Or maybe you should ask where the money came from to build Harewood House. When dealing with large 18th century houses, “slavery” is usually a safe guess. This is certainly the case with the Lascelles family of Harewood (along with a touch of bribery, corruption and a Capita-style addiction to lucrative government contracts).
The Harewood Trust (which now runs the house), has made some effort towards acknowledging the origins of the fabulous wealth that enabled a family of Yorkshire gentry to acquire a large country estate, build a house in the grandest and most fashionable Georgian style and segway seamlessly into the aristocracy. It’s a slightly grudging acknowledgement – the page on their website has the cryptic title of Harewood 1807 and the more detailed information is stuffed away in downloadable PDF leaflet . Even then, it reads more like a PR exercise than an impartial historical account.
“Henry [Lascelles] was […] partly responsible for trading thousands of slaves”
“allegations [of corruption in relation to Customs collection] were never proved”
“Corruption in business dealings was not uncommon at this period”
“The Lascelles family were not unusual at this time in being involved in the slave trade”
Henry Lascelles (c.1690-1753) and his family weren’t just “financially involved in 47 plantations across the whole of the West Indies”. They lived in Barbados. They knew exactly what it was about. They were up to their armpits in it. (1)
This was the same Henry Lascelles who “In association with a London merchant, Thomas Hall, […] created a slaving syndicate of merchants to establish a ‘floating factory’ (permanently moored vessels) off the Guinea coast at Anomabu between 1736 and 1743 in order to receive slaves for shipment to the Caribbean.” (2)
This was the same Lascelles family who, in 1834, pocketed £26,309-4s-4d in relation to 2,554 slaves on six plantations in Barbados and Jamaica (3) under arrangements for “compensating the Persons hitherto entitled to the Services of such Slaves” (4). Needless to say, this early example of compensation culture did not extend to former slaves.
Of course the past has to be understood in the context of the times and it would be ludicrous to hold the current Lascelles family responsible for the actions of their 18th century forbears, let alone The Harewood Trust . But the past shapes the present and, if you inherit wealth, power, influence and land, then you inherit the historical baggage that goes with them. (Interestingly, the Lascelles sold one of their Barbados estates as recently as 1970)(3) .
As a nation we have tended to airbrush out the role of slavery in our domestic history, seeing it as something that happened in far away places and far away times or as something of consequence only to citizens of Afro-Caribbean descent. This is an aspect of history that we all need to come to terms with and, ironically, organizations like The Harewood Trust are ideally placed to bring this unpalatable aspect of our national story into the consciousness of ordinary people
Whilst the Trust is to be commended for acknowledging the slave connection and putting its slavery-related records into the public domain, it should stop treating this part of the house’s history as an exercise in reputation management. It could start by amending its “Harewood 1807” page to “Harewood and Slavery”, redrafting the content of its downloadable leaflet and putting the text on its slavery web pages.
Harewood House was funded by a family fortune built on shady business practices and industrial scale slave trading and no amount of Adam ceilings or public relations exercises is going to change that. Time to bite the bullet. Time for us all to bite the bullet.References & Links: (1) Harewood 1807 leaflet; Harewood 1807 web page (2) S. D. Smith, ‘Lascelles, Henry (bap. 1690, d. 1753)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, May 2005; online edn, Jan 2008 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/63019, accessed 9 Aug 2013] (3)’ Henry Lascelles, 2nd Earl of Harewood‘, Legacies of British Slave Ownership, UCL Department of History, 2013 [accessed 9 Aug 2013] (4) Preamble to Slavery Abolition Act (1833) Further reading: Slavery and Harewood House (BBC)