Hidden Connections: Slavery and the British Country House
Dr. Madge Dresser
The British country house in all its opulence and refinement seems worlds away from the fetid horrors of a slave ship. However the trade in enslaved Africans and slave-produced goods fueled the wealth that funded the creation of many 17th-to-19th-century British stately homes. Slavery-related houses appear throughout the British Isles and are concentrated in the major slaving ports of London, Bristol and Liverpool. About 10% of elite country houses had associations with slavery, but other houses had indirect ties and consumed slave-produced goods.
Profits from slave labor at sugar plantations—whose products appeared on the country house dining table—aided family fortunes and funded stately home remodeling such as at Penryhn Castle whose Pennant family owned five plantations in Jamaica. These renovations were also linked to the wealth generated in the slave colonies of Virginia and the Carolinas. British family portraits might feature black servants, often as turbaned young pages at the side of their master or mistress as at Belton House in Lincolnshire. The kneeling black figures adorning Dyrham Park's interior are best understood against the longstanding family connections with slavery. Historian and Professor Dr. Madge Dresser will show these houses and explore some of the stories behind their connections with slavery to reflect on what they mean for our understanding of these beautiful buildings
Dr. Madge Dresser recently retired as Associate Professor in History at the University of the West of England and remains a Visiting Senior Research Fellow. In 2017 she was appointed as an Honorary Professor at the University of Bristol in the Department of Historical Studies. She has published widely on the history of slavery and its impact on British society including the recently reprinted Slavery Obscured: The Social History of the Slave Trade in Bristol, Slavery and the British Country House, and in scholarly journals. Dresser is a Fellow of The Royal History Society, a Fellow of The Royal Society of Arts, and a trustee of the Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society.
This lecture is in conjunction with the Royal Oak Foundation.
Behind the wealth and elegance of 18th century country houses comes the history of those who were oppressed in the process of gaining that prosperity. We are able to learn about various perspectives on this history through primary documents. A treatise upon the trade from Great-Britain to Africa: humbly recommended to the attention of government by an anonymous African merchant gives one look at this tumultuous history. You can schedule an appointment to view this document in the Vershbow Special Collections Reading Room.
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