The colonial secrets of Britain’s stately homes

They’re the very epitome of the English rural idyll. Yet behind the majestic architecture lies a history with powerful ties to imperialism – and the slave trade. Corinne Fowler, founder of the Colonial Countryside research project, considers the controversy swirling around country houses’ pasts

Buckland Abbey, Devon, UK. (Image by Alamy)

Before daybreak the crew of Francis Drake’s ship heard the shouts of a man who wanted to come aboard. The man was named Diego and he had been born in west Africa. It was 1572 and Drake’s ship was anchored off the coast of Panama. As Miranda Kaufmann writes in her book Black Tudors, Diego had formerly been enslaved by the Spanish before fleeing and offering information about their silver and gold to Drake. The English explorer happily used this information to his advantage and, with Diego at his side, captured treasures that delighted his queen, Elizabeth I, and made him a very rich man. This treasure helped to pay off part of England’s national debt, while Drake bought Buckland Abbey with his newfound wealth.

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Over the four and a half centuries since Drake moved into his grand new residence on the edge of Dartmoor, Buckland Abbey has been readily incorporated into an idealised version of Britain’s stately homes. Nostalgia about our country houses has a long pedigree. They feature prominently in Britain’s pastoral literary tradition in which shepherds discuss work, love and the countryside. Poets like Philip Sidney, John Milton and Alexander Pope eulogised the countryside in which these estates sat, hailing it as an anglicised version of the ‘Arcadia’ of Virgil and the ‘Idylls’ of Theocritus.

The pastoral tradition established an idea of the countryside as a place of escape and a repository of Englishness. Country houses were central to this imagery.

The tranquil grounds contrasted sharply with the enslaved labour that enabled the flow of colonial wealth

Yet the rural idyll was always an elaborate fiction. Landscape design played on this idea and it still does. The subterranean passages of places like Derbyshire’s Calke Abbey and Uppark in West Sussex hid servants from view. Country houses’ tranquil grounds contrasted sharply with the wars and enslaved labour that enabled the flow of colonial wealth. How many people know how Francis Drake raised the money to buy Buckland?

Slavery landscape

Edward Colston’s statue was toppled from its plinth in central Bristol by Black Lives Matter protesters in June 2020. It wasn’t long before the historical spotlight fell on Britain’s verdant country estates. Awkward questions already being asked of stately homes were now suddenly posed with greater urgency.

Stately homes are not conventionally associated with colonialism. But a 2007 report into English Heritage houses built during the period of transatlantic slavery uncovered abundant links. These ranged from slave-trading and plantation ownership to insuring slave-ships and buying shares in the South Sea and Royal African Companies whose business was selling enslaved people. The historian Stephanie Barczewski found that, between 1700 and 1930, more than a thousand landed estates were bought, built and improved by colonial merchants, plantation owners and military officers who had served in the British colonies.

But colonial wealth didn’t just manifest itself in the sumptuous architecture of Britain’s country estates. It also transformed the country’s local economies and regional industries. For example, the roads and ports near Bangor in north Wales were funded by Jamaican sugar plantations worked by enslaved Africans. This is why the historian Marian Gwyn describes the vast Penrhyn estate as a “slavery landscape”. The Denbigh plantation in Clarendon, Jamaica was owned by the Pennant family from the second half of the 17th century. This money funded the construction of Penrhyn Castle and Penrhyn slate quarry, which saw a bitter industrial dispute over unionisation, pay and working conditions.

Propertied families were also involved in colonial administration. In the 17th century, Dyrham Park, a few miles east of Bristol, belonged to the surveyor and auditor general of Plantations Revenues, William Blathwayt. His job was to make England’s colonies profitable. Country houses were sometimes owned by successive generations of colonial bureaucrats: family members at Derbyshire’s Hardwick Hall served as governor-general of India, secretary of state for the colonies and parliamentary under secretary for India and Burma.

The Downton Effect

Before Covid-19 struck, country houses had become major leisure destinations. English Heritage sites had more than 10 million visitors each year and the National Trust has more than 5 million members. This surge in country houses’ popularity was termed ‘the Downton Effect’, named after the television drama that was filmed at Highclere Castle, near Newbury. Downton Abbey swelled visitor numbers to the privately owned castle, which received nearly 1,600 people per day until the pandemic hit.

