My MA dissertation is on the cultural legacies of slavery and the slave trade in the objects of National Trust collections. Many objects made in the 18th century began their lives being harvested and attained by slave labour, although this history is not often recognised. A rise in the consumption of luxury goods in the eighteenth century was a direct result of the ability to trade with, colonise, and settle in the Caribbean and the Americas. The products grown by slave labour constitute some of the most fashionable goods, such as sugar, tobacco, indigo, cotton, and tropical woods. Much of the material and social culture of this period is held within a time capsule of “haute société” in the houses of the National Trust, which is the largest interpreter of country houses in Britain. It is not in my interest to explore the monetary value, but instead the cultural, ideological, and social change that was driven by the Atlantic Slave Trade. The collections themselves are physical embodiments of how involvement in the slave trade drove this change.
One of the key materials traded with was Mahogany, a prized type of hardwood due to its dark smooth surface which could be left with a patina and polish. It was often featured in the portraiture of the 18th century as a sign of wealth and status. Mahogany was imported to Britain and North America from the Caribbean and was harvested in appalling conditions that have often been left out of the history of the slave trade. People often think of cotton or sugar plantations, rather than slaves harvesting wood in forests.
I am focusing my research on the area of Yorkshire, mainly West Yorkshire, which may seem far-removed from the Slave Trade, but no aspect of British life was left untouched. Slavery and the Slave Trade has largely been seen as a peripheral issue in the history of Country Houses, rather than central. British slavery was and is still not seen as a domestic issue, which is perhaps why it is easy to overlook its effects on society and culture. It was an invisible trade, yet Britain had a slave population. This distance has created a cultural detachment in the collections of British country houses. These collections themselves are physical embodiments of how involvement in the Slave Trade drove cultural, social & ideological change.
Enslaved people made possible some of the most popular and sought-after luxuries of the age, however, this link is not always appreciated. The Slave Trade affected and is carried within material culture of the 18th century, by using objects to demonstrate this and to show how this history can and should be communicated within NT houses, hopefully, my research will enable members of the public to better understand the vast economic and cultural affects the slave trade had on British society.
As I progress further I will be updating my research on here, so keep an eye out for my MA Dissertation posts if you are interested!