UNESCO attends the opening ceremony of the West India Committee’s exhibition in London

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Blondel Cluff, Chief Executive of the West India Committee, and Boyan Radoykov, UNESCO
© UNESCO
24 October 2017

A number of eminent participants attended the opening ceremony of the exhibition entitled: West Indians: Forefathers of the Metropolitan Police organized by the West India Committee’s at the Museum of London, Docklands last week. The title reflects the fact that it is both a little known and surprising fact that modern policing was introduced by the West India Committee in London in 1798 in the guise of the Marine Police, who are recognised as being the oldest continuously serving police force in the world, having merged with the subsequently formed ‘Peelers’ who were a land based force, to create the Metropolitan Police as known today.  The West Committee not only induced the founding of the river police to guard against millions of pounds worth of theft of expensive goods imported from the Caribbean, but in so doing funded the introduction of a modern approach to law enforcement – preventative policing.

A wide range of stakeholders contributed to the multi-facetted project, including the Thames Police Association that have been custodians of much of the heritage of the Marine Police force that is still based in what was the first police station of its kind, Wapping Police Station, still in use today. Other partners included the Metropolitan Police Service, The Prince’s Trust, Inside Times newspaper, and the Heritage Lottery Fund whose support fuelled the project.

Ms Blondel Cluff, Chief Executive of the West India Committee, remarked on that occasion that heritage was an adhesive force that we should all capture and use for our mutual benefit. She went on to encourage everyone to unleash the potential of the bright young people of the next generation in whom we must entrust the future. On the advice of the Museum of London, Ms Blondel had saved the West India Committee from being wound up several years ago, and has since gathered its extensive library and collection, which had been recently inscribed on the UNESCO Memory of the World International register. There, the founding documents of modern policing are held, together with those of historic initiatives such as the voyage of HMS Bounty, and the building of West India Quay, the longest brick building in the world at the time of its opening in 1802.

Chief Superintendent Dr Victor Olisa, Head of Diversity at the Metropolitan Police, recognized that society had not given due consideration to the fact that the West Indian community had made such an influential contribution to the creation of the Metropolitan Police and global policing. 

Dr Boyan Radoykov, the representative of UNESCO’s Knowledge Societies Division, underscored that this initiative perfectly encompasses what UNESCO’s Memory of the World Programme stands for. The MoW Programme, argued Radoykov, seeks to identify and preserve documentary heritage in order to ensure that different communities could use it as a source of information and knowledge.

 The material from the WIC’s MoW-inscribed collection is a repository of historical insights into how policing amalgamated with commerce and industry at the end of the eighteenth century. More importantly, it demonstrates how documentary heritage can, in fact, be a source of shared memory between different peoples.

 He added that the WIC collection “helps us to comprehend the Transatlantic Slave Trade, providing insight into many unacknowledged innovations, institutions and inventions derived directly from the trade.”

 Dr Radoykov ended his intervention by saying: “People and societies must realize that documentary heritage in all its forms, and especially the one of outstanding and universal value, is constantly under attack and threat of destruction, and that consenting to its disappearance would be the biggest failure of our times. For many years, UNESCO, together with its members and partners is striving to raise the awareness of national authorities and other relevant stakeholders about the necessity to improve the conditions for the preservation of, and the increased access to the common heritage of humanity. Your endeavor is the perfect illustration of effective and fruitful institutional efforts deployed to that end, for which I again congratulate you.”

This year, the MoW Programme is celebrating its 25th anniversary, underpinned by a three-fold vision of preserving documentary heritage, providing universal access to it, and raising public awareness of its shared cultural value.