Inside Britain’s history wars: idyllic
The National Trust has identified ninety-three of its estates as having links to the country’s colonial and slaveholding past.Illustration by Michael Kennedy.
Sam Knight, Britain’s Idyllic Country Houses Reveal a Darker History, The New Yorker, 16 August 2021
Great estates are among the country’s treasures. But their connections to slavery and colonialism are forcing visitors to reckon with myths they may not want to abandon.
Dyrham Park, an English country estate nestled among steep hills seven miles north of Bath, fulfills your fantasy of what such a place should be. A house and a dovecote were recorded on the site in 1311. The deer park was enclosed during the reign of Henry VIII. The mansion that you see today is a mostly Baroque creation: long, symmetrical façades, looking east and west; terraces for taking the air; eighteenth-century yew trees, an orangery, a church, fascinating staircases, a collection of Dutch Masters. According to “The Buildings of England: Gloucestershire,” published in 1970, Dyrham Park constitutes “the perfect setting; English country house and church.” The house was a location for the movie of “The Remains of the Day.”
On the second floor is the Balcony Room, which affords fine views of the gardens. The room, once an intimate place to sit and drink tea or coffee with visitors, is wood-panelled. It has exquisite brass door locks. The fireplace holds a collection of seventeenth-century delftware, above which hangs a museum-quality Dutch painting of ornamental birds, by a court artist to William III. Facing into the room, with their backs to the wall, are two statues of kneeling Black men with rings around their necks.
He became very rich. Blathwayt’s uncle and benefactor, Thomas Povey, who had been instrumental in the conquest of Jamaica, in 1665, was a member of the Royal African Company, which then held a monopoly on the supply of slaves to the colonies. Blathwayt’s family connections and multiple offices made him a natural conduit for commercial opportunities: beaver trading in Massachusetts, silver mining in South Carolina, human trafficking in the West Indies. During the renovation of Blathwayt’s country house, his deputies and contacts overseas were eager to send him exotic hardwoods, along with plants for the garden, deer from north Germany, and Carrara marble for his tomb—anything, as one official wrote, to enhance “the beauty of your paradise at Dirham.”
Povey, an aesthete with money troubles, sent the kneeling statues to Blathwayt. They were probably made in London, inspired by Venetian “blackamoor” art, but they are unquestionably depictions of enslaved men, in idealized page’s costumes, with gilt chains tumbling from their right ankles. Together with the delftware—Blathwayt’s first posting was to The Hague—and a Javanese tea table in the middle of the room, they served as symbols of his career and colonial prowess. They have knelt in the same place for more than three hundred years.
In 1956, Dyrham Park was bought by the state and given to the National Trust, Britain’s foremost conservation charity. It opened to visitors a few years later. People rarely asked or talked about the stands. In 2007, Shawn Sobers and Rob Mitchell, filmmakers and cultural researchers, visited Dyrham Park with around twenty members of the Bath Ethnic Minority Senior Citizens Association. Sobers and Mitchell had been asked by the National Trust to bring racially diverse groups to three properties in the southwest of England, where they explored the visitors’ reactions, as part of a series of projects to mark the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade.
Sobers, who is Black, grew up in Bath, close to Dyrham and eleven miles inland from Bristol, which was Britain’s main slave-trading port during the early to mid-eighteenth century. Between 1698 and 1807, some twenty-one hundred slaving voyages departed from the city—one every nineteen days. In two and a half centuries, British ships and merchants trafficked a total of more than three million African people, mostly to the colonies of the New World. The “triangular trade” involved exchanging British-made products for people in West Africa, selling enslaved Africans in the colonies, and then importing cotton, sugar, tobacco, and other goods produced by slaves. Sobers is a professor at the University of the West of England, in Bristol. He was accustomed to learning that some of his favorite landmarks or stretches of the English countryside were tainted, in some way, by a connection to the former slave economy. He had never been to Dyrham before. When he arrived with the rest of the group, which was mostly made up of older Caribbean women, they joined a tour of the house. “We didn’t have a special tour just for us, but the tour guide knew we were there,” he recalled. “Because we were a very visible group, do you know what I mean?”
