The UK’s National Trust charity has documented the connections that 93 of historic properties in its care have with colonialism and historic slavery, from East India Company merchants who invested their colonial earnings from India in sprawling country homes to slave traders who bought up large properties in Britain.
In an interim report released this month, the Trust also documents the way that significant buildings now under its purview are linked to the abolition of slavery and campaigns against colonial oppression, as also a connection between colonial wealth which gave rise to areas in Britain referred to as “English Hindoostan”.
One such link is between the owners of the Wimpole Hall in Cambridgeshire (pictured) and the East India Company (EIC), behind setting up the British Empire in India.
“Company men such as Robert Clive, who had effectively subjugated much of the Indian subcontinent in the name of the EIC, invested in land and property, much to the consternation of the landed gentry,” notes the report.
“EIC employees and their families and servants who had lived overseas might, it was feared, have adopted ‘foreign’ or ‘exotic’ traits and customs,” it reads.
Nevertheless, in spite of the mistrust of EIC money, many individuals and families who had returned to Britain having served the company in India, acquired numerous country house estates, particularly in the counties surrounding London, such as Berkshire, Hertfordshire and Essex.
"Berkshire had so many EIC residents that it became known at the time as 'English Hindoostan'," according to the report.
Nabobs of India
The study looks at the immense impact that the economic, social and political influence of EIC employees, referred to as “nabobs”, and their families had on the British country house. It also reflects on their impact on politics and society more broadly from 1757, when Robert Clive effectively conquered much of India, up to the Great Rebellion of 1857 – known as the First War of India’s Independence, which marked the end of the EIC’s rule in India and the beginning of the British Raj.
Dr Tarnya Cooper, Curatorial and Collections Director of the Trust, said: “A significant number of the places in our care have links to the colonisation of different parts of the world, and some to historic slavery.
“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.
“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.”
Painful and difficult
It also draws a distinction made in Britain between wealth from the sugar plantations in the West Indies and the portable wealth the "nabobs" brought back from India, which was seen as “alien” for having no land ownership origins.
“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,” said John Orna-Ornstein, Director of Culture and Engagement for the National Trust.
The heritage charity, which is also a membership organisation that maintains historic properties to facilitate public access to them through tours and exhibitions, said the project is part of its effort to provide inclusive and honest histories about places and collections.
by Nadia Hatink