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Black Lives Matter

Harewood’s ‘Open History’

Harewood featured in at ITV documentary – ‘Has George Floyd Changed Britain’ – as charitable trust launches Open History programme continuing to explore its history and combat racism.

A year on since George Floyd was murdered, Sir Trevor McDonald and Charlene White examined how the UK has reacted to his death, its effect on the Black Lives Matter movement and ongoing conversations about racism in a one-hour documentary aired on ITV this evening.

David Lascelles, Earl of Harewood, spoke of what he, the Countess of Harewood and Harewood House Trust have done to address the estate’s heritage, commenting:

‘I think it’s a period of history that as a nation, we’ve not come to terms with properly. I think that, until we do, a lot of the divisions, a lot of the conflicts, can’t be resolved until we understand our history properly.’

The Trust and the Lascelles family have been at the forefront of acknowledging the estate’s colonial past for over 25 years. Being transparent about colonial history and ensuring the Trust hosts much-needed, and sometimes difficult conversations is vital to calling out racism, and to forging new connections with visitors and the communities of the cities and countryside around.

In the past, Harewood has commissioned artists of diverse heritage from Sonia Boyce to Rommi Smith, and openly engaged in discussions concerning its roots in the Lascelles family’s links to the Atlantic Slave Trade which culminated in a year-long programme of events to mark the Bicentenary of the Abolition of Slavery in 2007, notably featuring Geraldine Connor’s Carnival Messiah. 

The Trust continues this commitment to promoting and celebrating equality, diversity and inclusion, and to combating racism. It is central to Harewood’s programming aims, to working with its staff and volunteers, and working with the communities in and around Leeds and West Yorkshire.

2021 UP+OPEN:
OPEN HISTORY

Harewood’s Open History programme engages audiences with the urgent issues of our time, engendering empathy and understanding of these issues in order to celebrate diversity, whilst bringing Harewood’s colonial past into greater focus.

Launching on 12 June, Heritage Corner brings its unique brand of insightful Black History Walks to Harewood following the success of regular events in Leeds City Centre. In a walking story – A Storm at Harewood, stretched across the House and Grounds – Joe Williams and Vanessa Mudd explore inspiring black history and hidden connections to the splendours of Harewood in an imaginative, fun and family-friendly way through the guise of Pablo Fanque and his wife. Fanque, Britain’s first recorded circus owner of African heritage, brought his circus to the Harewood area in 1847. His circus pantomime was based on a plantation narrative, Obi, or Three Fingered Jack, which unusually places an African rebellion leader as hero and was very popular as a play in London’s West End for over two decades.

Joe Williams, Director of Heritage Corner, comments:

‘We aim to enhance positive engagement and discourse on race and social cohesion from a shared heritage perspective. Excluding shame and blame by intent, the aim is to inform and engender pride and hope for all visitors.’ 

Harewood have teamed up with Leeds-based DSRG (the Diasporian Stories Research Group) to bring to life the story of Harewood’s first known black member of staff, George ‘Bertie’ Robinson, who travelled with the 5th Earl and Countess from St Vincent to Leeds aged 13 to work for the Lascelles family. The display, Bertie Robinson: The Footman from St Vincent, shown on the State Floor from 17 May, is the first in an annual series which will celebrate and share the histories of people of African descent with Yorkshire connections throughout history. Bertie lived at Harewood from 1893–1922. Letters, diaries and photographs chart his life, as well as exploring the Lascelles’ links to the West Indies in the early 20th century, the impact of colonialism on St Vincent, and attitudes in Britain towards people of colour at that time.

On 26 June an exhibition by glassblower Chris Day will open in Harewood’s All Saints’ Church as part of a brand new Craft Spotlight series. The series provides a platform for emerging makers of diverse ethnicity. Inaugural artist Chris Day creates work to open conversations around Black history including the Transatlantic Slave Trade and under-representation of makers of diverse heritage in the craft sector. 

Hannah Obee, Harewood Director of Collections, Programme and Learning, comments:

‘A report published by Crafts Council prior to our 2019 Harewood Biennial, Useful/Beautiful: Why Craft Matters, stated that 96% of professional, full-time crafts people identified as White British. We had already decided this lack of diversity would be a key subject for debate – Craft Spotlight now acts as a consistent response to this lack of racial inequality in Craft.’