The National Trust, which was founded in 1895, relies on thousands of volunteers, mostly white retirees, to show visitors its properties. Dyrham Park has a roster of around a hundred and twenty. When Sobers and his group entered the Balcony Room, they came face to face with the slave stands and stood there, listening politely. “I couldn’t believe it. I really couldn’t believe it was happening,” Sobers told me. “And the tour guide talked about every single thing in that room, you know, talked about everything for a good ten, fifteen minutes and not once mentioned it.” A rope cordons off most of the Balcony Room, so visitors stand on a narrow walkway, facing the stands. There is nowhere else to look. “There wasn’t even a kind of a, you know, ‘Yeah, we don’t know what those are. . . .’ There wasn’t even an explaining it away,” Sobers said. “They just acted as if they just weren’t there at all.”
Downstairs, the group paused in the Great Hall to look at portraits of the Blathwayt family. Blathwayt’s wife, Mary Wynter, was descended from George and William Wynter, brothers who bought Dyrham in 1571. The two were privateers and investors in some of England’s earliest known slave-trading voyages. The ceiling of the Great Hall is decorated with paintings commissioned by William Beckford, a plantation owner from Jamaica, who served twice as mayor of London and owned three thousand slaves. One member of Sobers’s group, a woman in her seventies named Daisy Ottway, had been researching her family tree in Barbados. But after she went back a few generations the records had petered out. Her own history was irretrievable. As Ottway gazed at the portraits on the wall, her eyes filled with tears.
In September 2020, Dyrham Park was one of ninety-three historic houses identified by the National Trust as having links with Britain’s colonial and slave-owning past—about a third of its collection. (The National Trust owns properties in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland; it has a sister organization in Scotland.) Other heritage groups had carried out similar audits years earlier, usually with a focus on transatlantic slavery, but the Trust, arriving late to the subject, chose to adopt a sweeping approach. In a hundred-and-fifteen-page “interim report,” the charity listed houses connected to abolitionists as well as to slaveowners, along with generals, civil servants, business people, politicians, and artists whose lives were in some way entwined with Britain’s four-hundred-year saga of colonial rule, which touched every continent, including Antarctica.
Bateman’s, the Jacobean home of Rudyard Kipling, in East Sussex, made the list. So did Chartwell, Winston Churchill’s family house, in Kent. The brief entry about Chartwell acknowledged Churchill’s “exceptionally long, complex, and controversial life,” but noted his opposition to Indian independence and the fact that the Bengal famine of 1943, in which some three million people died, occurred while he was Prime Minister. “We’re not here to make judgements about the past,” John Orna-Ornstein, the Trust’s director of culture and engagement, wrote in a blog post to accompany the report. “We’re presenting information based on research, allowing people to explore and draw conclusions for themselves.”
For many historians, including the Trust’s team of curators, the decision to publicly explore its properties’ colonial connections had been a long time coming. “Massively important, massively overdue,” one curator told me. Since the nineties, scholars of the English country house have increasingly challenged its status as a quiet place of veneration—an idyll from a benign and gently ordered past—and sought to recast the properties as instruments of power, display, and self-invention.
Researchers of Britain’s colonial history also welcomed the charity’s decision to consider the legacies of slavery and empire alongside each other. For more than two centuries, the transatlantic slave trade coexisted with a busy period of expansion in other parts of the world, notably in Asia. Nonetheless, the subjects usually occupy distinct places in the public imagination—a splitting that has helped to preserve a thick vein of imperial nostalgia in Britain. A poll last year found that thirty-two percent of British adults are proud of the Empire; among the other European countries surveyed, only the Dutch recorded a higher percentage. “There’s an interesting understanding of what slavery was and what the colonization of Asia was,” Olivette Otele, a history professor at the University of Bristol, told me. (Indenture, a form of bonded labor under which more than a million Indian workers were transported around the Empire, lasted well into the twentieth century.) Of Britain’s Asian conquests, Otele said, “You think about the fabric, you think about the grandeur, you think about the beauty, the jewelry. Most people think that it was prettier, in a way. Whereas slavery is Black bodies, transported and trafficked and all that. So they don’t want to link those histories, because it forces them to see the ugliness behind the Asian colonization as well.”
