Recently, the National Trust published an interim report outlining links between 93 of the properties in its care to historic slavery and colonialism, including 29 associated with compensation claims following the abolition of slavery in the British Empire. To read the report yourself click here.

Building off research and initiatives developed over the last decade, the report was commissioned in 2019. It comprises an introduction, a series of essays explaining the historical context of British colonialism and the transatlantic slave trade, and a gazetteer of sites outlining the potential for writing broader and fresh stories about these properties, their owners, and their global connections. The report is neutral, detailed and informative. While, it is but an interim statement and makes no claims to be comprehensive, it does indicate the plan to set up an external advisory group as the next step on the National Trust’s journey to transparency and change in revealing the colonial past of its properties. This key paragraph is worth quoting in this context:

The histories that have been, and will continue to be, highlighted by this work are sometimes straightforward, while others are much more complex. Many of them challenge the familiar, received histories, which both exclude the vital role that people of colour have played in our national story and overlook the central role that the oppression and violence of the slave trade and the legacies of colonialism have played in the making of modern Britain. No one alive today is responsible for the iniquities of the period in question and consequently, we should feel confident in acknowledging the positive and the negative factual evidence of the past as part of our shared histories. These histories are sometimes difficult to read and 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 enjoy today and look after for future generations.

Outrage, however, had preempted it. Attempts by the National Trust to respond to the Black Lives Matter movement elicited outraged social media reactions from National Trust members. Somoe claimed they would be cancelling their membership if education and engagement pointed out the material, artistic, architectural and other links to colonialism and historic slavery at National Trust properties, as reported in The Independent.

In response to the report itself, there were a series of relatively neutral media reports in late September, following the NT’s own press release:

Responses from professional bodies are deserving of note, compiled here in a piece for the Museums Association.

Yet attacks on the National Trust gathered pace in response to the report, including Harry Mount in The Spectator claiming ‘we knew all this’ and that it constitues a ‘betrayal’ of the National Trust’s focus on preserving art, buildings and beautiful landscapes. It constitutes, Mount claims, a ‘one-side view’ and a ‘skewed’ view on the past. The Mail Online mocked the report as a ‘list of shame’, with quotes outlining how the report constitutes ‘wokery’ and ‘virtue signalling’. The Sunday Times joined in, with David Sanderson quoting the Tory government minister Nigel Huddleston MP suggesting the NT should ‘learn and reflect’ and called the slavery report ‘unfortunate’. Outrage seems to focus on the inclusion of Churchill’s home Chartwell House on the list. In The Express, Ann Widdecombe was ‘left raging’, calling it ‘the final straw in a whole bunch of straws’ in attacking Churchill, blaming ‘the woke brigade’ and ‘mass hysteria and madness’. She implored the ‘silent majority’ to stop such endeavours. The latest comes from Jamie Johnson and Christopher Hope in The Telegraph, misquoting Professor Corinne Fowler (co-editor of the report) regards Chinese wallpaper and ivory carvings as ‘symbols of slavery’.

This all comes in the wake of direct government interventions into such arts and heritage debates in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests including calls for the removal of statues to historic personages with colonial and slaving links. For while the National Trust is not obliged to respond, DCMS minster Oliver Dowden MP wrote to national museums and galleries to gain clarification regarding ‘contested heritage’, reiterating the government’s position of re-contextualising rather than ‘erasing’ contested material remains.

Most recently, in an attempt to moderate and correct these right-wing reactions, Stephen Bush has written in the New Statesman how the report doesn’t do any of the things claimed of it. Also, Peter Mitchell, in The Guardian warns against government interference in the heritage sector and the right’s desire to maintain a false narrative on Britain’s past.  See also Professor Dan Hicks on this issue and a ‘fake culture war’ being contrived as context to attack the National Trust.

An Archaeodeath reaction

In my view, as an historic-period archaeologist, I feel it is my duty to speak up against these growing tirades from politicians (including the government) and the right-wing media against the National Trust for this interim, measured, academic report. I see it as a valuable initial step leading to a process which will inform shifts in the heritage conservation, management and interpretation of a range of National Trust properties. Therefore, I thought it might be worthwhile to post a ‘call to arms’ to the archaeological community regarding this situation, asking them to support the report and its findings, and the broader endeavours of the National Trust in exploring the colonial past. Given there are so many interleaving controversies at present, I thought this might readily get missed. My points were outlined in a Twitter thread.

My simple point is that archaeologists have long worked on a global scale to investigate the prehistoric and historic dimensions of both slavery and colonialism, as well as exploring the material cultures, buildings, monuments and landscapes associated with the transatlantic slave trade. This has included work on the very estates under the care of the National Trust. As a community, we need to stand up and be counted on this issue.

