Addressing the histories of slavery and colonialism at the National Trust

Details of three portraits

The National Trust cares for places and collections on behalf of the nation, and many have direct and indirect links to slavery and colonialism.

We are responsible for making sure their stories are fully explored and shared. This often means working with partners and communities to uncover and tell them. While we have done this at places such as Sutton House in London, Dyrham Park in Gloucestershire and Quarry Bank Mill in Cheshire, and with partners such as Colonial Countryside, we have much more work to do.

Slavery has been woven into the fabric of British and global history for thousands of years. For 400 years, white British people, companies and organisations gained huge amounts of wealth through the appalling exploitation of enslaved people as part of the slave trade. 

The links between wealth and slavery at National Trust places 

In addition to his famous occupation as an explorer and privateer, Francis Drake (1540-96) was a slave trader who sailed with his cousin John Hawkins (1532-95). Together they captured and enslaved West African people and sold them to Spanish-owned plantations in the Americas. Drake owned Buckland Abbey in Devon from 1581 until his death, and his descendants owned the property until 1946.

The wealth of a number of the owners of our places and collections came directly from owning sugar plantations, and the enslaved people who worked them. For example, Richard Pennant (1737–1808), owner of the Penrhyn Estate, invested the proceeds from the six plantations he owned in Jamaica and the hundreds of enslaved people who worked there, into the slate mines on his estate in Gwynedd, Wales.

Richard Pennant was also a Member of Parliament between 1761 and 1784, where he used his position to act as a vocal and influential opponent of the abolition of slavery. Pennant’s fortune was inherited by family who used their wealth to build Penrhyn Castle, which is now in the care of the National Trust.

Parklands, gardens, houses and luxury objects were paid for by direct links to profits made from slavery and the compensation that was paid out to slave owners after abolition.

An 1871 watercolour of the Denbigh sugar plantation in Jamaica, one of the largest plantations owned by Richard Pennant of Penryhn Estate
Watercolour of the Denbigh sugar plantation in Jamaica, 1871
An 1871 watercolour of the Denbigh sugar plantation in Jamaica, one of the largest plantations owned by Richard Pennant of Penryhn Estate

Records and depictions of people of African and Asian descent 

Other less visible or tangible connections to slavery also exist at National Trust places and in their collections. We know that a number of people of African and Asian descent lived and worked at our properties. For example, we know that in 1735 a Black child called Will Archus was baptised at Charlecote Park, Warwickshire and that Mary Jones Wade, grandmother of Charles Paget Wade (1893-1956) of Snowshill Manor, Gloucesterhsire, was a Black woman born with free status on St Kitts. We still have much more research to do to reveal more about the lives of these people. We must also uncover, and give voice to, the names and stories of many whose experiences have become hidden by histories written by, and for, the voices of privilege and authority.

Our collections and slavery

Some of our collections include objects made or owned by enslaved people. Tropical hardwoods such as mahogany and lignum vitae were harvested using the labour of enslaved people, as evocatively depicted in the short film 'Mahogany' (directed by Zodwa Nyoni and produced by 24 Design in 2018), commissioned by the National Trust at Nostell to address the use of mahogany in their collection of furniture by Thomas Chippendale.

A mahogany clothes press, English, 1766-7, made by Thomas Chippendale, Nostell, West Yorkshire
A mahogany clothes press
A mahogany clothes press, English, 1766-7, made by Thomas Chippendale, Nostell, West Yorkshire

Some objects in National Trust collections depict Black people in ways that stereotype them or that objectify Black bodies. Some cause offense and distress.

Objects such as the West Indian slave collar owned by Charles Paget Wade are stark and distressing reminders of the violent oppression faced by Black enslaved people. Slavery is a subject that needs handling with the utmost care and sensitivity. We aim to work with and learn from partners and communities so we can redisplay and interpret these items well, outside their previous contexts of decorative art or triumphal display.  

Connections with trade and the East India Company

For five hundred years, British colonialism was fundamental to British social, economic, political, and cultural life. This was allied with a belief in white racial and cultural superiority. This is reflected across many National Trust places and collections. 

A number of properties and collections were owned or acquired by leading officials from the East India Company, the hugely powerful corporation which dominated trade between Europe, Asia and the Middle East between 1600 and 1857. The Company was instrumental in the East African slave trade and also traded enslaved people from the West Coast of Africa to its settlements in South and East Africa, India and Asia. Thomas Myddelton (1550-1631), an MP and a Lord Mayor of London who bought Chirk Castle in 1593, was one of the founders of the East India Company, which received its charter from Elizabeth I on 31 December 1600. 

Detail of a Japanese Chest at Chirk Castle, thought to have been acquired by Thomas Myddelton
Detail of the Japanese Chest at Chirk Castle, Wrexham
Detail of a Japanese Chest at Chirk Castle, thought to have been acquired by Thomas Myddelton

In the 18th century, under Robert Clive (1725-74), the Company used its wealth and armies to forcibly invade and conquer the Indian subcontinent to exploit the rich natural resources held there. As well as creating the British Empire in India, this ensured that Clive became vastly wealthy, and in 1768 he spent around £100,000 remodeling the Claremont estate in Surrey. Today, Claremont gardens are cared for by the National Trust.

Robert's son, Edward Clive (1754–1839) as Governor of Madras, was responsible for the defeat and death of Tipu Sultan (1750–99), the ruler of Mysore. Both Robert and Edward Clive’s colonial legacy can be seen today in a collection known as the ‘Clive Museum’ at Powis Castle, a property Edward inherited through his marriage to Henrietta Herbert. The collection of Indian objects include Tipu Sultan’s magnificent state tent and a gold and jewelled tiger’s head finial from his throne.  

A view of the 'Clive Museum' and Tipu Sultan's palanquin at Powis Castle, Powys, Wales
A view of the Clive Museum and Tipu Sultan's palanquin at Powis Castle and Garden, Powys, Wales.
A view of the 'Clive Museum' and Tipu Sultan's palanquin at Powis Castle, Powys, Wales

Indian collections and display

The display of Indian and other Asian objects in the ‘Eastern Museum’ at Kedleston Hall is a testament to British Imperialism in India at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. The objects were acquired by George Curzon (1859–1925), Viceroy of India, 1899–1905. By all accounts Curzon had a passion for Indian art and artefacts, but in recent years we have recognised that our method of display of objects was culturally insensitive. A new project is underway to work with experts in Asian art and history as well as Asian communities to research, interpret and redisplay the collection as much more than the beautiful spoils of Empire. 

A display case in the 'Eastern Museum' at Kedleston Hall, Derbyshire
a display case in Kedleston's Eastern Museum
A display case in the 'Eastern Museum' at Kedleston Hall, Derbyshire

The National Trust will not work alone to uncover, research and tell the histories of slavery and colonialism. We will work with and listen to local and global communities of interest, including Black and Minority partner organisations and experts, to research and develop our understanding of the rich and complex relationships between our places and objects and world culture and history.

In doing so, we hope to open up debates that further our collective understanding, and make our places and collections relevant and responsive to increasingly diverse audiences. We will test and evaluate our approaches. We accept that much of this is new for us and we won’t always get it right, but we will learn from our mistakes.