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Hyper-Politicised but Essential Reparatory History

The National Trust’s Interim Report on Colonialism and Slavery

Emma Gattey | University of Cambridge

Wimpole Hall National Trust owned mansion, part 17th Century but mainly 18th Century. Grade I listed.
Wimpole Hall National Trust owned mansion, part 17th Century but mainly 18th Century. Grade I listed. CC BY-SA 2.0 license.

Founded in 1895, the National Trust is Europe’s largest conservation charity. A steward of important historical and natural sites—including over 500 historic houses, castles, parks and gardens—the Trust cares for “nature, beauty and history for the nation to enjoy”, and is supported by millions of members, volunteers, and staff. In September 2020, the National Trust published its “Interim Report on the Connections between Colonialism and Properties now in the Care of the National Trust, Including Links with Historic Slavery”. A hefty title, to be sure, both in substance and form. Examining the histories of slavery and colonialism at National Trust sites, this compendious Report provides crucial historical nuance to visitors’ enjoyment and experience of these properties. Consisting of ten informative chapters, the Report boasts an expansive bibliography, links to online databases, and lists for further reading. However, as its title suggests, this Report is merely interim: it is a starting point, a springboard, a spur to further research, reflection, and critical engagement with local and global histories. This is a revisionist history project on a large scale: some of the histories retold in the Report are “straightforward, while others are much more complex.” The latter narratives “challenge the familiar, received histories”, which both neglect “the vital role that people of colour have played in our national story and overlook the central role that the oppression and violence of the slave trade and the legacies of colonialism have played in the making of modern Britain.”

Connected to current scholarship and responding to changing public appetites for uncomfortable imperial histories, the Report draws deeply upon the research and database of the Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slave-ownership (LBS) at University College London. The LBS project has identified all individuals who “received awards listed in the slave-compensation records of the 1830s.” Recounting the appalling history of slave-owners’ compensation upon the abolition of slavery in Britain, the Report thus links prominent figures and features of this history with National Trust sites.

Chapel at Wimpole Hall in Cambridgeshire.
Chapel at Wimpole Hall in Cambridgeshire.

In brief, the history is this: of the £20 million compensation paid to the owners of “slave property” pursuant to the Slavery Abolition Act 1833, over 45,000 claims for compensation were made, relating to 800,000 enslaved people. (Crucially, no compensation was paid to the enslaved.) It is important to note, as do the co-authors of the Report’s chapter “Compensation for Slave-ownership”, that compensation payments “extended beyond plantation owners and the merchant class centred around the ports of London, Liverpool and Bristol associated with slavery and the importing of goods from the West Indies.” Beneficiaries included absentee slave-owners who were financially dependent on slavery but had never stepped foot on a plantation, “including the descendants of slave-traders and merchants who had used family wealth to buy substantial property in the country, or families who had acquired an interest through marriage.” Of these, the Report’s research shows that 80 successful compensation claims for slave-ownership were made by individuals historically associated with 29 properties in the care of the National Trust. An unsurprising conclusion, the co-authors note, given that “the practice of enslaving African people was a fundamental part of the British economy in the late seventeenth, eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries”. Unsurprising, but still repellent. Moreover, approximately one-third of the Trust’s properties can be directly connected to colonial histories.

Huxtable recounts how certain members of the landed gentry were able to delay the abolition of the slave trade and of slavery in the British Empire and to prolong the fiefdom of the East India Company.

In the Report’s opening chapter, Dr Sally-Anne Huxtable, Head Curator of the National Trust, addresses the British country house through a global lens, examining these stately homes as “sites of cultural influence and political power.” This chapter offers a rich, accessible survey of the “relationship between the country house and histories of slavery, studies of colonialism and black presence in Britain”. Debunking the myth of “the supposedly passive backdrop” of the British country house (spurred by Downton Abbey and its ilk), Huxtable recentres these estates and their material features as not merely the “epitome” of Britishness (especially Englishness), but as key nodes in global circuits and networks of trade, culture, politics, and so on. She examines the origins of wealth that founded such mansions, as well as the intricate transnational influences on all features of their design and décor. Huxtable, therefore, explores these stately homes as dynamic sites, where “global and national histories played out in a local setting”. In particular, Huxtable recounts how certain members of the landed gentry were able to delay the abolition of the slave trade and of slavery in the British Empire and to prolong the fiefdom of the East India Company.

Public Responses

To pre-empt any sense of national shaming, the Report’s co-authors reminded readers that “[n]o one alive today is responsible for the iniquities of the period in question and consequently, we should feel confident in acknowledging the positive and the negative factual evidence of the past as part of our shared histories.” This disclaimer has not proved sufficient. It has been controversial, partly because of many Britons’ sentimental, patriotic, and nationalist connections with heritage sites. In November 2020, a band of Members of Parliament and peers from the recently established Common Sense Group wrote to the culture secretary and the Daily Telegraph recommending a review of the National Trust funding applications to public bodies in light of the Interim Report. Concerned that the National Trust has been seized by “elitist bourgeois liberals”, their principal mission is “to ensure that institutional custodians of history and heritage, tasked with safeguarding and celebrating British values, are not coloured by cultural Marxist dogma” or the “woke agenda”. In particular, the Group was repulsed that the Report has “tarnished one of Britain’s greatest sons, Winston Churchill, by linking his family home, Chartwell, with slavery and colonialism”. The Group ominously suggested that the National Trust “could face an official investigation”, decreeing that “History must neither be sanitised nor rewritten to suit ‘snowflake’ preoccupations. A clique of powerful, privileged liberals must not be allowed to rewrite our history in their image.”

