Debates around race, empire, and slavery continue to make headlines on both sides of the Atlantic. The past year alone saw a new wave of organized protests launched by Black Lives Matter in response to entrenched cultures of violence and systemic racism in the United States. Radical campaigns in the United States were followed by All Black Lives UK marches, which featured the toppling of the statue of slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol. A prominent seventeenth-century merchant and Tory member of parliament, Colston’s statuary presence stood as a reminder that slavery and imperial politics were historically yoked to the rapacious greed of social elites. Oprah’s March 2021 TV interview with Meghan Markle and Prince Harry, in which questions of skin color and royal entitlement were raised, further foregrounded the pet obsessions of elites with race and bloodline as indices of inclusion and belonging.
Corinne Fowler’s Green Unpleasant Land: Creative Responses to Rural England’s Colonial Connections arrives at a timely juncture, with many of its themes and concerns generating attention through a maelstrom of political and media vitriol from angsty conservatives. Fowler’s UK-based collaborative work with schools, heritage practitioners, and other academics, including her public-facing project Colonial Countryside, has come under fire from Conservative MPs and the tabloid press for researching and educating the public about historical links between English country houses and colonialism.1
Fowler recently contributed her academic insights into such links to a paradigm-shifting report published by England’s National Trust, a society founded in 1895 and entrusted in the 1930s with the acquisition of declining country estates as part of its remit to make places of historic interest accessible to the public.2 The report finds that ninety-three of the organization’s three hundred historic houses have colonial links to transatlantic slavery and the East India Company. The report also reveals how the colonial dealings of England’s landed classes historically meant that people, commodities, and capital were continually crossing an imperial arc spanning England’s rural spaces and the British Empire’s exploited hinterlands.
The significance of this report cannot be overestimated. Soon after its publication, Parliament’s fifty-six-strong Conservative “Common Sense Group” banded together in response, declaring a “culture war.” House of Commons leader Jacob Rees-Mogg even gave a speech in Parliament expressing his concern about the report’s affiliation of Winston Churchill’s house, Chartwell, with Churchill’s well-known objections to Indian independence in his capacity as colonial secretary. However, despite right-wing efforts to stifle debate — among them charging the Charity Commission to investigate whether the National Trust had breached charity laws with its report — the Conservatives and various press outlets such as the Daily Mail, the Times, the Telegraph, and the Spectator have been foiled in their efforts.3 The Charity Commission has cleared the National Trust of being in breach of its charitable purpose, and there are clear signs that other publicly funded sites — for example, Kew Gardens and Historic England (until recently known as the English Heritage Trust) — will be following in the footsteps of the National Trust.4 Fowler trenchantly defends radical reorientations of this kind in her book, saying: “[T]he custodians of history have a responsibility not to withhold facts. No one should knowingly tell half a history.”5
Green Unpleasant Land assembles many of its heritage findings while further developing its inquiry into rural England’s colonial histories and examining radical creative responses to them. It offers an impressive and meticulously researched assessment of Black British and British Asian presences within the English countryside. It dismantles “comforting” myths of rural whiteness and challenges misplaced nostalgias for a pastoral world in which the traumas of capitalism and colonialism go unrecognized. As Fowler notes, “England’s green and pleasant land” — here she cites the well-known line from William Blake’s Milton: A Poem, later signaling Blake’s position as a “prophet against empire” — “is not just about agriculture and estates, but about colonialism and a long-standing Black presence.”6 Fowler convincingly argues that the English peripheries are, in fact, dense with imperial and global connections.