When we walk through the rugged Highlands of Scotland, the northern coast of Wales or the ancient retreat of Bath, most of us will see a beautiful landscape, rich with natural scenery.
In fact, many of these surroundings are tainted with slavery-derived wealth that played a significant role in shaping them. The people who profited from the human suffering were also instrumental in shaping our relationship with, and our concept of, the natural landscapes of Britain and beyond.
This is the central argument that historian and architect Victoria Perry makes in this illuminating book. Over eight engaging chapters complemented with illustrations, Perry explores the relationship between the wealth of Britain’s owners of enslaved people and the merchants who profited from this same exploitation, the landscapes of Georgian Britain and its Caribbean colonies.
Despite acknowledging the limitations of exploring British landscapes through the lens of elite patronage, A Bittersweet Heritage focuses on enslavers, plantation owners and merchants. However, through reading the book, the human cost of individual aspirations to “gentility” hits home.
For example, the construction of Danson Park in London was paid for with slavery-derived wealth by John Boyd to further his ambitions of becoming a “compleat gentleman”.
These aspirations to gentility also created social pressures to invest in public buildings and infrastructure, such as the commissioning of Pulteney Bridge in Bath by plantation owner William Johnstone.
Or the establishment of roads on the coast of north Wales by Liverpudlian Richard Pennant, who owned plantations and the enslaved people who worked them in Jamaica.
The development of these estates and public works, as Perry convincingly argues, “cannot be separated from the rise of Bristol, Liverpool, Lancaster, Whitehaven and Glasgow as prominent Atlantic ports” as a result of their inextricable bonds to transatlantic slavery.
With increased access came more opportunities to “appreciate” the landscape. This activity was based on white European ideas of the aesthetic qualities of “nature” rooted in imaginary renaissance images of classical landscapes.
This landscape became part of a “gentleman’s” education, and with growing slavery-derived capital, many could make the imaginary a reality. It also fuelled a boom in landscape paintings of Britain’s Atlantic West, increasing psychological access to the “natural” surroundings.
Perry suggests that this – our perception of “natural scenery” – could be the most significant cultural legacy of Britain’s involvement in transatlantic slavery.
“What does this mean to us today?” is a question explored in the last few pages, and Perry importantly mentions how Black people have often been viewed as urban immigrant dwellers in Britain, rather than as people whose histories are deeply tied with Britain’s historic buildings and rural landscapes.
However, Perry could perhaps have analysed the legacies of the historic themes the book presents in greater depth. How has the clearing of biologically diverse rainforest for plantations contributed to the climate crisis? Who owns the lands of Britain and its former colonies, and what does that mean for aspirations to create a fairer, more equal society?
Regardless, this is a valuable book for museum and heritage professionals. Not only does it examine properties under the care of the National Trust, English Heritage and other public bodies, Perry’s treatment of artworks is also often rich. For example, her assessment of George Robertson’s paintings of Jamaican landscapes as “visual propaganda” stands out.
Most of all, this book makes you reassess your surroundings. Exploring the industrial areas of Liverpool and Manchester, I find myself wondering how these landscapes have been formed and what it means today.