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Addressing our histories of colonialism and historic slavery

A collage image containing three artworks: a painting of Teresia, Lady Shirley by Van Dyke at Petworth House; an oil painting of a young coachman at Erddig; and a photograph of the Maharaja Jam Sahib of Nawanagar at Polesden Lacey.
L to r: Teresia Khan, Lady Shirley, 1622, by Van Dyck (Petworth); Portrait of an unknown coachboy, late 18th century (Erddig); Ranjitsinhji, the Maharaja Jam Sahib of Nawanagar, 1922 (Polesden Lacey) | © National Trust Images

The National Trust cares for places and collections on behalf of the nation, and many have direct and indirect links to colonialism and historic slavery. Our interim report on the ‘Connections between Colonialism and Properties now in the Care of the National Trust’ examines these links as part of our broader commitment to ensure that they are properly represented, shared and interpreted.

Introducing the report into colonialism and historic slavery

The buildings, gardens and artefacts in our care reflect many different periods and a range of British and global histories – social, industrial, political and cultural. As a heritage charity, it’s our responsibility to make sure we are historically accurate and academically robust when we talk about the places and collections in our care.

What’s in the report?

The 115-page 'Interim Report on the Connections between Colonialism and Properties now in the Care of the National Trust, Including Links with Historic Slavery' details the connections that 93 historic places in our care have with colonialism and historic slavery. This includes the global slave trades, goods and products of enslaved labour, abolition and protest, and the East India Company and the British Raj.

It draws on recent evidence including the Legacies of British Slave-ownership project and the Trust’s own sources. It also documents the way that significant Trust places are linked to the abolition of slavery and campaigns against colonial oppression.

Download the report into colonialism and historic slavery.

Contributions from curators and researchers

It has been edited by Dr Sally-Anne Huxtable (National Trust Head Curator), Professor Corinne Fowler of the University of Leicester, Dr Christo Kefalas (National Trust World Cultures Curator), Emma Slocombe (National Trust Textiles Curator) with contributions from other National Trust curators and researchers around the country.

Some of the research has already been used to update digital content and supports visitor information and interpretation at relevant places.

A close-up of the detailed design on the shark-skin covered Japanese chest at Chirk Castle.
Detail of the Japanese chest at Chirk Castle, acquired by Thomas Myddelton, a founder of the East India Trading Company | © National Trust Images/Paul Highnam

In addition to his famous occupation as an explorer and privateer, Francis Drake (c.1540–96) was a slave trader who sailed with his cousin John Hawkins (1532–95). Together they 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.

Richard Pennant and Penrhyn Castle

The wealth of a number of the owners of Trust places and collections came directly from owning sugar plantations and the enslaved people who worked them. For example, Richard Pennant (c.1737–1808), owner of the Penrhyn Estate in Wales, 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 a 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.

Records and depictions of people of African and Asian descent

Other less visible or tangible connections to historic 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 the places we care for. For example, we know that in 1735 a black child called Philip Lucy was baptised at Charlecote Park, Warwickshire and that Mary Jones Wade (sometimes recorded as Mary James), grandmother of Charles Paget Wade (1893–1956) of Snowshill Manor, Gloucestershire, was a black woman born with free status on St Kitts.

Work continues

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.

The West front of Penrhyn Castle, lit by a low sun. Trees are visible in the foreground.
The Penrhyn Estate in Wales was owned by Richard Pennant, who owned six plantations in Jamaica | © National Trust Images//Matthew Antrobus

Our collections and slavery

Some Trust collections include objects made or owned by enslaved people. Tropical hardwoods such as mahogany 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). The film was commissioned by the National Trust at Nostell, West Yorkshire, to address the use of mahogany in their collection of furniture by Thomas Chippendale.

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

Objects such as the West Indian potential slave collar owned by Charles Paget Wade are stark and distressing reminders of the violent oppression faced by 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 appropriately, rather than historical contexts of decorative art or triumphal display.

Connections with trade and the East India Company

For 500 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.

The Clive family and the East India Company

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 its rich natural resources. As well as creating the British Empire in India, this ensured that Clive became vastly wealthy, and in 1768 he spent around £100,000 remodelling the Claremont Estate in Surrey. Today, Claremont Garden is cared for by the National Trust.

Robert's son, Edward Clive (1754–1839) as Governor of Madras, bears responsibility 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.

Edward Clive’s son, also called Edward, inherited Powis when his maternal uncle, the Earl of Powis, died. The collection of Indian objects includes Tipu Sultan’s magnificent state tent and a gold and jewelled tiger’s head finial from his throne.

An image of fabric wall panels from Tipu Sultan's tent made from fine cotton chintz with a white ground, patterned with acanthus enclosing a central vase with symmetrical flower arrangement, predominantly in reds and greens
Cotton chintz fabric wall panels from Tipu Sultan's tent at Powis Castle in Wales | © National Trust Images/Erik Pelham

Indian collections and display

The display of Indian and other Asian objects in the ‘Eastern Museum’ at Kedleston Hall reflects 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 from 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 under way 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 spoils of Empire.

Ongoing work

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 the places we care for and objects and world culture and history. We’ll also be working with other National Trust organisations around the world to connect these histories up globally.

In doing so, we hope to open up debates that further our collective understanding, and to make places and collections relevant and responsive to increasingly diverse audiences. We will test and evaluate new and existing 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.

Our Director-General responds to the report’s coverage

Hear Hilary McGrady’s latest response to some of the media coverage concerning our report and its inclusion of Sir Winston Churchill.

Volunteer examining a book as part of conservation work in the library at Greyfriars' House and Garden, Worcestershire

Research at the National Trust

We're an Independent Research Organisation recognised by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). Our research takes place in many forms – from the PhDs we sponsor and practical testing of new conservation techniques to the hundreds of research projects we collaborate in or host at places in our care each year.

Download the colonialism and historic slavery report