What comes to mind when you think of Britain? Among residents, the question is likely to evoke some interesting responses, but among tourists and visitors from abroad it invariably brings forth images of key elements of British ‘soft power’ such as the royal family, humour, fish and chips, London Bridge, London Eye, the Tube, Manchester United, cricket, black cabs, Shakespeare, Dickens and so on. Also high on the list is the green countryside, long stretches of sweeping pastures with grazing sheep and lazy waterways, wildflower meadows, representing a rural Arcadia that has long defined Englishness in some ways, a physical-cultural space akin to the German concept of heimat (home, homeland). The idyll is perhaps best reflected in the ever-resonating words of William Wordsworth (1770-1850), who wrote the most famous poem in the English language in 1804, I Wandered Lonely As A Cloud — better known as Daffodils — after walking along the shore of Ullswater in Lake District. The countryside has similarly inspired generations of poets, writers and painters.
You are in the lap of the countryside soon after you leave urban areas of London, Bristol, Birmingham or other cities, smaller roads leading to picture-perfect rural areas and villages with farming and livestock activities, where everyone seems to know everyone. Several conservation agencies, charity organisations and government departments with multi-million-pound budgets focus on the countryside, where houses can cost more than in cities. Green spaces and villages off the beaten track attract so many domestic and foreign tourists that the UK government has issued a Countryside Code, asking them to “be considerate to those living in, working in and enjoying the countryside; leave gates and property as you find them; do not block access to gateways or driveways when parking; be nice, say hello, share the space; and follow local signs and keep to marked paths unless wider access is available”.
The countryside is host to not only rural ways of living but also history embedded in large houses and mansions built by or for leading lights of the establishment over the centuries, particularly those associated with the British Empire. Many of them are in the care of the National Trust (founded in 1895), a charity and membership organisation that works for heritage conservation in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. It cares for over 780 miles of coastline, more than 250,000 hectares of land, over 500 historic houses, castles, parks, and gardens, and nearly one million works of art — all attracting a large number of visitors from various communities throughout the year. One of the largest landowners in Britain, the trust acquired its holdings — many in the countryside — by various means, including gifts from former owners, who could not manage them.
Says director-general Hilary McGrady: “No other UK organisation cares for so many places spanning such a vast period or geography — from the 60-million-year-old rocks of the Giant’s Causeway to Paul McCartney and John Lennon’s childhood homes in Liverpool. A treasury of houses, gardens, precious places and works of art has been entrusted to our care. They represent a shared inheritance and speak to our collective history, character and identity... this is an extraordinary privilege, and with this privilege comes a deep sense of responsibility and commitment.”
As part of the trust’s commitment to research, interpret and share the histories of slavery and the legacies of colonialism at the places it cares for, two recent projects provided an alternative view of the countryside. It is an aspect rarely highlighted or widely known, but raised hackles in some quarters, including leading lights in the Boris Johnson government, who saw it as part of ‘cancel culture’ or raging ‘culture wars’ that continue to hit the headlines. The projects were initiated before the Black Lives Matter (BLM) campaign hit the streets in Britain in 2019, but the new context placed their conclusions under sharper focus. So much so that the election to the trust’s governing council on October 30 has become an ideological battle, with those who resent its focus on links with colonialism and slavery mounting a sustained campaign among its more than 5.5 million members. Charity Commission, the regulator of charities, received several complaints after the report was released, but found no ground for action against the trust.
Focus on colonialism, slavery
History has several spaces of symbolic annihilation. The link between colonialism, countryside and country houses is one such space sought to be uncovered in academic research over the past decade. The trust’s research, conducted by several experts, found 93 sites with such links. It was the first time the links were
highlighted, even though generations of non-white people visiting the trust’s attractions long found it strange that their provenance was hardly ever mentioned. Since colonial history is not the focus of history in British schools, there is growing demand that in multicultural Britain, for non-white people to feel at home in rural as well as urban spaces, there needs to be greater recognition of the countryside’s colonial past and its enduring legacy for the modern image of the country.
The trust says the 115-page report is part of its commitment to ensure links to colonialism and historic slavery are properly represented, shared and interpreted as part of a broader narrative. Data in the report includes the historic sources of wealth linked to the global slave trades, goods and products of enslaved labour and the East India Company. It also documents the historic houses linked to the abolition of slavery and campaigns against colonial oppression. The background information at several of its properties has since been revised to mention their connections with slavery and colonialism, enabling visitors to have a more nuanced experience.
The 93 properties are located mostly in England, but also in Wales and Northern Ireland. The report details the links of each property and its links with slavery and colonialism. Among the historical narratives that link the properties with colonialism and slavery is ‘a culturally significant relationship to the literature or the promotion of colonialism or slavery, such as the colonial writings of Rudyard Kipling and the pro-slavery writings of Thomas Carlyle’. Drawing on recent evidence, the report includes sections on key areas, such as: the global slave trades, goods and products of enslaved labour; compensation for slave ownership; abolition and protest; the East India Company; the British Raj; and a factual ‘gazetteer’ listing the 93 individual places and collections.
