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Thursday, October 22, 2020

Explained: Why a report linking many of UK’s grand homes to colonial Indian wealth is raising a row

Many members of UK’s National Trust, which drew up the report, have threatened to withdraw their membership and cancel subscription.

Written by Amitava Chakraborty , Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi | Updated: September 26, 2020 7:54:26 am
UK national trust, national trust report, UK colonial past, UK colonialism debate, UK slave trade links, east india company, winston churchill racism, express explained, indian expressThe 13th-century Chirk Castle was bought in the 16th century by Sir Thomas Myddelton I, a prominent sugar trader, who was also among the first investors in the English East India Company in 1599. (Photo: National Trust)

British charity organisation National Trust released a report on September 22 stating that many historical properties it manages have a colonial past and links to slavery.

The report comes amid recent protests in Europe and the United States that have seen the pulling down of statues of many historical figures now seen as controversial. As such, the National Trust study, defined as an attempt to revisit history and understand the links of many British country properties to its colonial past, has ruffled some feathers:

What is the National Trust? 

Founded in 1895 by English social reformer Octavia Hill, civil servant Robert Hunter and conservationist Hardwicke Rawnsley, the 125-year-old National Trust is one of Europe’s largest conversation charities. The organisation, through its million-strong network of members and volunteers, takes care of, among other things, hundreds of historic buildings, gardens, parks and miles of coastline and countryside sites.

What is this report that the National Trust has released?

The organisation released an ‘Interim Report on the Connections between Colonialism and Properties now in the Care of the National Trust, Including Links with Historic Slavery’. The study was commissioned in September 2019. In the report, the Trust reveals the connection that 93 historic places in its care have with colonialism and slavery.

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What does the report say?

According to the report, the study undertaken by researchers within and outside the National Trust explores “some of the most significant links to the places and collections… focusing on the sources of wealth that helped to fund them”.

UK national trust, national trust report, UK colonial past, UK colonialism debate, UK slave trade links, east india company, winston churchill racism, express explained, indian express Chartwell in Kent was former Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s family home for over four decades. Churchill served as the Secretary of State for the Colonies from February 1921 to October 1922. (Photo: National Trust)

The 115-page report broadly focuses on the global slave trade and the compensation for slave ownership, as well as the English East India Company and the British Raj. Some of Britain’s most prominent and historic properties, including Chartwell in Kent, the family home of former Prime Minister Winston Churchill for over four decades, and Bateman’s, the residence of legendary novelist Rudyard Kipling from 1902 until his death, are part of the list.

How does the report link these historic sites with colonial India?

Following the English East India Company’s victory over Mughal emperor Shah Alam II in the Battle of Buxar in 1764, the Company was allowed to collect taxes directly from the people of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa. With the right to raise revenue, employees of the Company serving in India – the most famous among them being Robert Clive – made fortunes for themselves.

The report states that when the employees returned, they also flooded Britain with “associated objects, furnishing its homes, forging fashions, identities and cultural change”.

The report notes that Clive, for instance, is associated with two National Trust properties. “At Claremont [in Surrey], purchased with the wealth he had made in India, he built a new house, intended to be his main residence and to display the treasures he had amassed.”

Another example is the Chirk Castle in Wrexham in Wales. The 13-century castle was bought in the 16th century by Sir Thomas Myddelton I, a prominent sugar trader. Myddelton and his brother, Robert, were one of the first investors in the East India Company in 1599.

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Is the National Trust planning to carry out further studies? 

Yes, the Trust has hinted at carrying out further studies.

In the report, the authors state, “…[W]e will continue to undertake further work in this area and develop it as part of our commitment to exploring a wide range of histories… We also intend to work with individuals and communities in order to share stories that have been forgotten, obscured, overlooked or insufficiently explored at many of our places. Of course, these histories of slavery, legacies of colonialism and the lives of people of colour are not the only stories that we will tell. We will continue to highlight the histories of place, architecture, families, estates, staff, communities, artisanal practice and our remarkable collections told from a variety of perspectives.”

What has been the public reaction to the report?

Although the report has evoked mixed reaction from the British public, many members of the Trust have threatened to withdraw their membership and cancel their subscription.

Criticising the report, UK’s Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden said, “Churchill is one of Britain’s greatest heroes. He rallied the free world to defeat fascism. It will surprise and disappoint people that the National Trust appears to be making him a subject of criticism and controversy.”

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