UP+OPEN:
OPEN LEARNING

As part of the British Museum’s Where We Are programme, Harewood continues its long-standing relationship with the Geraldine Connor Foundation to work on a joint project with young people who define themselves as from the African diaspora. ‘Harewood is my House’ will see a group of ten young people define what they consider arts and culture, identify barriers to engagement and create a response that addresses a local need identified by them.

As a first step in Harewood’s action plan to increase diversity and inclusion, the Trust is prioritising local children of colour experiencing obstacles (financial and societal) to accessing Harewood’s collections and the site. This begins with reaching out to schools through free online teaching resources beginning with Bertie Robinson: The Footman from St Vincent.

The Trust also works with partners Bradford Prevent to develop free resources for use in Bradford Schools, funded by the Home Office. By sharing Harewood’s involvement in the slave trade, wider conversations around Black Lives Matter can be opened with students and upskill teachers to address diverging viewpoints through discussion.

BEYOND 2021

Looking to the future, the Trust’s commitments as part of its continuing discourse around Harewood’s heritage and its responsibility to combat racism is something which it approaches through its programming in order to build engagement, empathy and understanding. 

A performance project with Leeds Playhouse is currently in development, future artists to feature in Craft Spotlight are in discussion and Harewood is looking ahead to the next subject in its series uncovering prolific Yorkshire figures of African descent, amongst other conversations.

Harewood is continuing to review its Learning Strategy and Plan to make explicit its commitment to equality, diversity and inclusion. Consultation with local young people, teachers and the wider community will shape our Learning offer to fit their needs so our collections are open to all.

The Trust also believes that empowering its staff to feel confident in having conversations about racism is paramount in combating racism. Every member of the team has undertaken unconscious bias training and is invited to regular all staff talks with guest speakers on such topics, and three company-wide working streams – People, Place and Programme – focus on how equality, diversity and inclusion are central to Harewood’s values.

Jane Marriott, Trust Director comments:

‘It is vital that we continue to call out racism and discrimination, that we use Harewood as a safe place in which to have open conversations and to bring communities together. Harewood can provide the knowledge and understanding of difficult histories, including our own, and it will lift-up marginalised voices, promoting equality, diversity and inclusion. 

‘Our commitment to being open and transparent about Harewood’s past has led to the creation of our Open History programme in 2021. This programme will engage our audiences with the urgent issues of our time in order to engender empathy and understanding so that we can truly celebrate the diversity of our society today.’

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Object in Focus – Harewood’s Dining Room Chairs

 

This chair, part of a set of 20, was made by Thomas Chippendale for the State Dining Room at Harewood House, delivered in around 1771. Its design represents the height of fashion in mid-late 18th century English dining furniture, with a neo-Classical frame decorated with carved ornament such as acanthus leaves, fluting and bell flowers. The seat is upholstered in leather, often utilised on dining furniture for its durability and practical qualities. 

The frame of the chair is made of mahogany – a popular material used for furniture-making in England from the 1720s, highly prized for its naturally rich colouring, fine figuring (graining) and strength. Mahogany is particularly workable, allowing cabinet-makers to carve intricate designs into its surface, lending itself to the highly decorative cabinet-making tradition of the 18th century. 

But the procurement of this versatile and beautiful material came at a human cost, and its history is intertwined with that of the transatlantic slave trade. Following the arrival of the first European colonists in the West Indies and Central Americas in the early 17th century, huge swathes of native timber was felled across the region. Initially this took place to clear land for sugar plantations, but the inevitable recognition of the remarkable qualities of mahogany generated an export market for the raw material itself. 

