellent work can't cancel out the abhorrence of what came before. I'm sure Robert Milligan must be mentioned somewhere, but I can't currently get inside to check.
A short walk away, just round the corner from Westferry station, lies Milligan Street. This time it's not a Georgian original but a residential street in quintessential late 20th century Tower Hamlets style. It starts with an estate agents and ends with a youth hub, curving past low flats and actual proper houses built before bankers poked their noses in nextdoor. At the time of construction it must have seemed right to name the new road after the man whose machinations caused the West India Docks to be built, but it's also odd that nobody at my normally right-on local council has subsequently thought to make nominal adjustments.
Meanwhile the West India Docks have long since been utterly transformed to become the heart of London Docklands. A forest of glass towers now rises across the footprint of those former warehouses, the centre of this new global business district ironically atop the old. The docks themselves remain a strong watery presence, although much of the Import Dock was filled in during the 1990s to create Canary Wharf Jubilee line station and the new Crossrail station has more recently appeared within the Export Dock. As you whizz through by train, either now or in the future, perhaps pause and reflect that these engineering marvels are only here because the slave trade caused them to be dug out in the first place.
Milligan's statue doesn't yet seem to have angered the forces of political correctness, perhaps because it's outside a museum where its context can be explained. But his entrepreneurial success does appear to have masked the source of his fortune, as if society has tacitly agreed that the ends justified the means.
It remains all too easy to forget how fundamentally the slave trade defined our nation's rise to economic significance, gifting wealth to future generations based on the prolonged suffering of others. We don't need to topple every relic of those days to recognise that our ancestors' behaviour fails to meet today's moral standards. But we should perhaps be taking more urgent steps to remove the slave trade's most contentious artefacts, even if how we address that issue is rarely black and white.