In the wake of Black Lives Matter protests during the summer of 2020, and the infamous toppling of Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol, the colonial connections of historical sites and museums across the UK have been scrutinised and discussed with more fervour than ever before. A number of links to colonialism and slavery were arguably most easily identified via historical sources of income and wealth associated with the exploitation of lands and the oppression of peoples across the globe. In many cases, colonial money has specifically enabled the construction and preservation of grand country houses in Britain, as well as the accumulation of significant collections from around the world.
Despite this, there have been calls from some historians, members of the public and politicians to move away from a focus on sources of wealth in the interpretation of colonial legacies. Groups such as Restore Trust seek a move almost entirely away from a closer examination of the less patriotic elements of British history. Politicians, including the outgoing Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden, have also been openly critical of anti-colonial work within the heritage sector and accused charitable organisations of acting outside their remit. Academics advocating a more nuanced approach include Corinne Fowler, who has worked closely with the National Trust to explore the plethora of connections between their properties and histories of colonial violence. Expanding the scope of anti-colonial work is crucial, but a number of institutions have yet to acknowledge colonial sources of funding, and work to interrogate the vast implications of these connections has yet to begin. Though the influence of colonialism on UK heritage is far more complex than consideration of income alone, I would argue that it is certainly a logical place to start.
It has quickly become apparent that Britain’s long and violent history of colonial oppression had been consistently, and often deliberately, left out of the narrative at a number of museums and country houses. This was despite the fact that many of the sites in question were directly funded by the forced labour of enslaved African people or the violent oppression of indigenous peoples around the world. Though this history is vast and complex, it has been erased through omission by a number of heritage organisations who sought to shift the focus of their interpretive materials – such as information panels, displays and narratives featured in guidebooks or websites – elsewhere. In most cases, this interpretation veered towards the domestic lives of individuals who had inhabited the properties, or to patronage of the arts and interest in design. In some cases, the erasure of colonial legacies was informed by conventions across the sector that reinforced an arcadian vision of life in country houses and was the result of passive omission. However, given the distinct backlash against more in-depth engagement with such histories, it is difficult to argue that the failure to acknowledge the association of certain grand houses and historical figures with colonial violence is entirely accidental.
Neglecting to recognise the relevance of colonialism to the existence and provenance of certain objects and places does not neutralise them. Instead, it enables an interpretation that glorifies figures who become memorialised through their close association with grand buildings filled with beautiful and expensive collections. As is the case with statues, the historical figures we collectively remember through built heritage and art are overwhelmingly portrayed in a favourable manner. A certain level of esteem was ensured for figures such as George Hay Dawkins-Pennant and Robert Geffrye during their lifetimes by their vast wealth and influence. This was then perpetuated further by a distinct lack of nuance in the historical interpretation offered at the institutions that professed to tell us something about their lives and legacies. But careful interpretation is fundamental to our understanding of historic places, as most museums or country houses can be characterised as a rather decorative box, with which any number of stories might be told. Specifically focusing on a particular aspect of their history arguably implies that other narratives – such as those related to colonial violence and exploitation – are less significant and therefore less worthy of interpretation. As such, the museum quickly becomes a site of reputational politics and propaganda, rather than one of history and learning.
Crucial to the vast majority of these narratives which have historically been deemed less palatable is one thing: money. This is certainly the area in which colonial connections are easiest to identify, given the availability of documentation and records which show clearly the direct links between historic places and, for example, plantation slavery in the Caribbean. The Legacies of British Slavery Database project from University College London is a particularly extensive resource which offers information on the owners and traders of enslaved people, as well as inheritance and property linked to these sources of wealth. One such property is Penryhn Castle; a neo-Norman castle on the North coast of Wales and historic home of George Hay Dawkins-Pennant and family. Dawkins-Pennant was an English politician and anti-abolitionist with inherited wealth built largely from the ownership of sugar plantations in Jamaica and the labour of enslaved Black people held there. He inherited both the wealth and plantations from his second cousin Richard Pennant who used profit from the production of rum and sugar to open a vast slate quarry in North Wales, eventually earning him the name ‘Richard Pennant the improver.’ Evidence of inextricable ties to slavery and colonialism are plentiful throughout the castle, which is currently owned and operated by the National Trust. This includes the display of objects from across the empire and paintings which depict arcadian visions of sugar cane harvests in Jamaica.
