I was reading articles last week about The National Trust recently posting information highlighting the strong links that roughly one third of their properties have to the slave trade. Not just properties, many many artifacts. The thrust of the message was that everytime we visit these beautiful houses and admire the exquisite antique ornaments and furniture we are looking at the unjust gains of acts of oppression and cruelty. I can only applaud The National Trust for that reminder.
Horrified was I to read that some people had taken issue at the decision from The National Trust to draw attention to this subject. It seems they resent the reminders about the scandalous slave trade. This is not something new. I have been visiting National Trust properties for years and as for a long time we used to receive a journal from them featuring their properties. I definitely recall them publishing articles at least ten years ago pointing out which of their properties were owned by families who made their fortunes as a direct result of the suffering of others.
Yet some people in recent weeks have claimed to be so incensed by being “lectured” by The National Trust or having a biased presentation of British history thrust upon them that they were ready to cancel their National Trust membership. That’s right, they don’t like being reminded that much of the wealth Britain has amassed was gained through oppression and abuse. Silly, isn’t it! Or callous!
Call it what you will. I don’t see anything wrong with wanting to visit these fascinating houses. They are beautiful. I don’t see anything wrong with admiring the workmanship of the masonry, the carpentry, the artistry and all the extraordinary skill that is on display in these properties.
I am grateful for institutions like The National Trust and English Heritage that protect these properties which help to educate us about the history of this country, which includes deeply shameful pages. They do preserve a different era and it is very interesting to be able to see all of that history. But of course anyone of good conscience should recognise that there is something seriously wrong with a system that allows people to oppress others and gain riches as a result.
Even more concerning is how those riches were then used. While so many people lived in deplorable conditions in the crumbling properties on the land of those rich folk, they were sometimes using their wealth to show off. These beautiful homes and furnishings were a statement of wealth, Worse, some of them squandered their wealth on drinking and gambling. I remember when Goldfinch and I visited Stowe School…we were shocked to learn of how the fortune of the family was thrown away within a short time by two wreckless men.
It’s not just here that history highlights crimes that have been repeated for thousands of years. The “greatest” boasters in history often were those who committed some of the most cruel acts on a gigantic scale. In many cases, wealth and fame have been gained by wicked acts.
We traipse around the stunning relics of those criminals who were revered in their day, but are now judged under the light of the generally common feeling that wealth gained by wickedness is not ok. I will continue to visit these buildings and peer at the artifacts within them, but I am very glad to be reminded that what I am looking at is not just to be admired. It is also evidence that for a very long time some people were content to amass more and more for themselves and their family, and to show off to their friends, compete for respect and admiration, whilst many many others lived in very difficult conditions.
There were some who did use their wealth to try to improve their local communities – hospitals, schools, better accommodations for their poor tenants. That can be perceived as some “righteous” us of “unrighteous” riches perhaps. I would hope that the expenditure to benefit others was not an attempt to win acclaim or be held up as a “noble”. Yeah…it would make you feel much better knowing you were being treated in a hospital paid for by a mafia godfather or a drugs baron. Nope!
Riches acquired through criminal acts then used to benefit others is still not right. No wonder the statues, streets, theatres and other public buildings named after those who profited from abysmal abuse get up people’s noses! But I do worry about the conscience of some of the wealthy. I suspect that they had a false notion that they were “divinely favoured”, perhaps fed to them by a corrupt clergy. You know the same clergy that taught that people could pay money for prayers to be said to liberate their beloved relatives from “limbo”.
I often think that much of what people have done that was obviously wrong was sometimes perpetuated by a snivelling sermon giver, who at the same time as enjoying the favour of a wealthy parishioner, made them think they could take their success as a divine blessing rather than criminal gains.
Anyway…I could write so much on this subject. The trust of my post is that I think The National Trust are doing the right thing in reminding us that so many of these beautiful houses and artifacts have a notorious history behind them. We all know that is still happens today. Modern day slavery is an enormous and global problem. As long as it still happens we need to be reminded that is is wrong to profit from dominating others with cruel oppression.