The significant amount of labour needed to log mahogany trees came from enslaved Africans brought to the West Indies and Central America by European traders. It was dangerous and physically brutal work. Working in groups of between 10-50, enslaved woodcutters would embark upon forest expeditions to cut and log trees, clear roads and transport raw material back to coastal ports via rivers. A description of the logging process of Honduran mahogany written in 1873 by a British cabinet-maker paints a bleak picture of the working conditions for the individuals involved: 

The labour of loading and driving, on account of the intense heat of the sun during the day, must be performed in the night-time, and by torch light…[T]he great number of oxen—the half naked drivers, each bearing a torch—the wildness of the forest scenery—the rattling of the chains, and cracking of the whips—and all of this at the hour of midnight, present…the sober industrial pursuit which has fallen to the lot of the wood-cutters of Honduras. (1)

There were also devastating ecological consequences to the extensive deforestation of the Caribbean region. As a direct result of large-scale sugar production and the systematic exploitation of slave labour, numerous West Indian islands experienced the swift extinction of mahogany and other native trees. Diverse forests were replaced by agricultural monocultures and microclimates that would go on to cause severe problems with drought and erosion. 

When studying Harewood’s history and collection, it is important to consider and reflect upon the devastating socio-economic context that it was a product of. Despite their elegance, Harewood’s dining room chairs – as well as the many other pieces of mahogany furniture designed to sit alongside them – are inseparably linked to Britain’s merciless colonial past. To find out more about the building of Harewood House and its links to the slave trade, visit our Building Harewood digital guide. 

 

(1) Thomson, The Cabinet-maker’s Assistant: A Series of Original Designs for Modern Furniture (London: Blackie and Son, 1873), 28-29.

The Lascelles Slavery Archive

3/11, Release and sale: Henry Frere to Edwin Lascelles, 1787. The image shows part of the schedule relating to a legal release and sale document between Henry Frere and Edwin Lascelles, detailing a list of enslaved people.

23 August marked the International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition. Over the past week, we have shared a series of blogs written by local historians, researchers and artists to reflect on and explore what this means for Harewood and its wider communities.

Much of the historical research featured in these articles draws heavily upon the material contained within the Lascelles Slavery Archive held by the Borthwick Institute of Archives in York. This unique collection of documents provides the basis for much of our knowledge and understanding about Harewood’s links to the West Indies, documenting the Lascelles family’s involvement in the transatlantic slave trade during the 18th century. 

The archive contains papers relating to the Lascelles family’s business transactions as sugar merchants and money lenders, such as accounts, administrative papers and correspondence with debtors. There are also many documents relating to the family’s plantations in Barbados, Jamaica, Tobago and Grenada, as well as the enslaved individuals in their possession. Due to the incredibly fragile and unstable condition of the documents, many of which had been exposed to poor historic storage conditions, a HLF funded conservation project took place in 2007 to ensure their long-term survival. 

To facilitate the continuing research and analysis of this important chapter of Harewood’s history, a searchable catalogue of the Lascelles Slavery Archive has been made available online and all documents are available to view by appointment at the Borthwick Institute.  

Click here to find out more about the Lascelles Slavery Archive. Please check the Borthwick Institute’s website for opening and access information. 

 

Elaine Mitchener: Sweet Tooth

23 August marked the International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition. Harewood openly acknowledges its past, and to mark this anniversary we have commissioned a series of blog posts to explore what this means for Harewood and Leeds today.

In this blog, Elaine Mitchener – vocal and movement artist – reflects on her work Sweet Tooth, written using material from Harewood’s archives and inventories from Edwin Lascelles’ sugar plantations and the enslavement of people of colour.

‘They will remember that we were sold, but not that we were strong. They will remember that we were bought but not that we were brave.’

William Prescott 1937

Sweet Tooth is an experimental music theatre piece, which deals with the historical links between sugar and slavery using text, improvisation and movement, to stage a dramatic engagement with the brutal realities of slavery as revealed by the historical records of the sugar industry, and to reveal its contemporary echoes.

The work was premiered in November 2017 and commissioned by Bluecoat, Liverpool’s centre for the contemporary arts, in partnership with the Stuart Hall Foundation, London, and the International Slavery Museum. It was later broadcast on BBC Radio 3’s Hear and Now programme on 30 December 2017.

The work is divided into six chapters: 1 Universal slide – invocation; 2 Bound; 3 Scold’s Bridle; 4 Names; 5 Scramble; 6 The mill – invocation.

Sweet Tooth marks the culmination of five years of research into our love of sugar and the historical links between the UK (also Europe) sugar industry and the Transatlantic Slave Trade.

