Comment

I’ve read the National Trust report and it’s a one-sided take on history, full of woke prejudices

Properties are named and shamed for their links to slavery and colonialism as part of a nakedly political project

The National Trust has been on the defensive since publishing its 115-page report on links between some of the properties of which it has stewardship and colonialism, and with historic slavery. It produced this document just as it was sacking many of its staff, its revenues having been savaged by the pandemic. 

It had to field allegations that it had engaged in a political act not only irrelevant to its stated aims, but conflicting with the expectations of the Charities Commission. Some members threatened to resign, and some are likely to carry the threat out.

Indeed, depending on how the Trust acts on its own report, many more could end up resigning, if members visit properties and are confronted with a tsunami of wokeness that impresses the sort of people who now run the Trust, but nauseates much of their clientele. The latter visit Trust properties for a recreational experience culminating in a cream tea, not to be lectured by a cultural thought police.

In precisely the sort of political consequence that upsets the Charities Commission, the report has opened up substantial political divisions. Conservative-minded people have objected to it as being without the remit of the Trust; leftists have retaliated by accusing their opponents of not reading the report, but simply objecting to its principle – and telling those opponents how ignorant they are. 

Having read the report, I found much to object to. As a professor of history, I question the intellectual heft of some of its editors and contributors, and their grasp of historical context. It is easy to score points by deploring racism, cruelty and exploitation, because no rational person would disagree. It is less easy to justify how one associates this with what the general public consider to be the point, and their desired experience, of the National Trust.

The report contains many interesting historical facts, usually products of someone else’s research. This is testified to by the abundant footnotes; there is a lack of historical expertise among the compilers who, having degrees of academic experience, know how to deploy a footnote, but less about all-important historical context.

Of the four editors, Dr Sally-Anne Huxtable is an expert on modern and contemporary design. Prof Corinne Fowler has her chair in the English department of Leicester University, and specialises in post-colonial literature; she also directs the Colonial Countryside Project there, which sounds like a spending cut waiting to happen.

Dr Christo Kefalas describes herself as an ‘anthropologist interested in the cultural arts, photography and science’. Emma Slocombe is an expert on textiles. Given the Trust’s commitment to diversity, it is interesting that none of the editors is a man. Indeed, of the 11 authors of the report, only one is male.

The Trust should not trivialise its properties and should provide accurate historical information on them. Despite the Black Lives Matter movement, many of its members fail to understand why it is suddenly so exercised about colonialism and slavery.

Hilary McGrady, director-general of the National Trust

It has been widely recognised in British society since 1807, when the slave trade was abolished here, that slavery is abhorrent and that one man or woman cannot morally or, in our jurisdiction, legally claim ownership of another. No-one suggests the trade should be allowed to resume. No mainstream literature seeks to whitewash it, trivialise it or excuse it. Above all, there is absolutely no suggestion that the Trust, or anyone connected with it, holds such views.

No-one who visits a Trust property, or pays a subscription to the Trust, imagines he or she is actively or passively endorsing the historic exploitation of one group of people by another. Hence the suspicion that the Trust commissioned this report to justify presenting political views in its interpretative literature.

In his introduction to the report Dr Gus Casely-Hayford, a former trustee, talks in jargon about the “delicate stewardship” required of the “curatorial narratives”. There is a desire to “do justice to the complexities of the past”. But that has already happened in the multiplicity of books cited in the footnotes; why does the Trust need to repeat it, rather than offer a bibliography to any interested visitors at the affected properties? 

And it talks about bad things that have happened since the 16th century. Why stop there, and confine itself to evils of colonialism and slavery (two things that are not always morally equivalent, by the way)?

The report says that, “The National Trust is in the process of setting up an independent external advisory group of heritage and academic experts, many with lived experience, to guide how we continue to explore the histories and legacies of colonialism and slavery at our places.” 

Powis Castle, which was restored in the 18th century by the son of Robert Clive Credit: Alamy

Some may have “lived experiences” of colonialism; but none can have a lived experience of slavery in the British empire. Dr Huxtable talks of “[East India] Company men such as Robert Clive (whose money went into Powis Castle and Claremont), 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.” 

The “subjugation” of the subcontinent was in fact achieved with the co-operation and complicity of the great Indian potentates, whose wealth and positions of influence were guaranteed as a result until independence in 1947. The report quotes William Dalrymple branding the East India Company’s “conquest of India” as “almost certainly ….the supreme act of corporate violence in world history”. Well, it’s a point of view: sadly the report doesn’t quote views its editors consider unorthodox.

Jane Gallagher, a lead curator, writes in the report: “By the end of the 18th century, however, objections about the morality of the slave trade were increasingly voiced by critics in North America, Scotland and France and by religious campaigners, notably the Quakers, who had pushed for abolition since the 1690s”. 

Perhaps it was by accident that she omitted the fact that there were innumerable English critics too (not least Wilberforce, or the Peckovers of Wisbech, for example), because the English are the pantomime villains of this particular entertainment. Dr Kefalas writes that a Scotsman, Thomas Carlyle, “advocated for [sic] the reintroduction of slavery to the West Indies” and that his 1867 essay Shooting Niagara, and After? “encouraged historic perceptions of racial hierarchies and promoted the idea that Africans were born for servitude.”

William Wilberforce, who is notable by his absence in the report Credit: Alamy

Carlyle (of whom I have written a substantial biography) certainly regarded black people as inferior, as did most British people in the mid-19th century. His suggestions they should be re-enslaved were akin to Jonathan Swift’s advocacy of eating children: Shooting Niagara is about the 1867 Reform Bill, and what Carlyle regarded as the absurdity of a country worrying about the civil rights of emancipated slaves when its own people had few civil rights, no vote, and were on the verge of insurrection. Context is everything. 

An assumption underpinning the report is that anyone who held office in a colony or in India, or one in Britain connected with the empire, was morally suspect and must be named and shamed. Churchill (whose former home Chartwell is a Trust property) is mentioned for, among other things, having opposed the granting of Dominion status to India in voting against the India Bill in 1935; and he is deemed to have failed during the 1943 Bengal famine.

Disraeli (Hughenden) offered Queen Victoria the title of Empress of India, which she accepted in May 1876. “The Delhi Durbar of January 1877 [at which she was proclaimed Empress] functioned as an imperial coronation”, the report says. Some coronation: the Empress was in England at the time. 

Various Cavendishes (Hardwick Hall) are added to the roll of shame for having held various political offices and colonial governorships; things become absurd when castigating the 9th Duke of Devonshire for choosing as his father-in-law Lord Lansdowne, who had not only been Viceroy of India but was also Foreign Secretary during the Second Boer War. Every minister from the mid-18th century to the early 1960s was complicit in the project of empire; where does one stop?

Should the Trust take the cowrie shells out of Hatfield Forest Shell House? Should it abandon Rudyard Kipling’s former home, Bateman’s in East Sussex, because “the British Empire was a central theme and context of his literary output”? Presumably it must abandon Carlyle’s House, given that no less a revered authority than TV historian David Olusoga has pronounced him “an apologist for slavery”.

If the Trust finds these or any other properties so objectionable because of their heritage then they should dispose of them to Historic England. They will, however, dispose of quite a few of their members. People are not stupid. They know the past was, by today’s standards, at times pretty horrible. There is nothing, though, to be gained by re-interpreting Trust properties as principally monuments to iniquity. 

Such an exercise is a nakedly political project, designed to further the prejudices of the sort of people who edited and wrote this report. The Charities Commission must look at this exceptionally carefully.