Academic at the National Trust says GARDENING has its roots in racial injustice

Academic at the National Trust says GARDENING has its roots in racial injustice

We are living in stressful times: no wonder so many of us have taken refuge in our gardens and in the quiet corners of our potting sheds.

But the green-fingered ranks of Britain’s gardeners are in for a shock — according to a new book, by pruning our roses or digging the vegetable patches, we are all somehow perpetuating the evils of racism.

Last week Corinne Fowler, Professor of Post-Colonial Literature at the University of Leicester, published a sprawling 316-page work examining the links between the British countryside, racism, slavery and our colonial past.

Among her startling conclusions? Our cherished national pastime, gardening, has its roots in racial injustice.

Should we be surprised? Perhaps not. The book’s title, Green Unpleasant Land, gives us an indication of Professor Fowler’s thoughts on the countryside.

One might expect her writings to be consigned to academic obscurity. But her views on rural Britain are in fact very influential.

For she is at the centre of the ‘culture war’ that has overwhelmed one of Britain’s largest and best-loved charities, the National Trust.

Professor Fowler is one of the principal authors of a 115-page report published in September last year that ‘outed’ many of the properties belonging to the Trust for their links to slavery and Britain’s colonial past.

Among them were Buckland Abbey, the Devon seat of Sir Francis Drake, Ham House in West London, Wales’s Powis Castle and, most controversially, Chartwell, the family home of Sir Winston Churchill.

Such was the anger at the report that the head of the Charities Commission suggested the National Trust should focus on looking after stately homes — not waging ‘broader political struggles’.

Yet the Trust had already ‘doubled-down’ in its determination to exhume the unsavoury history of its properties with another project, which started in 2018 — and Professor Fowler was in charge of it.

Professor Fowler insists that our ‘green and pleasant land’, as the poet William Blake put it, is anything but. Our countryside, she suggests, is a hotbed of oppression, racism and exploitation — and it is time for its dark history to be exposed.

Many great estates were financed by slavery and colonialism, and the origins of gardening were fundamentally elitist: ‘Knowledge about gardens and plants, in particular botany, has had deep colonial resonances,’ she says.

‘The scientific categorisation of plants has at times engaged in the same hierarchies of “race” that justified empire and slave and slavery . . .

‘Inevitably, then,’ she adds, ‘gardens are matters of class and privilege.’

Racism is ingrained not just in gardening, she believes, but in many of our rural traditions. She cites as an example our nation’s approach to that symbol of rural Britain, the pheasant.

She says that the bird’s heritage has effectively been hijacked by the indigenous white population. We are all in denial, apparently, about its Asian origins.

‘This bird,’ she writes, ‘is habitually represented as native to England’s fields, hedgerows and woodlands . . .’ But, she stresses, it ‘is a global not a local bird’. A clear case of cultural appropriation.

Morris dancing is another source of controversy. ‘The face-blackening practised by the dancers has become a potent symbol of rural racism' she says.

And there is more, much more, in the same vein running through her book.