During this period, I researched in the archives of Harewood House in Leeds, which was built by 18th-century plantation owner Edwin Lascelles, and invited University of Southampton historian Prof Christer Petley, Senior Lecturer in History University of Southampton and an expert in the history of slavery in the Caribbean to be an historical consultant on the project.

Some of that material, such as inventories at Harewood, also those discovered in Jamaica by Petley of more than 2,000 enslaved Africans owned by Samuel Taylor, another 18th-century British sugar baron, provided the basis for the dramaturgy of Sweet Tooth.

Running in parallel with this historical research, an intensive period of artistic development culminated in 2016 in two residential workshops at the University of Southampton and Aldeburgh Music, during which I brought together a trio of experimental musicians – saxophonist Jason Yarde, percussionist Mark Sanders and multi-instrumentalist Sylvia Hallett – and Vietnamese-American choreographer Dam van Huynh as movement director, to collaborate on the production of Sweet Tooth.

For me, the challenge was how to present the material in a way that was true to the realities of slavery, without it feeling gratuitous or exploitative. Empathising with the material and improvising responses to it, the input of the musicians and choreographer was crucial to this process.

Watch Sweet Tooth >>

Elaine’s thoughts on Sweet Tooth

I was born in the East End of London to parents who’d migrated to the UK from Jamaica in the 1960s. Like many Black British people, my ancestry includes enslaved Africans, sold by Africans to British traders to work on sugar plantations in the Caribbean and Brazil. Sweet Tooth is my attempt to make sense of that fact, and to honour the memory of my ancestors who were forced to live and work in appalling conditions in order to satisfy our desire for sugar.

Sweet Tooth is a deeply personal project, not only about Black history, but as an important chapter of World history and the pivotal role Black people have played in shaping it. Slavery is not just a traumatic episode that happened 400 years ago, something that we can now view dispassionately through a historical lens. Modern day slavery is a reality that continues to afflict millions of people across the world. The present-day legacy of slavery’s historical trauma cannot be underestimated.

Sweet Tooth was supported with public funding from Arts Council England. Commissioned by Bluecoat in partnership with the Stuart Hall Foundation and the International Slavery Museum with further support from PRSF Open Fund, Edge Hill University, Centre 151, John Hansard Gallery, Southampton and St George’s Bloomsbury. Photos © Brian Roberts.

Olivia Wyatt: Power. Whiteness. Resistance. Challenging the ‘facts’ of the archive

23 August marked the International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition. Harewood openly acknowledges its past, and to mark this anniversary we have commissioned a series of blog posts to explore what this means for Harewood and Leeds today.

In this blog, Olivia Wyatt – researcher and Harewood volunteer – challenges the ‘facts’ of the archive.

Image: ‘Nat Turner and his confederates in conference’, 1831 published 1863. Whilst this image is not associated with the Tobago conspiracy (1801), it does convey the atmosphere surrounding it.

Power. Whiteness. Resistance. Challenging the ‘facts’ of the archive.

‘The report of the Committee,’ wrote John Robley, Lord Harewood’s attorney for Tobago, ‘I think your Lordship will find highly interesting & satisfactory’. This letter referred to a slave conspiracy in Tobago which was foiled in December 1801. One of the two principal conspirators, Anthony, belonged to the Lascelles-owned Mesopotamia plantation. The committee of which Robley wrote was convened to investigate the conspiracy, and they concluded that a few ‘artful’ individuals intended to lead intoxicated ‘ignorant negroes’ into open rebellion. Whether or not the rebels agreed with this summary of their conspiracy is a mystery; therefore how can we interpret the resistance of enslaved people when we can only conceive of it through the lens of their oppressor?

This is why Michel-Rolph Trouillot wrote of the need to analyse the power behind the process of historical production, which silences some narratives and empowers others. Those who are not considered ‘victors’ are often unable to present their perspectives in the historical material. This helps explain why Orlando Patterson advocated for historians to ‘stop defining slavery through the experiences of slaves’. Rather, slavery should be understood as a system of social death which attempted to use violence to alienate and dehumanise Black people for profit. Examinations of resistance are therefore, perhaps, as Vincent Brown posits, more useful than attempts to reconstruct the condition of slavery. The efforts of enslaved people to reshape their world reveal their politics, their dreams, and their dissatisfaction with their environment. Far from rendering enslaved people as docile and unfeeling, examinations of resistance could give them the voice they were denied. Nonetheless, this task becomes difficult when their resistance is presented through the mediums of their oppressors. I will therefore dissect one of the portrayals of Anthony in the archive, to show that there are ways to look beyond the oppressors’ attempts to further subordinate enslaved people through their control of the narrative.