The popular reaction to the Trust’s report was generally hostile. The preparation and release of the audit coincided with the murder of George Floyd and a wave of Black Lives Matter-inspired protests around statues and other contested sites of memory. Conservative critics of the Trust saw the project as the latest in a catalogue of woke delinquencies, at odds with its founding purpose and with its millions of aging members—a clash between “the trendies” and “the tweedies,” according to the British press. In 2017, the Trust explored L.G.B.T.Q. histories of its properties; in 2018, it celebrated a hundred years of women’s suffrage. A leaked internal document suggested that the charity should “flex its mansion offer” in search of new audiences. The impact of the pandemic, which closed hundreds of historic sites to visitors and led to more than a thousand job losses at the Trust, magnified the sense of a venerable institution losing its way. On August 23rd of last year, the organization tweeted in support of unesco’s International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and Its Abolition, and was hit by a wall of abuse from its members.
“I’ll tell you when the iron entered my soul,” Charles Moore, a former editor of the Daily Telegraph and the Trust’s current chief antagonist in the British media, told me. “It was after George Floyd, because then I could see what was going on. The Trust reacted by endorsing B.L.M.” Moore regards B.L.M. as a “semi-racist political movement with extraordinary doctrines who love, among other things, knocking down statues.” He added, “The idea that our greatest conservation body should be, as it were, taking the knee to them seemed absolutely dreadful.”
Last November, Conservative Members of Parliament organized a debate in Westminster about the future of the National Trust, in which Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government was asked to intervene. Moore is also a former editor of The Spectator, a job that Johnson later held. When we met, Moore described England’s stately homes as places of refuge and relaxation for millions of people. “I think comfort does matter,” he told me. “I know, people say that ‘oh, we must be uncomfortable. . . .’ Why should I pay a hundred quid a year, or whatever, to be told what a shit I am?”
The dispute has cast the National Trust as an ungainly participant in an English culture war. (The same tensions do not seem to hold in Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, partly because some people view them as colonies themselves.) “We are the least woke people I can imagine,” a manager of two castles told me. Faced with a concerted attack by the conservative press, abetted by the government, the charity has not given up on telling the full histories of its properties, but it hasn’t mounted a spirited defense of the practice, either. In May, the Trust’s chair, a business-turnaround specialist named Tim Parker, who worked for Johnson when he was the mayor of London, announced that he would step down. When I asked Orna-Ornstein to explain why the charity had chosen to investigate the legacies of slavery and empire jointly, he laughed ruefully. “Did we make the right decision to combine them in that report? I don’t know,” he said. “I think I may have been naïve.”
It is not easy to encapsulate the precise role played by the National Trust in English public life. In 1985, Patrick Wright, a critic of the country’s burgeoning heritage industry, described it as “an ethereal kind of holding company for the dead spirit of the nation.” Since then, the charity’s membership has risen fourfold, to 5.6 million people, more than the population of the Republic of Ireland. In theory, the National Trust exists to preserve places “of beauty or historic interest.” In practice, it fulfills at least two large and subtly conflicting roles, as a custodian of collective memory and as a purveyor of weekend leisure. The Trust aims for total inclusion. Its slogan is “For everyone, for ever.” The charity’s Visitor Experience teams divide the twenty-six million people who go to its houses, gardens, and extensive nature reserves in a normal year into nine categories and make sure that there is something for all of them. The Trust hates to disappoint people. It hates, like any great British institution, to cause offense.
Before the pandemic, Dyrham Park received some two hundred and seventy thousand visitors a year, of whom about half went inside the house. When I visited recently, there was a shuttle bus from the parking lot, down the steep and twisting drive. A sign pointed to the house, garden, shop, and tearoom. Visitors were encouraged to look out for pied wagtails and buzzards, circling above the park, and urged not to pick the black Worcester pears, which were growing in trees espaliered against the stable walls. A mother was breast-feeding her baby in the formal garden. I saw a single Black visitor. I was shown around by Eilidh Auckland, Dyrham’s curator, and Rupert Goulding, who helps lead curatorial research at the Trust. I asked why most people came to Dyrham Park; they both replied immediately, “A nice day out.”
Goulding spent several years tracing the various timbers used in Blathwayt’s construction of the house. At one point, he and Auckland led me into a gloomy set of rooms that were closed to visitors because of a shortage of volunteers, to show me a painting of a cocoa plantation. We walked past Dyrham’s state bed, commissioned by Blathwayt for the most esteemed visitors (he hoped, one year, for a visit from Queen Anne), which towered to the ceiling, its gold-and-silk fabrics in a poor state of repair. It would cost hundreds of thousands of pounds to restore. “This bed, I think, symbolizes Blathwayt’s ambition,” Goulding said. “We have to try and conserve it.” A moth flew out. Auckland clapped her hands to crush it.