Our new report on the connections that some of the places in our care have with colonialism and historic slavery was always going to attract strong views. In this blog, our Director of Culture and Engagement, John Orna-Ornstein, reflects on the importance of being open about histories of slavery and colonialism and why publishing the report is the right thing to do.
Why publish a report into colonialism and historic slavery links? I can understand why some people have concerns but I’d like to reassure them that I see this report as a continuation of – not a departure from – the work we already do. That is, to explore and share histories, whether they're comfortable or hard to hear.
Take Wimpole Hall in Cambridgeshire, one of my favourite places in the world. It’s close to my home and so I’ve visited it many times over the years. My memories of this special house and park are layered. The farm, much loved by my children at a younger age. Family walks in the Capability Brown-designed landscape. The magic of the Hall at Christmas. It’s a tapestry of history, beauty and nature, not just for me and my family, but for many others too.
I was talking recently to a member of the Wimpole staff about conservation work on the stables. The building we were discussing was, in fact, a key hub of the historic estate but there was very little interpretation to explain this fascinating history. For many, the story of this place never reveals itself and is often eclipsed by a trip to the café or shop.
Why we're exploring these stories
The places and collections we care for are beautiful backdrops to wonderful experiences. Places that people in their millions can simply enjoy. But they’re more than that. They are also places that speak profoundly about the past. Those Wimpole stables are part of the story of an estate designed to earn income, to provide a beautiful place to live, but also to impress. From those stables we can explore the development of society in England over 200 years in a dozen different directions. But to do that we need to both understand those big histories and to find accessible ways to share them with visitors.
Wimpole has many histories that deserve to be explored and some of these are challenging. But it's important we tell them. One of those is that it was purchased in 1740 by Philip Yorke, 1st Earl of Hardwick (1690–1764). During his time as Attorney General, he co-authored a legal opinion stating that runaway enslaved people coming to Great Britain or Ireland from the West Indies were not free, nor could they become free through baptism. This gave slavers the legal right to enforce their return to the plantations. Other owners of Wimpole had connections to the East India Company, an organisation that enslaved many people.
We're not here to make judgements about the past
So the Wimpole that I love had a part to play in the history of colonialism and slavery. But the report we've published this month is not intended to make judgements about the past. We're presenting information based on research, allowing people to explore and draw conclusions for themselves. No one alive today can ever be held responsible for the wrongs of the period when slavery took place, but we can seek to understand this better.
Similar histories are reflected in many other places cared for by the National Trust. Some properties were partly or largely funded by the proceeds of slavery, at a time when slavery was seen by many people as a legitimate underpinning of commerce.
But we also see places now in our care where families took a stand against the slave trade and campaigned for its abolition, such as the Quaker Peckover family at Peckover House, and at Cliveden where Harriet Howard lent patronage to the abolitionist movement, and petitioned her sisters in the United States against slavery.
We have a responsibility, in caring for places of historical interest, to research and share the widest possible range of histories with the widest possible range of people. Some of these histories are comfortable. Some of them are hugely uncomfortable.
Our new report includes a gazetteer describing links with colonialism and historic slavery and a number of essays written by our curators that place these links in the broader context of a trade and way of working we now find abhorrent.
What we'll be doing next
There can only be a strong future for the National Trust if we succeed in telling clear and open stories about its places, sharing its research more widely and also inviting people to comment and be involved. So we'll be gathering feedback on the report through the autumn of 2020, and asking a specially convened group to assess these responses, using their lived experience and professional expertise to recommend future actions that the Trust can take.
In the coming years we'll build upon this initial report with further research and with new interpretation. This will include difficult histories relating to slavery, but also a wide range of other inclusive histories. Our intention is never to preach, but always to be open and honest.
As a member and visitor, you'll continue to find that the houses and gardens we look after are beautiful and relaxing places to enjoy. You’ll also find that the history of those places is increasingly available for you to explore and understand.
Wimpole, and other National Trust places, are perfect backdrops to a picnic, a cream tea in the café or a stroll in beautiful countryside. But they are also more than that. They tell us much about our past and who we are. They tell myriad stories, of everyone, and we want everyone to feel their stories are represented.