A select few of these objects have been included in a relatively recent exhibition titled: ‘What a World!’, where specific items are interpreted through the medium of poetry written by local school children. The most poignant of all these objects is a relatively small, scruffy box, sat in the middle of a sumptuously-laid dining table, spotlit for emphasis. The box in question is a ‘Jamaica document box’ which once contained documentation related to the running of the Pennant’s plantations, and was previously stored out of sight, elsewhere in the Castle. The surviving documents (which are now held at Bangor University) include the names of enslaved people as well as information regarding the nature and extent of violence used against them in the name of profit.
The idea that such detailed accounts of the exploitation of enslaved people should be kept in such a small and unassuming place serves as a metaphorical reminder of the way in which the British heritage sector has largely kept the realities of colonial violence hidden from view. This is undone by the curatorial decision to place the box in such a conspicuous place, contrasted sharply with the grandiose lifestyle the cruelty documented within it enabled. The box is no longer a tool of quantitative bureaucracy and is instead a place where the worlds of Penrhyn Castle and the Jamaican plantations meet.
The V&A, a large museum in central London, also contains many collections from across the globe. Though each object might be considered according to its place of origin or the materials it is made from, less frequently considered are its reasons for being in Britain at all. Who collected it? Where did they acquire the money with which to do so? For instance, the V&A currently holds a number of objects from the collection of politician and plantation owner, Ralph Bernal. Though Bernal was foremost a politician, the money he used to contest elections was largely taken from the three Jamaican plantations he had inherited. Following the abolition of slavery in the British colonies in 1833 (which Bernal had campaigned to delay) he received government compensation, and it is at this point his enthusiasm for the decorative arts really took off. There is no doubt that the ownership of enslaved people and subsequent compensation for ‘loss of property’ is what enabled Bernal to collect so fervently.
Despite slavery looming large in the provenance of a large part of the foundation of the V&A’s collections, this history is not made apparent by the museum. Bernal’s name remains associated with a number of significant objects, but his sources of income – and arguably the journey from their countries of origin to Britain – remain vague within the museum’s online collections catalogue. Similarly, a search for Ralph Bernal on the V&A website provides very little contextual information. Bernal’s colonial efforts – including the lives of those enslaved peoples on his Jamaican plantations – are thus rendered invisible, and public opinion of Bernal is shaped by the absence of this information.
Moving on from interpretation which explicitly acknowledges sources of income would be a valid approach to exploring the topic further if this initial connection to colonial violence were acknowledged wherever present. In most cases, the presence of such massive wealth is the single asset from which all others stem, and it is from this point that branches of interpretation should spread across the vast history of European colonialism. However, as this point has not yet been reached in many relevant cases, it might be prudent to avoid providing institutions and organisations who may already be reluctant in exploring colonial connections with an excuse to allow this vital work to fall by the wayside. It feels too soon to shift focus away from this crucial aspect of colonial history before a significant number of heritage sector organisations have publicly and transparently acknowledged the problematic roots of the collections and structures they explore.
Sources of wealth must be acknowledged and utilised as a catalyst through which to generate further conversations around not only the wider implications of colonialism, but also recognition of the individuals who suffered, largely unseen by those who would oppress them to generate such vast amounts of money. Separating sources of income from the narrative of the country house or museum collection risks allowing those who profited from violence and exploitation to be distanced from the atrocities committed in their name, with their reputations intact.
Isabel Gilbert is a PhD student at the University of Sheffield. She is in her second year of research focusing on the interpretation of colonial history across the heritage sector and its role in the perpetuation of systemic racism. She also has several years’ experience working in the UK heritage sector and is now a freelance Heritage and Inclusion Consultant, providing advice and training on interpretation of colonial histories. Isabel works with a variety of organisations to provide educational sessions contextualising systemic racism by enabling a broader understanding of colonial history and its role in upholding white supremacy. She tweets at @izzabilla.