By Amit Roy
THE National Trust’s 115-page report, Addressing our histories of colonialism and historic slavery, was defended by the organisation’s director-general, Hilary McGrady, when she appeared on Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs last week.
There is a lobby which believes that the job of the National Trust is mainly to serve “cream teas” in period settings and not upset its members by revealing that many of the beautiful buildings they are paying good money to come and see were put up by their owners on the proceeds of either the slave trade or colonial plunder, especially during the Raj in India.
According to this lobby, the job of the National Trust is merely the upkeep of the buildings. It should not adopt the “woke” agenda of disclosing they were built with colonial loot.
The National Trust takes a different view – it argues it is providing the fullest possible information on “over 500 historic houses, castles, ancient monuments, gardens, parks and nature reserves” in its care.
The show’s presenter, Lauren Laverne, posed the question: “You’d already commissioned a report into the colonial links of your properties and it’s been published and shows that 93 have a substantial connection to slavery and to Britain’s colonial past. What does that mean for their future?”
McGrady replied: “What it means for the future is that we’ll be able to tell the history in its fullest sense. We’ve known for a very long time, of course, that there have been all sorts of connections to slavery for many of our houses. One of the first questions people will ask is where did the wealth come from?
“Black Lives Matter did bring it more into focus and did accelerate the issue. But this is something we’ve been working on for a long time. You know, 20-30-40 years ago, we didn’t even tell the story of ‘downstairs’ – we only told the story about the family. And really, the links to slavery and colonialism is another layer of information that we want to add into the understanding we have of our places.”
She said: “It’s no more or no less than that. It’s a matter of huge frustration for me this thing about, ‘it’s blaming and shaming’. It’s none of that. It’s about understanding and acknowledgement.”
McGrady, who has an Irish background – she was previously regional director of the National Trust in Northern Ireland before becoming director general in 2018 – added: “Maybe it is something to do with my background. But I just think if you cannot get yourself to a place where you can acknowledge the past how can you understand what the future is going to be like? It’s a really sensitive issue. It upsets me that people have found it so difficult. Certainly, that was not my intention at all.”
Laverne said: “As an organisation, how challenging is it for you to strike a balance between recreation and education? The fact is, some members just want to walk around a big house and then have a cream tea, others are up for something more challenging.”
McGrady agreed: “We’re a broad church. I love that people just want to come along and sit in a garden and have a picnic. And then there’ll be other people that want to be close to a Rembrandt and understand the background as to why we have it and we should, as an organisation, be able to stretch right across that. That’s one of our strengths that we stretch across so many interests. We talk about people paddling, and we talk about people diving – and I want to be able to do all of that. But that’s not easy.”
The National Trust’s report does make uncomfortable reading for those who would prefer not to know.
It says by way of introduction: “The buildings 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 communicate about the places and collections in our care.”
The report “details the connections 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.
“It also documents the way that significant Trust buildings are linked to the abolition of slavery and campaigns against colonial oppression.” Dr Tarnya Cooper, curatorial and collections director, commented: “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.”
The report makes it clear that Britain became rich by impoverishing India.
On “Connections with trade and the East India Company”, the report states: “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.”
Specific examples are cited in the report. “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 remodelling 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, 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.”
On “Indian collections and display”, the report states: “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.”
What has led to a “row” is the reference to Britain’s great war time leader: “Sir Winston Churchill (1874-1965), whose family home is Chartwell (NT), served as Secretary of State for the Colonies from 1921 to 1922. He was prime minister during the devastating Bengal Famine of 1943, the British response to which has been heavily criticised. Churchill opposed the Government of India Act in 1935, which granted India a degree of self governance. On 1 July 1947, he wrote to prime minister Clement Attlee (1883– 1967), arguing that India should not gain independence. The passing of the Indian Independence Act on 18 July 1947 saw the partition of British India and the creation of the independent nations of India and Pakistan. Three hundred years of colonial rule ended.”