My friend Bill Long and I attended a lecture a few years ago in New York, given by the historian Madge Dresser and organised by the American branch of the National Trust. Its theme was the links between slavery and National Trust properties. Although Madge and I disagreed a little on the history of the South Sea company, it was balanced, fair and very interesting indeed. But in the wake of BlackLivesMatter, the NT has decided that it has not acknowledged its sin fast enough or sufficiently enough and so has commissioned a major new report. Yes: that is the same NT that is firing 14% of its staff, 1200 folks, because it says, untruthfully, that it faces a cash crisis and there is no other way.
The Trust is quoted extensively in the press. And it is hilarious. Its grasp of history and the concept of balance is just lamentable. My cat could do better.
Take this gem:
“Slavery has been woven into the fabric of British and global history for thousands of years,” the National Trust said. “For 400 years, white British people, companies and organisations gained huge amounts of wealth through the appalling exploitation of enslaved people as part of the slave trade.”
The first recognised act of British exploitation of slaves was in 1619 when the evil Britishers seized African slaves from a Portuguese ship they had captured and sold them on in the New World. So that is the start of those 400 years. By 1807, Britain had outlawed the slave trade and was then spending billions of pounds in today’s money and sacrificing thousands of Royal Navy lives in putting a stop to the transatlantic slave trade.
In 1833, the Slavery Abolition Act outlawed the ownership of slaves. Slave owners were compensated by the Government. So technically speaking, wealth was transferred from all Britons – who at that point were almost entirely white – to the lucky few who had owned slaves. Some whites made vast sums while most whites just paid for it.
But might we not say that as of 1833, our involvement in the slave trade stopped. Indeed Britain was not only fighting on the high seas to stop the trade but sending troops into Africa (for instance into Nigeria in 1851) to stop certain African tribes from engaging in the slave trade.
So while the National Trust likes to suggest that we evil white Britishers were reaping vast sums from slaving for 400 years (that would be until last year I assume?), history suggests that this is sheer nonsense and utterly unbalanced.
There is another quote from a tweet which is a gem. It is accompanied by a picture of a selection of ivory trinkets from a National Trust house:
“By the mid-1800s, ivory exports from West Africa boomed, satisfying new fashions for ivory piano keys, billiard balls and trinkets. Traders from Egypt and North Africa travelled in search of elephants, kidnapping local people to serve as ivory bearers, servants, and concubines.”
So in other words, as Britain was sending ships and troops into Africa to stamp out slavery, we as a nation must be castigated because some of us bought goods from Egyptians and Africans who themselves were also engaged in slavery and rape.
Now it strikes me that this really is not a prime example of white guilt and in the context of what was actually going on in Africa in the mid-1800s is utterly misleading.
As I have noted many times, but most recently 28 days ago, the obsession of the National Trust with a range of woke issues rather than its actual remit of looking after old buildings is having a clear impact on the legacy income it receives to help actually care for such buildings. I am sure that my Grandfather, Sir John Winnifrith, the Trust’s former Director General, would shed a tear for that but would also be as horrified as many, pro tem, current members by the extreme ignorance of basic history and of the idea of balance and context that the organisation displays.
Shouting clear untruths at your members as the Trust castigates itself for past sins, both real and imagined, of folks with whom it had no connection might win the Trust a few new friends. I am sure the BBC approves. But among those who currently support it and pay for its work, such antics will not go down well.