The National Trust, aiming to explore and incorporate people of colour into the stories they tell at their properties, gave me a unique opportunity through their September micro-internship in partnership with the University of Oxford’s National Trust Partnership to understand what the idea of truly “global” history means. The other interns and I were divided into two groups, with mine working on NT properties to research social histories of persons of colour connected with these locations. Documentation and concrete proof are a part of university history essay-writing as well: no argument is made without supporting facts, but when even well-documented monarchs can sometimes prove hard to pin down, less-noticed and perhaps blatantly ignored persons of colour can only be found through snippets of information and casual asides. For example, at one of the properties I worked on, Clandon Park, there was a painting of one of the owner’s sons (Edward Onslow) with an Indian servant in the background-- yet there was too little information available to fully confirm whether the individual in question was even Indian in the first place.
Discovering whether or not the household had at some point taken on the services of an Indian servant was difficult because records of immigration into England pre-1800 rarely recorded the names or even the presence of any servants or people of colour. For Edward Onslow’s manservant already employed in 1775, even throwaway post-1800 additions like “1 native manservant accompanying Countess…” only helped establish a growing pattern of such emigrant servants amongst English aristocrats. Records are available from the 1790s about the few Indian emigrants who made the expensive journey back home. The data severely lacks detail and makes identification nearly impossible unlike, for example, in-depth immigration records for passage to the Americas during this period which can be used far more easily to identify Irish settlers.
This sort of imbalance in record-keeping shows one of the most practical reasons why popular history-- the stories told to the public especially, such as museum exhibits and children’s school curricula-- is skewed, even today, disproportionately toward the West and disadvantages people of colour. What I found most interesting was how this may perhaps be evened out through cross-institutional and cross-border collaboration: as an Indian student, I have used sources from National Archives of India frequently during high school. When investigating Charlecote Park, the other country house I worked on during this placement, relevant military records from British India weren’t available on the India Family Office or ancestry.com, but I was still able to find mentions of the officer I was searching for in Indian archival records. This understanding of his military record helped me place him at significant siege sites and propose a provenance for a bejewelled ceremonial sword the officer likely looted from India. In that moment, “global” connections in history felt tangible to me-- when the history of an English country house with a stolen cultural object can be identified using records from the object’s home country, that’s a story that needs to be told. It’s the kind of story that, cliche as this may be, shows how even the most local of histories are part of a much bigger global story that still needs to be told.
Devanshika Bajpai is a second-year undergraduate reading History at Somerville College, Oxford. With experience ranging from archival history research to editing cultural journalism, her research interests revolve around social and literary history as well as metropolitan perspectives on colonial culture. She can be found on Twitter and Instagram as @devanshika112.
Find out more about the National Trust Partnership here.
Find out more about the TORCH Heritage Programme here.