India links of UK stately homes

Powis Castle, Wales
Powis Castle, Wales

By Amit Roy

CORINNE FOWLER, who is professor of post-colonial literature at Leicester University, has written a hard-hitting book about racism in the countryside called Green Unpleasant Land: Creative Re­sponses to Rural England’s Colonial Connections, which will be published by Peepal Tree Press on November 6.

“The countryside is the final frontier of belonging for black and Asian Britons,” Fowler said. “This is an opportunity for people to see that the countryside has more to do with the rest of the world than we all thought.”

The book’s title is a twist on the much loved lines from Blake’s Jerusalem: “I will not cease from mental fight/ Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand/ Till we have built Jerusalem/ In England’s green and pleas­ant land.”

Fowler, an independent academic, is also director of a project called “Colonial Countryside: National Trust Houses Re­interpreted”. She said while writing her book, she began “looking at different ways in which the British countryside is connected to the British Empire.

“And because of that chapter, I decided to go to the National Trust and partner with them on a project called ‘the colo­nial countryside’”.

She has been working with a coopera­tive National Trust, which looks after 300 stately homes and houses and which has decided to be much more transparent about their colonial connections, in a large number of cases with India. Quite a few of the properties were built by men who made their fortunes in India when Britain ruled the country.

Yet, according to Fowler, the millions who visit the National Trust properties are mostly unaware of their colonial links – something that is now being put right.

Corrine Fowler

She gave an example – Basildon Park near Reading, “which was owned by Sir Francis Sykes, who was a bit of a right-hand man of Clive of India.

“You have Powis Castle in Wales which has a collection called the Clive collection, which be­longs to the descendants of Clive of India. And they have things belonging to Tipu Sul­tan in that museum and many other objects which are extremely valuable and inter­esting to Indians.”

For the past seven years, the National Trust has been working on being more open about the dark chap­ters in Britain’s colonial history. The Black Lives Matter campaign, which wants some 70 statues removed, has giv­en the National Trust’s process of reveal­ing what was previously either hidden or just not published a fresh urgency.

The declared mission of the organisa­tion, founded in 1895, is “to look after Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty permanently for the benefit of the nation across England, Wales and North­ern Ireland”.

In a statement, it acknowledged: “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.”

Kedleston Hall in Derbyshire

It said about Kedleston Hall in Derby­shire, on which Government House in Kolkata – it is the residence of the West Bengal governor – is based: “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 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 beautiful spoils of Empire.”

Charlecote Park

Fowler provided examples of other In­dian connections: “There is Charlecote Park near Stratford-upon-Avon, which has an Indian dress sword which was given to the lady of the house by her son-in-law, who fought in Lucknow in 1857. There’s another place Hatchlands Park, with a number of owners who had strong East India Com­pany connections.”

Chartwell, famous for being Winston Church­ill’s countryside resi­dence, is also working on the wartime lead­er’s not very glorious Indian associations, including allegedly aggravating the ef­fects of the Bengal Famine of 1943.

Fowler said: “Churchill has bcome very contentious in Britain all of a sudden. There was a bit of a scuffle over his statue between young campaigners and people who felt that they had to come to his defence.”

Chartwell country house of Winston Churchill

She said of the history taught in schools: “It’s very sad that our curriculum misses out some very important history in the way that we relate it to the rest of the world. I think there’s a 400-year gap in our knowledge collectively about Britain, and that covers the colonial period.

“We know all about the Battle of Hast­ings, the Tudors and World War One and Two, and maybe the Russian Revolution, but we don’t really know much collec­tively about the other parts of our history.

“There’s a little bit about slavery but that is dominated by Britain’s role in abo­lition. What it doesn’t do is focus on Brit­ain’s involvement for hundreds of years in transatlantic slavery.

She added: “It certainly doesn’t focus much on Partition. And this is a real prob­lem, because Partition is very relevant to lots of children growing up in Britain to­day who have Indian heritage and living relatives with memories of Partition.”

The National Trust is going for relabe­ling rather than removal of objects.

“There are a number of things that the National Trust is very interested in doing. First of all is integrating the relevant colo­nial history into its main account of each house,” Fowler said.

“It’s most likely to be relabeling and providing the full historical context for these items which relate to the British Empire. But the relabeling is done col­lectively with historians, source commu­nities and others who now have an inter­est in contributing to that process. So it’s a bit more democratic. But it’s also his­torically rigorous.”