This aquatint, produced by the English landscape artist William Daniell (1769–1837), depicts the newly-built West India Docks on the Isle of Dogs in east London. It was published by Daniell in 1802. The view is one of a series of seven in the King's Topographical Collection representing a set of new docks on the Thames, built from 1800 as part of a scheme to totally overhaul and modernise shipping in London. Trade imports, both domestic and foreign, dramatically increased over the 18th century and London’s docks needed to expand and upgrade in order to accommodate the daily influx of ships and goods. Architects and engineers bid to remodel the city’s docks, each of their designs featuring the latest technological developments. The new infrastructure was considered revolutionary and visionary: the embodiment of modern Britain as a sophisticated and scientifically advanced imperial power.
Daniell’s bird’s eye view looks over the West India Docks from Blackwall to Limehouse, with the Thames in the distance. This was the commercial centre for trade with the West Indies, processing imports of valuable and desirable sugar, rum, tobacco, cotton, spices and coffee. The Docks’ construction was largely owed to the influence of two powerful merchants: Robert Milligan (c.1746–1809) who owned sugar plantations in Jamaica, and George Hibbert (1757–1837), a slaver and chairman of the West India Merchants of London.
Building began in 1800, to the designs of leading civil engineer William Jessop. To mark the ceremonial opening of the docks in August 1802 a brand new frigate called the Henry Addington was hauled in, followed by the Echo, a ship laden with prized cargo from the West Indies. The vessels were ‘received amidst the shouts of an immense concourse of spectators’, Daniell writes in the subtitle to the plate: ‘every well-wisher’ gathered to pay tribute to this feat of engineering which guaranteed ‘the prosperity & glory of his Country’.
The layout of the docks is clearly depicted in Daniell’s aquatint. Twin docks at centre are separated into imports (right) and exports (left), with the City Canal feeding into the Thames at far left. This arrangement would enable ‘Shipping to avoid its circuitous & often dangerous course round the Isle of Dogs’, Daniell writes. Large and spacious warehouses line each side of the docks, providing ample storage facilities for goods. Shipwrights, warehousemen, porters and tradesmen pepper the scene, rendered diminutive relative to the titanic West Indiamen and towering warehouses. Daniell pictures the dock as a well-functioning and efficient complex, each building and ship in its proper place. The vision of a powerful conglomerate of merchants is realised and celebrated in the aquatint. Daniell dedicated the plate to the ‘Chairman, Deputy Chairman & other Directors of the London Dock Company’, a body of private individuals ‘co-operating…in the same grand Object’: ‘to give at once Activity & Security to the Commerce of the Metropolis’.