Slavery and a Cotswold Landscape

On re-reading The Country and the City by Raymond Williams

It must be thirtyish years since I read this, when my responses were all about William Cobbett, John Clare, enclosure, industrialization, urbanization, the fate of the peasantry and the rise of an urban working class. Any thoughts about the British Empire’s relationship with the landscape went mostly in the direction of war.

I didn’t think so much about slavery then – partly because Raymond Williams talked more about colonial affairs in general, rather than slavery per se. But it was also a zeitgeist thing – slavery and the English/British landscape were in different teaching boxes.

Times have changed and so has my reading of this book.

The page on Alexander Pope and the Epistle to Bathurst is a case in point. Pope was a frequent visitor to the Cirencester estate and took a keen interest in the gardens; his lines to the first Earl of Bathurst recommend, Williams says, a balance ‘between the extreme vices of miserliness and profligacy’ – ‘prudent productive investment, tempered by reasonable charity’.

‘The Sense to value Riches, with the Art
T’enjoy them, and the Virtue to impart,
Not meanly, nor ambitiously pursu’d,
Nor sunk by sloth, nor rais’d by servitude;
To balance Fortune by a just expence,
Join with Oeconomy, Magnificence;
With splendour, charity; with plenty; health;
Oh teach us BATHURST! yet unspoil’d by wealth!’

It’s no surprise that Pope doesn’t mention slavery, and Williams’ emphasis also meant that I didn’t think about it either.

The English Heritage publication Slavery and the British Country House, edited by Madge Dresser and Andrew Hann can put you right, however. Madge Dresser writes that ‘Commercial considerations as well as political ones may have reinforced the tendencies of private proprietors of stately homes to offer the public an even more deracialised version of their past history, when that history is offered at all. Take, for example, a grand country house belonging to the Bathurst family and one associated now more with horses than slavery.’

It’s true that the third Earl (a member of Lord Liverpool’s ‘Repressive Tory’ cabinet) tactically supported abolition by the 1820’s – and that’s what comes up on a Google search for ‘Bathurst and Slavery’. You don’t get a mention of Benjamin Bathurst’s late 17th century Deputy Governorship of the Leeward Islands, nor his Royal African Company’s position and shares. He died in 1704 and the house at Cirencester Park was built ten or so years later ‘for his son, Alan, the first Earl … the grounds designed with the help of Alexander Pope.’

The estate itself, is vast: when you wander through the Arts and Crafts village of Sapperton, or visit Coates, or Pinbury Park, or innocently follow the River Frome or search for the source of the Thames, try to connect this sequestered Cotswold pastoral with the Atlantic ocean and shark-shadowed ships on the Middle Passage to the plantations.

“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

T. S. Eliot