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14 Jun 2019

Throwing new light on difficult histories

Written by Jennifer Melville, Head of Curatorial & Conservation Services
A Venetian stool from Brodick Castle. Formerly known as ‘blackamoor’ stools, this description is now regarded as unacceptable as it has racist connotations
One of a pair of Venetian stools from Brodick Castle. Formerly known as ‘blackamoor’ stools, this description is now regarded as unacceptable as it has racist connotations
Picture a young man walking up to the door of a grand Scottish home – Inveresk Lodge, near Musselburgh. It is the 1780s. He is married, his wife is pregnant and they’re desperate for help.

The young man is Robert Wedderburn. His father is James Wedderburn who, like so many Scottish settlers in the West Indies, fathered children to slave women; Robert is one of them. Robert has come to ask his father for help, but James, now married to a Scottish woman and with a white family of his own, disavows his son and sends him away. Many years later, in his seminal book The Horrors of Slavery, Robert exposed his father’s rape of his mother Rosanna, his habit of having her whipped naked, and recalled of his visit to Inveresk:

I visited my father, who had the inhumanity to threaten to send me to gaol if I troubled him ... He did not deny me to be his son, but called me a lazy fellow and said he would do nothing for me. From his cook I had one draught of small beer, and his footman gave me a cracked sixpence.

Robert Wedderburn (1762–1835/6), radical and anti-slavery advocate, from the frontispiece to his book, The Horrors of Slavery, 1824
Robert Wedderburn (1762–1835/6), radical and anti-slavery advocate, from the frontispiece to his book, The Horrors of Slavery, 1824

The National Trust for Scotland has a wealth of such stories about slavery associated with its places. The tale of Scipio Kennedy at Culzean, and his successful assimilation into the Scottish community of Kirkoswald, is well known. But we have been less forthright in relating darker, more difficult, stories and in explaining some particularly challenging – to modern eyes, even offensive – items in our collections. The truth is that many of the places now in our care were built, or made much grander, using the enormous wealth accrued through the subjugation of others – slavery in the West Indies and indentured servitude in the East.

Our collections contain a considerable number of controversial objects – perhaps most notably the throne, family paintings and jewellery seized from the royal family of Awadh (Oudh) in Uttar Pradesh. This ‘war booty’ was brought back to Leith Hall in Aberdeenshire by Col Alexander Sebastian Leith-Hay. He was born in 1818 at Grenada in the West Indies, to a family that benefited from slavery. In November 1857 he led the 93rd Sutherland Highlanders Regiment in their storming of Sikandar Bagh, the summer residence of Wajid Ali Shah (1822–87), the last Nawab of Awadh. Leith-Hay’s role in what has been long-known here as the Indian Rebellion, but which Indians call the First War of Independence, has been retold in bravado terms. He came away unscathed with a large white cockatoo, which spoke Hindustani;  ‘his narrowest escape was when a round shot took his bearer’s head off ...’ Col Leith-Hay commanded the slaughter of all 2,200 of the sepoy mutineers who had made the palace a stronghold. This reprisal remains one of the darkest episodes of Britain’s involvement with India.

Implicit in colonialism and empire was a perception of superiority, partly based on a belief in racial superiority. The recent enthusiasm for DNA testing has shown a much more complex racial heritage of the British people than has been  hitherto appreciated. We are aware of recent immigration, such as the Ugandan Asian crisis in the 1970s and the Windrush generation. But as early as 1805 William Wordsworth’s saunter through London streets conjures up a marvellously varied scene, and one that he was:

…………………., well pleased to note
Among the crowd all specimens of man,
Through all the colours which the sun bestows,
And every character of form and face:
The Swede, the Russian; from the genial south,
The Frenchman and the Spaniard; from remote
America, the Hunter-Indian; Moors,
Malays, Lascars, the Tartar, the Chinese,
And Negro Ladies in white muslin gowns.

(from Residence In London Book VII of The Prelude or Growth of a Poets Mind; An Autobiographical Poem; 1805)

Earlier this year, DNA analysis of the skeletons recovered from the Mary Rose, which sank in July 1511, revealed that the Tudor crew was in fact racially mixed and geographically disparate, some of them originating from southern Europe and North Africa.

Still further in the past, the Declaration of Arbroath (its 700th anniversary is in 2020) describes how:

the Scots … journeyed from Greater Scythia by way of the Tyrrhenian Sea and the Pillars of Hercules, and dwelt for a long course of time in Spain …

We want to engage with new, more diverse audiences and tackle the difficult subjects of colonialism, slavery, the subjugation of the underprivileged and those disadvantaged through their gender, orientation, colour or circumstance. So we would do well to consider how the stories that were formerly deemed too sensitive to address might actually offer a fresh perspective on this conundrum. Instead of presenting our properties as the physical manifestation only of success and privilege, if we use them to reveal the complexities of our heritage and culture, we can make every visit, every online encounter, every guided tour more meaningful and relevant.

Project Reveal is a Trust-wide collections digitisation project. It will result in an updated database with high-quality images and unique object numbers for every item in the National Trust for Scotland material culture collections. Six regionally based project teams, supported by experienced project managers, will work across all our properties with collections to complete the inventory in 24 months from July 2017 until July 2019.

Project Reveal

Find out more about this Trust-wide collections digitisation project.