Tarnya Cooper, the trust’s Curatorial and Collections Director, says: “Colonialism and slavery were central to the national economy from the 17th to the 19th centuries. Around a third of the places now in our care have direct connections to wider colonial histories, often in a way that’s reflected in collections, materials and records that are visible at those places. As a heritage charity, it’s our responsibility to make sure we tell inclusive, honest histories about our places and collections. It’s our job to research, interpret and openly share full and up-to-date information about our places. This report is the fullest account to date of the links between places now in the care of the National Trust and colonialism and historic slavery.” John Orna-Ornstein, the trust’s Director of Culture and Engagement, adds: “These histories are sometimes very painful and difficult to consider. They make us question our assumptions about the past, and yet they can also deepen and enrich our understanding of our economic status, our remarkable built heritage and the art, objects, places and spaces we have today and look after for future generations.”
One of the properties identified in the report particularly riled conservative sections of British society: the family home of national hero Winston Churchill in Chartwell, Kent. The report cites reasons for including it: “Sir Winston Churchill (1874–1965), whose family home is Chartwell (NT), served as Secretary of State for the Colonies from 1921 to 1922. He was Prime Minister during the devastating Bengal Famine of 1943, the British response to which has been heavily criticised. Churchill opposed the Government of India Act in 1935, which granted India a degree of self-governance. On 1 July 1947, he wrote to Prime Minister Clement Attlee (1883–1967), arguing that India should not gain independence. The passing of the Indian Independence Act on 18 July 1947 saw the partition of British India and the creation of the independent nations of India and Pakistan. Three hundred years of colonial rule ended.”
Taking strong exception to including Churchill’s home in the report, among others, the trust’s critics seek to influence the October 30 election by rallying around a newly-formed group called Restore Trust, which is backing some candidates. The group is also supported by John Hayes, chair of the Common Sense Group of Conservative MPs, which previously sought to lobby the Johnson government for a more hardline direction on ‘culture war’ issues. But, as McGrady says, “The colonialism research explored the relationship between British colonialism, including Transatlantic slavery, and the buildings and collections in our care. It is does not make judgements about people or the places in our care but instead makes statements of historical fact.”
The second project, called Colonial Countryside, sparked similar praise and criticism. A unique child-led writing and history project exploring the African, Caribbean and Indian connections at 11 of the trust’s properties, the idea was to inspire a new generation of young advocates for talking about colonial history. Led by historian Corinne Fowler of the University of Leicester, the project worked with 100 primary school pupils, 16 historians and 10 writers. Over the course of the project, participants held exhibitions, ran child-led tours and trained staff and volunteers to communicate the colonial stories of the trust’s places to ensure that robustly researched stories of empire are communicated accurately and sensitively to visitors.
Carla Contractor, Bristol-based local historian who has worked over the decades to preserve and perpetuate Rammohun Roy’s legacy in the south-west England town where he died, says: “The history of Britain’s colonialism is rarely taught in schools. Indian literature (even in English) is almost unknown whilst the art history of the Indian connection with great houses is little explored. The so-called British ‘nabobs’ who returned home with wealth from colonial India used their money to build nouveau riche homes — largely in the home counties. There are many such houses and buildings that are not with the National Trust, but have several links with colonialism, including the Sezincote House in Gloucestershire, built according to principles of Mughal architecture.”
Fowler, author of the acclaimed book, Green Unpleasant Land: Creative Responses To Rural England’s Colonial Connections, faced much criticism for her work; she was also one of the co-editors of the trust’s report on slavery and colonialism. Warning of a political agenda to discredit researchers exploring slavery links, she writes: “Talking about the countryside’s many links with empire has met with fierce political opposition…This was confirmed by my experience of directing Colonial Countryside…It is important to distinguish between public feeling about rural Britain and strategic political rhetoric about ‘wokeness’, focused on the countryside. We need an explanation of why perceived threats to British history and heritage resonate with people. There is a potent, longstanding association between the countryside and British identity. To suggest that rural Britain has anything to do with the outside world, and the Empire in particular, is seen as transgressive. Yet the evidence demonstrates that British colonialism was formative of the countryside rather than separate from it. For many, this information is painful and troubling: it changes our perceptions of cherished places that we thought we knew… Finally, it is essential that British schoolchildren are given a full account of our colonial past. No one should leave school without knowing what the Royal African Company or East India Company are. Or about Britain’s involvement in the slavery business.”
(Prasun is a journalist based in London. He tweets @PrasunSonwalkar)