More hostile critics took to social media to denounce the Report, its co-authors, and the National Trust itself. In a vile convergence of anti-revisionist conservatism and misogyny, a violent amount of hostility has been directed towards Professor Corinne Fowler, in particular. A professor of postcolonial literature at the University of Leicester, co-editor of the Interim Report, director of the Colonial Countryside: National Trust Houses Reinterpreted project, and author of the recent book, Green Unpleasant Land, Fowler has fallen into the crosshairs of the Common Sense Group and its allies. Interviewed in The Guardian, Fowler has warned of vitriolic attempts “to misrepresent, mischaracterise, malign and intimidate academics in clear efforts to damage the professional reputations of people for evidence-based scholarship”. The intimidation and shaming tactics thus far seem largely targeted at women.

Despite its decolonising methodology and well-intentioned efforts to educate the public about British imperial and colonial history, the Report has thus been hugely controversial. This is part of a larger war over collective memory, history, and national identity. Against the background of anti-British Museum sentiment expressed in August 2020, historian David Olusoga has written that such research projects are being “presented as existential threats to the nation and one version of national identity,” with participating academics “denounced in newspapers as enemies within for merely doing their jobs.” This is a new, more dangerous and divisive version of cancel culture: “what is under assault here are not just individuals but academic curiosity itself, the lifeblood of scholarship that is now being portrayed as a form of cultural treason or misrepresented as political posturing.” Olusoga writes that “recent attacks on museums, universities and the National Trust were launched not to win arguments or influence the shape of historical debates but to intimidate other institutions and encourage them to cancel projects”. Rather than a so-called common-sense position, this is “a war against facts”, one which is “culturally corrosive but politically expedient.”

This public outcry prompted the Director-General of the National Trust, along with one of the Report’s co-editors, to post online videos and blogs explaining the aims of the publication. In a moving blogpost by John Orna-Ornstein, the National Trust’s Director of Culture and Engagement, the Trust has defended the Report as “a continuation of – not a departure from – the work we already do. That is, to explore and share histories, whether they’re comfortable or hard to hear.” Orna-Ornstein states the painfully obvious: “the report we’ve published this month is not intended to make judgements about the past. We’re presenting information based on research, allowing people to explore and draw conclusions for themselves.” As the National Trust keeps feeling pressed to emphasise on multiple fronts, he underscores that they are not accusing visitors or any living individuals of complicity: “No one alive today can ever be held responsible for the wrongs of the period when slavery took place, but we can seek to understand this better.” Orna-Ornstein concludes that National Trust sites are so much more than scenery; they also tell “myriad stories” about “our past and who we are”. And these stories must be told, he argues, for the National Trust can only have a “strong future” if it succeeds in “telling clear and open stories about its places, sharing its research more widely and also inviting people to comment and be involved.” In short, the National Trust has gone into partial damage control mode but thankfully has not shown signs of retracting the Report or reneging on its commitment to provide further reports and work with communities to decolonise its institutional practices and knowledge. Public educational projects such as this Report – what we might call decolonising processes of reparatory history – are of crucial importance in today’s ostensibly post-truth intellectual and popular media climate.

Politicising “contested heritage”

In a recent House of Commons Debate over the Future of the National Trust, Conservative MP Dr Andrew Murrison described the Interim Report as a “hobnailed boot of a document” which was “sufficiently off-piste to attract the interest of the Charity Commission as regulator”. Murrison also decreed that “the National Trust needs to be a politics-free space … and not an organ for promulgating a particular world view”. Fortunately, the Charity Commission has confirmed that the National Trust did not breach charity law by commissioning and publishing the Interim Report. Exonerating the Trust of accusations that it had exceeded the scope of its charitable purposes, the Charity Commission confirmed in March 2021 that the trust had acted legally and responsibly at all times and would face no regulatory action.

Still, it is deeply concerning that both the culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, and Nigel Huddleston, parliamentary under-secretary for sport, heritage and tourism, have expressed reservations about the National Trust’s “political” orientation. In a September 2020 letter to national museums and galleries about “contested heritage”, Dowden warned publicly funded heritage bodies not to take any “actions motivated by activism or politics.” Tightly linking this caution with the imminent governmental scrutiny of the funding of such bodies, Dowden tacitly threatened their continued financial support—and thus, in an epoch where culture and heritage institutions have been devastated by Covid-19, threatening their very existence. The Museums Association has since issued a statement of concern about this “climate of fear” stoked amongst museums, and emphasising their support for everyone working on British imperial history “to do so free of interference, threats and intimidation.”

