Pledge to rewrite Beckford history to reflect slave links

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By Hugh Boag

The controversial Beckford Collection at Brodick Castle will be changed to reflect its links to slavery, the National Trust of Scotland has announced.

New temporary interpretation material has already been installed at the castle and guides have been given extra information on William Beckford and his slavery wealth.

The trust has also admitted: ‘It is true that we have been less forthright in relating stories of slavery and colonialism and in discussing some particularly challenging – to modern eyes, even offensive – items in our collections.’ And it has launched a new Facing our Past project to address the wider issues.

The move follows a wave of public criticism of the collection in a letters campaign in the Arran Banner calling for change, as national anger at the portrayal of those involved in the slave trade across Britain was given a voice as the Black Lives Matter movement grew.

The campaign began with a letter from author and poet Cicely Gill of Whiting Bay, whose father’s name was Beckford, a Jamaican whose forebears were plantation slaves.

She told of her dismay that the new Beckford Room, created during the castle refurbishment, did not acknowledge that the silver had been acquired through money made on the back of the exploitation of plantation slaves.

She summed up the mood when she said: Surely, given the thousands of tourists of all ages, and from many different countries, who pass through the Beckford room it would be responsible to educate and inform and shine a light of honesty on the silver.’

The Beckford Room at the castle is presently closed, but Sarah Beattie, curator for Ayrshire and Arran, and Dumfries and Galloway, said: ‘The exhibition room is closed to meet Covid-19 social distancing guidelines and we are using this time to continue working with relevant advisors and to rotate the items on display and commission additional interpretation.’

National Trust ready to face the past

A new initiative to be launched by the National Trust for Scotland will examine the previously marginalised subjects of colonialism and slavery.

Called Facing Our Past, it will look in detail at the collections the trust holds across Scotland and take action if they need revised.

If follows the decision by the trust to completely review the interpretation of the Beckford Collection at Brodick Castle, as highlighted in the Banner this week. But the new project will take a much wider brushstroke to the issue.

Michael Terwey, head of heritage services and consultancy, said:  ‘Rightly, there is ever-greater recognition of the fact the history of slavery is deeply entwinned with the wider history of Scotland, in particular in the 18th and 19th centuries.

‘It’s therefore no surprise slavery is connected, either directly or indirectly, with some of the properties the National Trust for Scotland cares for. This is not something we’ve ever tried to hide, for example, we highlighted the story of Scipio Kennedy at Culzean and produced educational material for schools. We also participated in a documentary hosted by actor David Hayman when curator Sarah Beattie spoke to him about the links with slavery at trust properties in the region.

‘However, it is true we have been less forthright in relating stories of slavery and colonialism and in discussing some particularly challenging – to modern eyes, even offensive – items in our collections. This was, in part, because some of the tools of historical scholarship we now have weren’t available to us previously. The truth is 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, as well as the spoils of the imperial project.

‘We recognise it is time we did more to research those connections and share what we find through interpretation at properties. That’s why we’ve started a new project we’ve called Facing Our Past.

‘This will begin with in-depth research into our properties and the people associated with them. In turn, the stories we uncover will enable us to represent aspects of our places and collections in a new context. This will be part of our objective of, not only uncovering facts and incidents that in the past we may have been prepared to gloss over, but also to use this fresh perspective to engage with new, more diverse audiences and tackle the previously marginalised subjects of colonialism and slavery.’

How the Beckford Collection came to be at Brodick Castle

The collection at Brodick Castle is directly related to William Beckford and the profits of slavery through the marriage of Alexander, 10th Duke of Hamilton, to Susan Beckford.

Susan’s father William Beckford was one of the wealthiest men in England in the late 18th and early 19th century. His huge fortune was entirely dependent on his sugar plantations in Jamaica, which were worked by thousands of enslaved Africans.

Beckford used the profits from his sugar plantations and enslaved workers to commission and build the extraordinary Gothic revival Fonthill Abbey and to design, commission and purchase a large and varied collection. Beckford’s wealth, education and artistic taste enabled him to collect paintings, decorative arts, porcelain, silver, furniture and books of the highest design and craftmanship.

When he died in 1844, his estate was inherited by his daughter Susan. Some of his collection was sold in the Hamilton Palace sales of the late 19th century and is now housed in museums and private collections across the world but many items remain in the collection at Brodick Castle.

Beckford was, and is, an extremely complex and controversial figure and the trust is working to improve and develop our interpretation addressing several aspects of his life, but particularly his links with plantation slavery.

We have been working with several specialists to better understand how the profits of slavery directly connect with our collection of Beckford items, Susan’s dowry for her marriage to the 10th Duke of Hamilton and the wider Hamilton collection and the castle itself. We are also in discussion with several organisations about how we might collaborate on projects that will directly address Beckford, slavery, imperialism and the display of his collection.

The interpretation produced as part of the 2019 re-opening project was always intended to be the start of a process, not the end, and additional interpretation, articles and tours are in development. These stories are not to be told lightly and this will not be a fast, box-ticking exercise. However, while the research is on-going, we have supplied additional information on Beckford and his slavery wealth to our guides and installed temporary interpretation in the castle. We are also publishing a series of online articles looking at various members of the Hamilton family and the article on Beckford will directly discuss the sources of his wealth.

                                                                                                         Susan Beattie, curator