Before the Black Lives Matter protests, stately homes conventionally provided visitors with information about the British lives of landowners and, sometimes, their wives and servants. Yet much has changed. This summer, the National Trust declared that many of its places “have direct and indirect links to slavery and colonialism”. The Trust’s director of culture and engagement, John Orna-Ornstein, recently stated that “Black Lives Matter has absolutely made us realise that we need to move more quickly to address those histories and to be as open about them as possible”.

This new approach is ethically and historically just, but is not universally welcomed. My 2019 survey of Daily Mail reader responses to previous attempts to talk about country houses’ colonial links revealed a common objection: “The past is the past.” As John Agard puts it in his poem Mansfield Park Revisited, slavery talk is unfamiliar amid “afternoon teas” and “well-laid cups”. Nonetheless, three-quarters of respondents to a Policy Exchange survey conducted in June 2020 believe that the National Trust should do more to educate visitors about its links to slavery and colonialism.

Misplaced curiosity

Talking about colonialism in country houses generates controversy precisely because the history is repressed. My 2019 survey also found that Daily Mail readers commonly asserted that history is “being rewritten”. Yet there is irrefutable evidence that country houses have significant connections to people and places all over the world.

Talking about colonialism in country houses seems controversial precisely because the history is repressed

Visitors can’t fail to notice the global character of country houses – it’s there in the exotic woods, Chinese wallpapers and ivory carvings that fill their collections. What is less obvious is the stories of East India Company trading, colonial administration or enslavement that underpin them. For this reason, curators will need to provide clear evidence of the colonial connection to combat claims that they are making it all up.

Another challenge is presented by the ways in which previous generations displayed global objects, often betraying colonial insensitivities. In a ‘cabinet of curios’ at Calke Abbey in Derbyshire, a Tibetan skull cup rests beside a broken mosque tile, an African thumb piano and a plant specimen. For many years, the bodies of Tibet’s dead were picked clean by birds in a sky burial and made into cups to remember the deceased. Yet at Calke Abbey this sacred object had merely been placed alongside other ‘curiosities’ from around the world.

Despite this, heritage organisations are increasingly keen to provide welcoming environments for people of colour. Last year, volunteers at Kedleston Hall were deeply affected when they saw a Sikh visitor in tears because he saw a sacred object wrongly described on an early 20th-century label in the ‘Eastern Museum’.

Country houses’ global collections matter to people all over the world. Indian admirers of Tipu Sultan, the ruler of Mysore, would love to one day be given the opportunity to see his slippers, tent, sword and throne-head. These items were captured by East India Company servants in 1799 and have been on display in Powis Castle ever since.

Previous attempts to address these challenges did not fundamentally change the landscape. Even when events and exhibitions were held throughout 2007 to mark the bicentenary of the Slave Trade Act (when Britain legally abolished the trade), they had little impact on country houses’ core narratives.

Yet 2020 is not 2007. Even before Black Lives Matter, the sector was gradually transforming its presentation of country houses: the recent protests accelerated work that had already begun. It is a huge undertaking, requiring investment, research, training and collaboration.

And it is precisely because of this pressing need for change that I launched Colonial Countryside, a child-led project that works with historians and writers to explore and highlight country houses’ connections to Africa, the Caribbean and the East India Company.

As one primary school participant exclaimed: “This is interesting history!” Her comment is significant, since the heritage sector has a role to play in providing the fullest possible account of country houses at a time when history is suffering as an academic subject. A 2018 survey by the Royal Historical Society found that depressingly little global history is being taught. The survey also found that students from black and minority ethnic backgrounds are under-represented in university history courses.

The British empire’s fleeting appearance in the history curriculum does not do justice to the extent to which colonialism shaped the economic and political fortunes of millions of people worldwide – and changed the face of modern Britain. It has been hard for people schooled in this system to think beyond country houses’ local significance.

Ultimately, though, the children of post-colonial Britain are accustomed to thinking more expansively, since so many of them have family connections to formerly colonised countries. They are correspondingly less likely to be patient with partisan thinking about the past. As a 12-year-old Colonial Countryside pupil, XazQ, observed: “Older people might not want to study this history but they can’t stop me educating myself.”

Corinne Fowler is the author of Green Unpleasant Land: Creative Responses to Rural England’s Colonial Connections (Peepal Tree Press, 2020). You can follow her research project, Colonial Countryside, on Twitter @ColonialCountr1, and listen to Corinne Fowler discuss the Colonial Countryside project on the BBC Radio 3 programme Arts & Ideas.

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This article was first published in the December 2020 edition of BBC History Magazine