Uncovering the past as reparation: upholding the work done by the National Trust in 2020 and exploring what next

The Report

In September 2020, the National Trust published an “Interim Report on the Connections between Colonialism and Properties now in the Care of the National Trust, Including Links with Historic Slavery”. This report seeks to uncover histories that are often not told about the ways in which wealth generated by colonialism and slavery shaped and developed the very landscape of the British Isles; how the violence and oppression carried out often far away returned home and is woven throughout the fabric of this society. In taking the 29 properties in the care of the National Trust with links to compensation claims from slave ownership, and the more than one-third of the properties with direct connections to colonial histories, this research offers a lens through which to understand the construction of British society in the present day. A society that is riven with systemic racism, inequality, and violence.

“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’ (Introduction to the Report, Dr Sally-Anne Huxtable, Dr Tamya Cooper and John Orna-Ornstein).

Uncovering connections between land, slavery and colonialism in Britain

Following in the tradition of the Eric Williams, Catherine Hall and the Legacies of British Slave-ownership project among others, this work being done by the National Trust is seeking to explore the impact of slavery and colonialism back in the heart of Empire. Drawing out these connections demonstrates how the wealth of this state was built and in doing so starts to point to “land” as a root cause.

“Ownership of land in the form of a country estate had been a prerequisite form of wealth for most individuals and families with any social and/or political ambition since the Norman Conquest of 1066, and the country house was the hub of these aspirations” (Wealth, Power and the Global Country House, Dr Sally-Anne Huxtable)

To draw out these connections, I am going to attempt to state the argument perhaps a little more bluntly than the National Trust. 

  • The land system in the British Isles was/is controlled by a narrow elite, stolen by the wealthy through the process of both legal and informal enclosure. 
  • Land was/is power – both politically in terms of access to parliament and also locally in terms of deciding how best to generate wealth from the soil that has come to be owned. 
  • To hold land, one either had to have hereditary connections or enough wealth to buy one’s way into the propertied classes. 
  • To acquire access to land, many set sail to settle elsewhere, committing wide-scale violence, and setting up all sorts of legal paraphernalia to lay claims to the land of indigenous populations across the globe. 
  • To acquire the wealth needed to acquire land back home, many used the profits generated from these ‘new’ lands, and those they forced to work the soil, through both indentured servitude and slavery, to purchase and expand their landed wealth back home. Be it in form of the country house or to fuel the industrial revolution, infrastructure like the canals and the railways, and the wealth of the land.

Why does it matter? History as reparation

All this happened a long time ago, so the argument goes, so why does it matter now? It matters because the past is not confined there. These processes of wealth accumulation through enclosure, colonialism and slavery have come to shape modern Britain, who has power and who doesn’t today. They have created a system of racial capitalism (Cedric J. Robinson) that continues to dominate and oppress people today. Point to any area of society from the impact of COVID to housing to education to the criminal justice system and the impacts of the past are still very much present. So what good does uncovering the past do?

‘New understandings can never undo the devastation and loss that was suffered in the past and that lives on for descendants in the present. But thinking differently can perhaps awaken a sense of the responsibilities of ‘implicated subjects’ who have benefitted culturally, economically and politically from the hurts inflicted on others, in the hope that change can happen, racisms could be eradicated. Recognition matters.’ (Doing reparatory history: bringing ‘race’ and slavery home, Professor Catherine Hall.)

Recognition does matter. It admits the damage, the atrocity and the devastation. The recognition in itself is not repair, but perhaps a door way to it. When we come to know and understand something, it becomes very difficult to un-know it. That knowledge then needs to be worked with in some way.

It can still be denied, but more commonly is defended against – when defences of Empire are offered, or slavery situated in a longer historic context one must look for defensive reactions. 

This uncovered knowledge can be re-marginalised, as a recent debate in Westminster Hall on the National Trust report sought to do, with one MP saying ‘”It isn’t appropriate for a charitable organisation to become involved in politics”.

But recognition is a different response. Is like an opening. Like an out breath. An acknowledgement. And once something is acknowledged, what must be done? Surely something must be done.

What must be done?

The work of the National Trust has been a tremendous effort of recognition. What next? This is a question which the National Trust is asking. But it is not a question solely for which the National Trust, and other heritage organisations are responsible. Colonialism and slavery, the wealth they generated but also the systems of racial capitalism they created, fuelled and were then upheld by, are interwoven throughout the British Isles. The state and wider society are not yet able to fully recognise these histories and their implications today. So I would argue, there are three key areas of work that now lie ahead.

  1. Continue the work of recognition and acknowledgement 

The first is to continue the work of recognition and acknowledgement. To continue to uncover and educate and to argue. There are a number of projects that are involved in this uncovering work that need support. I will list a few here:

  • Consented and the Connected Sociologies Project which offer resources and sessions to teach race, class and colonialism in schools led by Gurminder Bhambra and Amit Singh.
  • Colonial Countryside which is a project working with primary school pupils to understand the connections between colonialism and country houses led by Corinne Fowler.
  • Legacies of British Slave-ownership project at UCL which created a database of those who received compensation money from the Compensation Act following the abolition of slavery.

2. Undertake the work of reparation(s) 

What is ‘reparation(s)’? ‘Reparations’ (plural) imply compensation of some kind, reparation (singular noun) covers the wider work of repair (John Torpey). Repair work might include apology, as step beyond acknowledgment; memorialisation; perhaps even truth and reconciliation processes. 

In terms of compensation, both research and activist work is ongoing to explore what reparations might consist of in terms of money and also land. A group doing leading work on land as reparations in the UK is LION – Land in our Names. Not only is LION demanding reparations, this organisation is also looking at wider repair work, how to repair the relationship between People of Colour and the land, transform land rights in this country and create systemic change.

“Land rights are the basis for revolution and sovereignty in our communities. We are working to transform the narrative around land in Britain in how it relates to intersections of race, gender and class for systemic change.” (LION)

3. Dismantle the system of racial capitalism 

This then connects to the third area of work which is to dismantle the system of racial capitalism and support the building of another kind of society in its stead. Reparation(s) can only go so far when they take place within a structure that continues to perpetrate violence and oppression. Therefore, to take the consequences of acknowledging the connections between colonialism, slavery and the creation of modern Britain seriously, it becomes necessary to form ‘communities of resistance’ and overthrow capitalism (A. Sivanandan).

References

Catherine Hall (2018) Doing reparatory history: bringing ‘race’ and slavery home

Sally-Anne Huxtable, Corinne Fowler, Christo Kefalas, Emma Slocombe (2020) Interim Report on the Connections between Colonialism and Properties now in the Care of the National Trust, Including Links with Historic Slavery.

Corinne Fowler (2020) Green Unpleasant Land: Creative Responses to Rural England’s Colonial Connections

Cedric J. Robinson (1983) Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition

A. Sivanandan (1990) Communities of Resistance

John Torpey (2006) Making Whole What Has Been Smashed: On reparation politics

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