Reparatory History and the Heritage Sector

Aligned with a new, distinctly twenty-first-century understanding of professional ethical responsibilities for historians, LBS has declared that “doing reparative history charges us to explore and understand the past in order to address the ways in which injustices may be acknowledged and set right”. Professor Catherine Hall, chair of LBS, has also written at length about this concept and its vision. In “Doing Reparatory History: Bringing ‘Race’ and Slavery Home”, Hall suggests that reparatory or reparative history emphasises the importance of “reconstituting the past, in ways that enable thinking about responsibility in the present.” Of course, this type of history “begins with the descendants, with trauma and loss,” but it “must be about more than identifying wrongdoers and seeking redress”. For reparatory historians, “the hope is that the work of mourning can be linked to hopes for reconciliation, the repair of relations damaged by historical injustice.” Thus, amongst a growing cohort of historians, Hall argues for “the importance of a different understanding of Britain’s involvement in the slavery business and our responsibilities, as beneficiaries, of the gross inequalities associated with slavery and colonialism.” This “different understanding” will begin to close gaps between different groups of society, which experience and remember history in disparate ways. As Hall writes, collective memory “constitutes social values, shapes convention, law and language. If we are haunted by past memories that are not shared by others, it can be deeply lonely and indeed alienating.” Research like the National Trust’s Report can help to diminish spaces of loneliness and alienation, generating greater historical understanding and compassion by generating a more closely shared sense of history.

Like LBS, the National Trust is undertaking an educational and research project which is “building, with many others, a new understanding of the past and its life in the present.” This is not a wounding project but one that will heal — promoting both understanding and discussion of the unjust past, divided present, and shared future. By encouraging more research and community engagement, the National Trust and its allies are working towards answering important questions. How can we most productively decolonise important sites of public education and recreation? How can we generate collective memory that is honest, deeply reflective, and reparatory? Their interim answers echo Hall: plumbing the depths of collective memory, reflecting on contestations over memory, “the wrongs of the past and the possibilities of repair.”

Although the National Trust is establishing an independent external advisory group of heritage and academic experts, this panel is not their sole sounding board for this project. From the outset, the National Trust has sought ongoing community engagement, input, and dialogue: it “cannot uncover and share these histories alone”, because “they belong to everyone.” Broad community participation and critique are crucial. Revisionist history, especially the reparatory kind, is a deeply collaborative process.

This work-in-progress is possibly monumental. Its aims should be celebrated, rather than condemned or marred by undue controversy. Still, there is room for critique, improvement, and participation. One might argue, for instance, that the National Trust has disavowed the material connection between the wealth accumulation of the past and the relative prosperity this island continues to enjoy off the back of enslaved black labour. There are lessons, here, for all groups integrated into the higher education system and charged with investigating these histories, such as the Advisory Group on Legacies of Enslavement at the University of Cambridge. Backlash is inevitable, but histories cannot be hermetically sealed off from the present. Corporations and individuals today still benefit materially from the injustices recorded in the Report. If we are to take these legacies of enslavement seriously, and as ongoing processes, more will need to be done than issuing reports. In 2019, Glasgow University pledged to pay £20 million in reparations to the University of the West Indies, including funding a joint research centre, to atone for its historical links to the transatlantic slave trade. The normative resilience of property rights — ones founded in historical injustice — requires unsettling. Perhaps something closer to the Glaswegian approach is necessary.

In conclusion, we ought to be guided by the recent statement issued by leading British and imperial historians, demanding a review of the Home Office Citizenship and Settlement Test, its official handbook, and its ongoing misrepresentation of slavery and the British Empire. These academics note that “This official, mandatory version of history is a step backwards in historical knowledge and understanding. Historical knowledge is and should be an essential part of citizenship. Historical falsehood and misrepresentation, however, should not.” Politically engaged, historically-minded publics ought to be guided by this ethos, just as the National Trust has been, and admirably continues to be.


Further Reading:

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

  • Catherine Hall, ‘Doing Reparatory History: Bringing ‘Race’ and Slavery Home’, Race and Class, 60:1 (2018), 3–21.

  • Legacies of British Slave-ownership. Colonial Slavery and the Formation of Victorian Britain, ed. by Catherine Hall, Nicholas Draper, Keith McClelland, Katie Donington and Rachel Lang (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014). DOI:

  • Slavery and the Country House, ed. by Madge Dresser and Andrew Hann (London: English Heritage, 2013).

  • Michael Taylor, The Interest: How the British Establishment Resisted the Abolition of Slavery (London: The Bodley Head, 2020).

From Ōtautahi/Christchurch in Aotearoa New Zealand, Emma Gattey is a first year PhD student in History and Gates Cambridge Scholar at the University of Cambridge. Emma’s research focuses on Māori participation in transnational anticolonial networks in the late twentieth century, with a particular focus on how indigenous activist-intellectuals were publishing and performing revisionist histories in the academy and on the streets. In parallel with her history studies, Emma writes literary criticsm, is a Research Fellow at the University of Otago Faculty of Law, and tries to be a good friend and human. Her research and writing profiles are available here and here.

Twitter: @adjectivallyEMG


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