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In the end, British record not all that different from ours

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It is Sunday, early, and I’m sitting at our rough-planked dining room table in our two-storied house on Ninth Street. I’m staring into the semi-darkness of our tree-depleted backyard thinking about this house and its brush with a tornado.

My wife and I have done research on our current home, believing it was built by John Mardenborough in 1883. We have looked at deeds, talked to historians and have evidence that Mardenborough hired a Scheper (his Port Royal neighbor) who built this house just after he was appointed Postmaster in Port Royal.

Mardenborough was a contemporary of Robert Smalls — although they were political rivals — and fathered a son who would become important in Augusta’s African-American community.

This house does not, in any sense, compete with those on The Point. It does not have the wainscoting, the paneling, the deep porches that cooled-off the febrile planters who once sat on those antebellum verandas. My wife and I lived in one of those — the Lucius Cuthbert House — which is still intact and remains regal on Port Republic Street.

We in Beaufort have been candid about the provenance of these houses — especially the fact that the money (to build these huge porticoed homes) came from long-staple cotton cultivated by slaves. But slave labor is not usually the focus of the House Tours in the Fall and Spring. In a sense the involuntary servitude part of our story has been subsumed by the National Park Service.

These days there is a dilemma, and a debate, in the United Kingdom where its National Trust has recently identified 93 baronial houses built with profits from slave-tended sugar plantations or in some way connected with profits made in colonies like India.

These palatial houses are a boon for Great Britain’s economy routinely bringing hundreds of thousands of tourists and millions of dollars for their upkeep. They are also a favorite weekend destination for local Brits who flock to these immense, immaculately groomed estates on holiday. And while everyone agrees that slavery was vile and villainous and should be acknowledged as such, many Brits to wander through the ornate, carpeted, portrait-covered rooms only wanting to admire what they see.

Britain’s National Trust wants the crowds to continue, but it also wants the public to know that the elegance and grandeur came at a cost — that price being slave labor in Jamaica and Barbados. Furthermore, part of the profits (for these houses) came from the exploitation of India, Burma and South Africa.

There has been push-back from the British public including an organization called The Common Sense Group. They have successfully lobbied to end “these radical projects that disparage our nation and despise the history of its people.” Common Sense goes on to say that history “should not start from a position of guilt and shame or the denigration of this country’s past.”

That push-back has led the National Trust to retreat to a “Season of Listening” pursuant a new program called “Total History” that will not favor one type of story over the other.

Presumably the slavery in Barbados (that produced the sugar profits) will not be buried, but will balanced with the narrative of the English-led abolition of trans-Atlantic slavery. It will be harder to measure the good and the bad coming out of the British Empire.

The 60th Anniversary of Queen Victoria’s accession was celebrated on June 22, 1897. This was a huge, expensive, self-congratulatory exposition of the Empire.

Victoria’s Empire — the largest Empire in history — then comprised a quarter of the land mass of the earth and a quarter of its population. The administration of that empire was the national behavior that gave pride, self-esteem and self-respect of every British subject then living. And, in many cases, that narrative remains foundational to the British character today.

When the National Trust gets around to its “Total History” it won’t be easy to reconcile the Maxim-Nordenfelt Gun with the worldwide peace (Pax Brittanica) and the prosperity of 1897. It won’t be easy to balance the invasion of Tibet and the Indian Mutiny with British railroad-building in China and Uganda, the topographical mapping of India, and British efforts to curb tropical disease. It will be hard to balance years of worldwide stability against the subjugation of African and Asiatic peoples.

In the end the British record is complicated, counterintuitive and hard to access — not all that different from our own.

Scott Graber is a lawyer, novelist, veteran columnist and longtime resident of Port Royal. He can be reached at cscottgraber@gmail.com.

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