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Learn about the 18th century, an era of new knowledge, scientific discovery, European colonialism and the transatlantic slave trade.
The Enlightenment is the name given to a period of discovery and learning that flourished among Europeans and Americans from about 1680–1820, changing the way they viewed the world. This was also a time when Britain became a global power and grew wealthy. A significant part of that wealth came from Britain's colonial empire and its active involvement in the transatlantic slave trade.
Housed in the oldest room in the present Museum – originally designed to house King George III's Library – this diverse permanent exhibition shows how British people understood the world at this time through their collections. The displays convey a sense of how objects were organised and displayed during the 18th century. Sir Hans Sloane's collection, with several additional libraries and collections, became the foundation of the British Museum, which was established on 7 June 1753 by an Act of Parliament.
While Enlightenment thinking and collections provided the foundations for much of our present understanding of the history of human cultural achievement, they also tended to tell that story from a predominantly European perspective. This period, and its legacies, are now increasingly being reassessed from a range of critical perspectives.
Legacies of empire and slavery
The Age of Enlightenment was characterised by the rise of new sciences, faith in reason and expanding trade. It also witnessed the aggressive global expansion of European colonialism and the transatlantic slave trade. This room's displays reflect the close connection between Enlightenment and empire.
From the late 16th century onwards, Britain was one of the main participants in the transatlantic slave trade along with other European countries, transporting people against their will from West Africa to work on plantations in the Americas, then bringing goods and wealth back to Europe. This trade was at its height during the 18th century. Millions of Africans were enslaved, many working in brutal conditions on hugely profitable sugar plantations.
The slave trade was abolished by Parliament in 1807 and the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 led to the end of slave ownership in most British colonies. Abolition was motivated by passionately disputed religious and moral arguments, but also by the declining profitability of slave-based labour and the increasing impact of slave rebellions, most notably the Haitian Revolution of 1791 and the 1831 Jamaica rebellion. British slave owners were compensated financially for the loss of what was regarded as their 'property'.