Exotic wood, Chinese wallpaper and ivory carvings at Britain’s stately homes are symbols of slavery and should be labelled as such, a leading historian drafted in to examine the National Trust’s history has said.
Professor Corinne Fowler, who has been called in to document the charity’s association with colonialism, says that it is a controversial topic because history has “been repressed.”
The Black Lives Matter movement has accelerated the Trust’s plans to be more transparent about its links to the past, which Prof Fowler says “is ethically and historically just, but not universally welcomed.”
Writing in the BBC History magazine, the Leicester University professor said, citing a 2019 survey, that there is a common assertion nowadays that “history is being rewritten”.
“There is irrefutable evidence that country houses have significant connections to people and places all over the world,” she said.
In numbers | the National Trust
“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.
“Talking about colonialism in country houses generates controversy precisely because the history is repressed.”
Prof Fowler was drafted in by the 125-year-old trust to document Britain’s "colonial countryside", and said she believes it is a major shift in mission, where visitors will be shown more than the pastoral "veneer" which the public has "fallen for".
She told The Telegraph in June that following the fall of Edward Colston’s likeness, the National Trust will address links between bucolic stately homes and slavery, seeking to make their legacies relevant to more diverse communities.
"I think it can be a watershed moment," she said. "The important thing is to tell the stories which are central and relevant to understanding these historic houses. If that makes it uncomfortable, then so be it. It’s not all about cream tea."
Now, Prof Fowler has taken aim at the national curriculum and how colonial history is, or is not, being taught.
“A 2018 survey by the Royal Historical Society found that depressingly little global history is being taught,” she wrote.
“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.”
A spokesman for the National Trust told the Telegraph that it “looks after places and collections that reflect global history, including the legacies of colonial times and historic slavery.
“Where relevant we are working to ensure the interpretation of our objects reflect and acknowledge this and add to our understanding of how they came to be,” he added.
The Charity Commission has already contacted the charity about the publication of a controversial 115-page report in September into the links between its properties and slavery and colonialism, which included references to Winston Churchill’s home at Chartwell.
Last week, ministers told Parliament that the Trust’s review was "unfortunate" and caused offence.
Nigel Huddleston, the Heritage minister, said: "I accept the trust did not intend to cause offence but we must acknowledge that for many it did cause offence – the Trust must accept and learn from this."
Mr Huddleston also urged the Trust to focus on "its core functions to curate, and preserve historic houses, gardens and landscapes for everyone to enjoy".
Members vented their fury at the charity’s board at its annual general meeting last weekend, accusing of pursuing a "woke agenda" and "a witch hunt into the lives of past property owners".