In a perfect world, it would be difficult to understand why Corinne Fowler’s research is so controversial.
A literature professor at Leicester University, Fowler studies the colonial history of the British countryside, including its country houses, moorlands and gardens.
Last year, she co-edited the National Trust’s report into the connections between colonialism, slavery and the Trust’s historic properties; in December, she published a book, Green Unpleasant Land, exploring literary portrayals of Britain’s rural colonialism and the long history of people of colour in the countryside.
Her scholarship has led to howls of outrage. Some of the fury has been personal: Fowler receives regular hate-mail and has been subjected to several hit pieces in national newspapers, including the Daily Mail and the Telegraph. Some members of the public threatened to cancel their memberships to the National Trust in response to her work.
But Fowler’s work has also incited a political row – if you can call it that.
Newspaper columnists deemed the National Trust report a “nakedly political project”. It inspired Jacob Rees-Mogg to deliver a pro-Churchill diatribe in Parliament. The Common Sense Group – a coalition of 59 Conservative MPs and seven peers – accused it of perpetuating “cultural Marxist dogma” and asked the culture secretary to review the funding for the National Trust’s four-year Colonial Countryside project, which is also run by Fowler.
"It is abhorrent that hardworking patriots should fund the enormously costly, damaging and unpatriotic projects of well-heeled privileged left wing activists,” wrote Sir John Hayes MP, chairman of the Common Sense Group.
Unfortunately, the angry responses to Fowler’s research are not as surprising as they should be.
Efforts to inject the myth of merry England with a dose of historical reality are frequently met with hostility, explains Fowler: “I think there's a common assumption that the countryside has historically been a place where only white people lived, and certainly where white people more naturally belonged, than people of colour,” she says. Her work shows decisively that this was never the case.
For two years, Fowler’s research into the colonial countryside met with little resistance; but the National Trust report was released at an explosive moment – soon after the Black Lives Matter protests and the toppling of Bristol’s Edward Colston statue – and Fowler believed that the government “panicked”.
She says: “It felt like a perceived threat to British identity and to the received version of history: the more familiar periods of history, World War II, World War I – the things where we seem to be on the right side of history and which we can feel fairly pleased with ourselves about.
“But it worries me that we can cherry-pick history, if we like. I worry about this closing down of the momentum; I worry that it's interfering with a very vibrant and interesting period of historical investigation, and a broadening of our understanding of what British history is – which to me can only be a positive thing, because more history is better than less history.”
In Green Unpleasant Land, Fowler attempts to correct the myth that the countryside was, until recently, the preserve of white people alone. She shows that people of colour have lived and worked in Britain for millennia, from the Black centurions patrolling Hadrian’s Wall to the Black salvage diver, Jacques Francis, who led an expedition to recover Henry VIII’s guns from the sunken Mary Rose.
“If you examine the court records, you can see that there were a lot of Black people living ordinary lives, giving testimony as witnesses in court and marrying locally,” says Fowler. “There's lots of different historical periods to dip in and out of to see that continuous but very varied and circumstantially different presence of African, Indian and Chinese people in Britain over the centuries.”
Of course, this is not new information: Peter Fryer wrote Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain in the 1980s. Even so, rural diversity is often seen as an aspiration rather than an historical reality; in her book, Fowler references Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony for the 2012 London Olympics.
“In Boyle’s presentation...the presence of Black maypole dancers, farmers and milkmaids in the stadium cannot be seen as wanting to reflect any historically genuine Black rural presence in the 18th and 19th centuries,” she writes. “Rather, it is presented as a utopian dream for the future.”
The physical appearance of the countryside itself is a rebuke to those who seek to suppress Britain’s colonial past. The landscape around us is not natural, but the creation of generations of people who have cleared, burned, farmed and built upon it: colonialism is one of the many stories scrawled upon its fields, parks and walls.
Imperial wealth was often spent on country houses and land, the latter being required to become an MP. Enclosure, which helped to shape the landscape we see today, was fuelled by money made on sugar and tobacco plantations worked by slaves – the profits paid for the walls and hedges required to shut people off what was once common land.
These patterns of land ownership persist today: half of England is owned by less than one percent of the population. That one percent is overwhelmingly white, while Black people have among the lowest levels of home ownership in England, and are severely underrepresented in the farming community – in 2008, one of Britain’s two Black farmers was accused by the police of stealing his own crops.
Colonialism’s connections to modern-day Britain, and modern-day Britons, run deep: when Fowler began researching her own personal history, she discovered that her family had historical links to transatlantic slavery and the East India Company. Richard Drax, the Conservative MP for South Dorset, still owns Drax Hall in Barbados, where his ancestors created the first slave-worked sugar plantation in the British Empire almost 400 years ago.
“Certainly, there is no doubt that colonial ideologies of race have left their legacy. We have serious structural inequalities in Britain today which we need to address, and we absolutely should address them,” says Fowler.
The barriers to land access today are emotional as well as financial. While white people have been taught that they belong in the countryside – or that the countryside belongs to them – people of colour often experience outright racism and hostility, alongside a sense of alienation from a mythical rural culture, says Fowler.
“It would be good for white Britons to reflect a little bit on their easy sense of possession and belonging in the countryside, especially more privileged white Britons, and to think about how we see the countryside as somehow more naturally linked to white culture than to any other culture,” she explains.
These whitewashed pastoral scenes are also being debunked by writers of colour who are documenting their own rural experiences and creating literature that engages with the countryside.
Fowler lists her favourites with ease: she is, after all, a literature professor. There is Catching Pheasants, a short story by Manzu Islam, in which two Indian men running a local takeaway pursue two pheasants across the landscape, prompting reflections on their shared provenance; and ‘In a Jar’, a poem by Mahendra Solanki, where he imagines his relative’s ashes as they flow down the River Severn.
“A lot of that work shows true attachment and affection for the countryside and shows that the benefits of the countryside are absolutely crucial for all of us,” says Fowler.
“There's no historical justification for being precious about who we think belongs in the countryside and who doesn't.”