Image of part of the Witness Statements from the Trial of Anthony, Fortune, Dublin, Pompey and Frank belonging to Mesopotamia (1802). Photograph taken by the author.

Nearly 200 Black people and some free-coloureds were arrested and interrogated, and Anthony pleaded not guilty during his trial. According to witness testimonies, the plan was to ‘put to Death all Whites’ but ‘preserve the White Women for their Wives’. This desire to form intimate and legal bonds with White women could suggest that the conspirators glorified Whiteness. The ‘negro’ embodied backwardness; a ‘heathenish’ and ‘dangerous kind of people’, according to the Barbados slave code. Not only was Blackness therefore presented as undesirable and inhuman; but, as Stuart Hall posited, Black people experienced themselves as the ‘Other’. Their being was in conflict with their inclination to conform to the norm and improve their standing through the main medium of power in the Caribbean: Whiteness. Whiteness became a tool of power for many Black people because it enabled them to escape the ‘trappings’ of Blackness. In order to elevate his status, as Frantz Fanon illustrated, the Black man dons a ‘white mask’ and ‘becomes whiter as he renounces his blackness, his jungle’. Marriage to a White woman would improve Anthony’s status, but in a society which was supposed to be rid of White people in order to ensure slavery’s demise, surely Whiteness would no longer possess such power? This could instead reveal how ingrained the desire for Whiteness was. It suggests that Anthony’s resistance to slavery was not necessarily resistance to White supremacy because it still positioned Whiteness as the ideal. Such beliefs fuelled the degradation of Blackness and upheld the racial hierarchy which governed the Caribbean; a hierarchy which, with its intersections with gender, positioned dark-skinned Black women at the bottom. The conspirators’ positioning of White women as the prize for their resistance demonstrates that when Black men resisted oppression, they did not necessarily resist for all.

Yet this is not the only interpretation which can be made. This supposed desire also capitalised on White men’s fears of Black men’s sexuality and the need to protect ‘their’ women and White purity. Could these witness testimonies therefore reflect these fears, instead of the conspirators’ internalised anti-Blackness? Torture and other extreme methods were undoubtedly used to extract information from the prisoners and, as K O Laurence admitted, this could make their accounts suspect. The governing council also declared martial law and the military conducted many of the interrogations. Indeed, the ruthlessness with which the Brigadier managed the situation encouraged the council to demand that the conspirators receive a trial. The objective to kill the White inhabitants often emerged in the testimonies, but the desire to save the White women appeared less so. This could indicate that this desire was confined to the principal conspirators, though it is also plausible that this was a dubious claim. Indeed, the other chief conspirator, Roger of Belvedere, questioned whether he ‘was present when this plan was settled’, presumably because it was unbeknownst to him. Given the conditions under which some witnesses were interrogated, the fact that Roger challenged this claim casts further doubt on the testimonies. If witnesses had been pressured to testify about a threat to White women, this would have further demonised the principal conspirators. Indeed, the council stressed their desire to make examples of only the leaders. The committee’s report was therefore characterised by disdain for the ‘manipulative’ conspirators who were ungrateful for the ‘luxuries of life’ which they had been granted as ‘principle people on the estates’.

We must therefore question the reliability of these testimonies and whether they suit the council’s pre-established agenda. As Saidiya Hartman has done, we must press at the limits of the archive and imagine what could have been in order to challenge what seemingly was. To speculate about which interpretation could be the ‘truth’ is to undermine what I set out to demonstrate. The multiple possibilities of one line in one source allow us to question the power behind the written word. We must also strategise how to exhibit this complexity within museums. The archive alone is not enough to represent marginalised people; though perhaps re-imagination, as evidenced by my second interpretation, is one way forward.

Olivia Wyatt, 2020

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