The wealth that built the grand country houses in the 18th century coincided with Britain’s economic expansion through global trade and exploitation, notably in India, North America and the Caribbean. How much of that links surviving houses to Caribbean slavery is explored in the new book published by English Heritage, often the accidental inheritor, on behalf of the state, of properties like Brodsworth Hall, Kenwood House, Bolsover Castle, Marble Hill, Northington Grange. Evidence of direct links is difficult to track and tricky to interpret or quantify and the assembled essays sometimes read like fascinating footnotes and suggestive sidebars, with entangled histories of transfers, re-building, finance. Other houses investigated include Danson House, Dyrham Park, Piercefield, a clutch of once-rural retreats near Liverpool, several estates in Bristol, Somerset and Gloucestershire, and Osborne House (Victoria & Albert’s seaside home, with few links to the Caribbean in fabric or contents, but plenty to India). One misses the striking example of Harewood House, bought and built by the Lascelles with cash from slave trading, plantations and loans to other planters, but this has been well-covered elsewhere.
Many connections are so hedged with (proper scholarly) qualifications regarding tenuous links between houses, owners, heirs, income, construction dates, lost fortunes, demolition, that one has a curious sense of historical concealment, as if slave trading and slave owning were always obscured. Seldom is anything as clear as the investments in the Compagnie des Indes and the South Sea Company that funded the building of Marble Hill; and even that is partly speculative. In 1710 Christopher Codrington of Dodington House left two plantations on Barbados to the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, to maintain a theological school, with the result that in 1837 the Archbishop of Canterbury and other churchmen received £9000 and £13000 respectively in ‘compensation’ for the emancipation of their enslaved workforce. Successive owners of Northington Grange, Henry Drummond and Alexander Baring had fingers in lots of pies and government business, so even while dependent on slavery-related investments the latter could truly deny, in a parliamentary debate, that he was not ‘a West India proprietor’, and argue as it were disinterestedly, that abolitionist accounts were ‘essentially false’.
If one remembers that most early banking and insurance in Britain developed in relation to slaving and sugar production, the complexities connecting British families and their dwellings to exploitation of Africans and other peoples around the world are not surprising, even if sometimes challenging to unravel. Usefully, for a book priced at £50.00, EH offer a downloaded text – minus maps and illustrations – for free, at http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/publications/slavery-and-british-country-house/