Nathan Hine

Throughout its 115 year history, the National Trust has protected some of the most valued stately homes, monuments, and gardens and parks in Britain. These include properties which were built on the fortunes of the transatlantic slave trade and the exploits of British colonialism. So with the rising prominence of black history, should the National Trust explain to people how slavery and colonialism relates to their properties? 

The National Trust was founded in 1895 by social reformer Octavia Hill, solicitor Sir Robert Hunter and clergyman Hardwick Rawnsley. Their purpose was to ‘promote the permanent preservation for the benefit of the nation of lands and tenements of beauty or historic interest.’ They sought to preserve land and buildings that were both beautiful as well as sites of historic interest for the benefit of the nation. 

A year later, the trust acquired its first property, the fourteenth century Alfriston Clergy House in the Sussex village of Alfriston. It cost the trust £10 and £350 in repairs. Now the trust owns 248,000 hectares of land, including 780 miles of coast and more than 500 stately homes, castles, monuments, gardens, parks, and nature reserves. 

The National Trust has been important in helping to preserve culturally significant sites of British history and without the role of the trust in preserving these places, their existence would be forgotten altogether. With that in mind, the National Trust cares for places and collections with direct and indirect links to colonialism and slavery. So the question is: does the trust have a responsibility to explain the history of the places that they care for, or should they just be treated as tourist sites? 

In light of the recent prominence of black history, on August 23rd The National Trust put out a series of tweets explaining some of its links to properties and objects relating to slavery and colonialism. This resulted in a backlash from National Trust members, many of whom said that they would revoke their membership, with one saying, ‘steer clear of politics – we go for pleasure’, so is this approach of education right for such a national institution?

This backlash could be a sign that while some people are happy to engage in this conversation, for others, mixing a day out at the National Trust and the legacy of slavery and British colonalism should not be mixed.   

A National Trust spokesperson said: “We’re acutely aware of the fact that the legacies of slavery and colonialism are reflected in the nation’s places, buildings and collections, including those looked after by the National Trust. We have recently completed a full survey of the places we care for to better understand these links and we will be publishing our findings soon.

“We’re working to address painful and challenging histories attached to our places and collections, but we have a long way to go. We are working with partners and communities to do this. We understand the importance of the way we represent and interpret history, and the impact it has on people and culture and we are committed to being open and inclusive as we understand more and reinterpret places as a result.”  

 In the recently-published report from the trust addressing the histories of slavery and colonialism, it acknowledges that more needs to be done to ensure the story of these places are known with several sites being founded on the wealth from either the exploits of British colonialism or slavery. It makes clear that ‘the wealth of a number of the owners of our places and collections came directly from sugar plantations and the enslaved people that worked for them. 

Among the properties whose wealth derives from the slave trade is the Penrhyn Estate in Gwyneed, Wales which was owned by Richard Pennant (1737-1808) who invested the proceeds from his six plantations in Jamaica. 

His fortune was inherited by his family who used his wealth to build Penrhyn Castle and the estate has been managed by the trust since 1951 in lieu of the death duties from Lady Janet. 

Objects included in National Trust properties are directly linked to slavery such as the West Indian slave collar owned by Charles Paget Wade can be seen in Snowshill Manor in Gloucestershire. 

Slaves cutting the sugar cane on the Island of Antigua, 1823 (image from Unsplash)

Despite the controversial nature of this topic, surely it only seems right that properties whose wealth is derived from the slave trade and objects that are directly linked to the slave trade are fully explained to those who visit and enjoy these places? The National Trust seems to think so for now at least. 

As for the role of British colonialism in National Trust properties, Kedleston Hall in Derbyshire has a huge display of Indian and Asian objects acquired by Viceroy Curzon (1859-1925). The report adds that a new project is underway to work with experts in Asian art and history and the Asian communities to think about how these objects can be redisplayed to represent much more than simply spoils of Empire. 

Following the tragic death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, black history continues to be viewed in a different guise. Like most institutions, this presents an opportunity for the National Trust. While some people do not want to mix a Sunday afternoon and the history of the slave trade, the trust appears to be taking the approach to educate people about all parts of the properties they manage.  

As it is an institution founded to look after ‘historically significant or beautiful places for the betterment of the nation,’ surely it is only right that we understand and appreciate the full extent of our cultural heritage for the good and prosperity of the nation.

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Last Update: April 29, 2024