Tuesday, 15 October 2019

Our histories should be accessible to all: the significance of highlighting Black British History / a blog post by Olivia Wyatt

Have you noticed the street sign ‘Harewood Way’ during your journey to the University Library? It is one example of the university’s many connections to Harewood House: one of the ten Treasure Houses of England. Among these connections, you also have the 7th Earl of Harewood, George Lascelles: chancellor of the university from 1962 to 1967. But the connection I will focus on is how the Borthwick Archive holds thousands of articles relating to the Lascelles’s 327-year involvement in Caribbean plantations. From slave inventories to loan agreements, this archive maps the lucrative slave-owning, slave-exporting, and slave-exploiting business that heavily contributed to the wealth of the Lascelles. Such wealth which enabled Edwin Lascelles to replace his comparatively meagre lodgings of Gawthorpe Hall with this extravagant building.

Harewood House (taken from https://www.yorkshire.com/view/attractions/leeds/harewood-house-182191)

I grew up in Leeds and often visited the House and its extensive grounds. It was during a recent visit that a friend alerted me to the displays’s brief mention of slavery. Despite the Lascelles’s long slave-owning history, the single-side of A4 laminated paper focused on how William Wilberforce visited the house. I contacted Harewood House Trust and proposed a project that updated their displays with information and material from the Borthwick. The Head of Special Collections agreed that this was an important part of the House’s history which deserves a more prominent mention. And thus the project was born.
Harewood House’s display information on slavery (photo taken by author)
I am currently exploring the archives to discover what could be used in the new displays at Harewood House. We are also interested in unearthing information that can fit into their current displays- in order to show how the history of the family was entwined with that of their slaves in Jamaica, Barbados, Antigua, Tobago and Grenada. As part of this project, I have also advised Mayfly Television and Uplands Television on their Channel 4 and Channel 5 documentaries on slavery and the Lascelles.
Cover letter mentioning the foiled Tobago conspiracy (taken by author at the Borthwick Archive - photographs can be used non-commercially)
Extract from a slave schedule of the Belle plantation (1777) (taken by author at the Borthwick Archive - photographs can be used non-commercially)
A lot of the material relating to the Lascelles’s plantations was destroyed during the Blitz. Consequently, I am using the limited evidence of individual slaves, alongside new research into slavery, to represent the experiences on the Lascelles’s plantations. The Lascelles relied on letters to be informed about the latest news by their agents in London and the Caribbean. These constitute a large proportion of the archive and usually provide helpful summaries of the activities of the plantations. Slaves are rarely, if not ever, mentioned by name, but there are interesting references to them. I am using new research to contextualise these brief mentions in order to reconstruct the lives of the slaves. The archive also features some slave inventories. These were typically created to revalue the slaves and livestock when the Lascelles were considering selling a plantation. They provide information about the origin, occupation, value, age and condition of the slaves; but more importantly, they provide us with names.

It is my hope that through adding these voices to Harewood House, these slaves can be remembered within the walls they tirelessly laboured to build and lavish. They will not be lost within an archive, but will become associated with a key British landmark- a step towards viewing slavery not simply as a system which functioned overseas, but as a significant part of British History. Including the stories of Anthony, Goamy and Eliza within one of our most important stately homes, and within Britain’s Black History Month, is testament to this.

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