For context, I do appreciate that the archaeological community might be divided over its response to the news that the Stonehenge tunnel scheme is scheduled to go ahead and which the National Trust is embroiled. This affects one unique slice of the British countryside replete in Mesolithic, Neolithic, Bronze Age and later archaeological remains. Equally, some archaeologists have expressed serious concerns about the curatorial restructuring of the National Trust. Yet, these are separate matters. The pervasive historical connections of colonialism and historic slavery through the British landscape affects thousands of sites, mouments and landscapes across the land, in cities, towns, villages and the countryside. These connections need to be urgently investigated and explored to inform current and future strategies for how Britain’s heritage is conserved, mananged and interpreted in the 21st century. Doing this work is not ‘woke’ or aimed at ‘rewriting’ or ‘erasing’ history, this about investigating and exploring untold and actively suppressed narratives about Britain’s past that affect us all. In this regard, the National Trust is fulfiling its mission by responsibly and strategically pursuing research and dialogues surrounding its historic properties.

Of course, in saying this, I’m not saying anything may other archaeologists have already said. However, in the light of the Black Lives Matter movement, in 2020, there really is no excuse for this not to be a high priority across the heritage sectors, organisations and institutions as well as individual researchers, teachers and heritage professionals.

23/11/2020: see the latest – a response from the University of Leicester here:

An Archaeodeath perspective

Now, from an Archaeodeath perspective, I have three specific points to add. First, while I respect the focus is upon the British Empire and its colonialism and slavery, and the National Trust will want to distance itself from attempts to dilute or dismiss the scale and severity of the transatlantic slave trade, it must be noted that the landscapes of National Trust properties do contain traces of far older colonialisms. In other words, the British landscape embodies many phases and processes of colonisation, including multiple dimesions to prehistoric, Roman, Anglo-Saxon, Norman and English colonisation. These also require attention and I feel this has particular connotations for Cornwall, Wales and Northern Ireland (as well as Scotland, of course), as well as parts of Englannd itself such as Cumbria and Northumberland. At my local National Trust site of Erddig (Wrexham, Wales), for example, the late 8th/early 9th-century linear earthwork, Wat’s Dyke, and the Anglo-Norman motte-and-bailey castle which was placed on its line, speak of earlier processes of colonialisation and hegemony in the British landscape by different successive agencies, parts of processes that forged our island’s national and regional identities.

Wat’s Dyke, Erddig
The Anglo-Norman motte at Erddig

Second, I feel the report’s focus is understandably historical, yet there remains significant scope and depth to expand on the archaeological dimensions of colonialism and historical slavery both in and around National Trust properties and estates, including the connections to both agricultural and industrial settlements, canals, railways and much more. For instance, due to its focus, the report’s links to colonialism and historic slavery for NT Erddig (Wrexham, Wales) do not address the now long-demolished home of slaver Elihu Yale’s house – Plas Grono – once situated near the modern western entrance to the Erddig estate. There is nothing to see today, but if explorations of colonialism and historic slavery are to contend with the material cultures, buildings, monuments and landscapes in the NT’s care, it must also tackle significant but ephemeral and intangible traces as well as surviving buildings and their fittings and furnishings.

Elihu Yale’s tomb in the churchyard of St Giles, Wrexham, not far from the NT Erddig estate and house

My third and final point is the broader potential of thinking about the slaving links and colonial dimensions of church and churchyard monuments. Beyond the bounds of the NT property, but pivotal to Elihu Yale‘s legacy on the Welsh landscape is his tomb, located in a prominent position in St Giles’s churchyard, Wrexham. See my earlier posts and videos for discussions of these dimensions here and here. Likewise, churches across the land contain the tombs of families with slaving links, such as the Myddletons of Chirk Castle – the descendants of Sir Thomas Myddleton have illustrious tombs in the parish church of St Mary’s in the nearby village of Chirk. While, again, away from the National Trust property of Chirk Castle itself, such interconnections must be foregrounded in considering the environs of NT properties as colonial landscapes.

None of these specific points detract from the NT report (NB: after publishing this I’ve been told that broader research by the project did take place which audited buildings, sites and monuments, churches and wrecks beyond the NT properties themselves). I mention them here only to show how this interim study is the tip of the iceberg, not an end point. Rather than whine about it or disparage it, let’s use this report as a call to arms for archaeologists to be central to the process of rethinking Britain’s colonial past.

The monument to Sir Thomas Myddleton II (d. 1666), son of the Sir Thomas Myddleton (d. 1631) named in the NT report with links to sugar trading and privateering
St Mary’s Chirk – Sir Richard Myddleton (c. 1716), Frances and son William. These individuals have no specific links to slaving included in the NT report, but I include them here by way of illustrations of families with demonstrable links to slavery in the parish churches of England and Wales