Conversations amongst Black communities and in the media about reparations for slavery are frequent. But the history of Paxton House is one that refreshes common debate. In our latest ARE blog, Routes2Success Programme Manager, Brianna Cyrus, reflects on her visit to Paxton House on the English-Scottish border, and how it’s carefully trying to work through its legacy of slavery and colonialism.
Over the Queen’s Jubilee weekend I visited Paxton House – a Georgian country house at Berwick-Upon-Tweed near the English-Scottish border – with Descendants Youth Organisation and both of my children.
Descendants Youth is a history and arts-focused organisation aimed at children and young people aged 4-16, primarily but not exclusively of African and Caribbean descent. My children have been with Descendants for the past couple of years, where they have been learning about their African and Caribbean history, and responding to their explorations through artwork.
We were visiting Paxton House to take part in the Caribbean Cultural event that was held there over the Jubilee weekend. Descendants were asked to lead this event due to a strong, pre-existing relationship with the House – a connection that grew out of an initial visit to the site in 2007 to mark the abolition of slavery.
Over the Jubilee weekend, the children’s work had been put on display to pay tribute to those who had been enslaved, both in commiserations and in celebration of their life and resistance.
Upon arriving at Paxton, I could not escape the acres and acres of land surrounding the historic site: both breath-taking and beautiful. Nonetheless, it cannot be ignored that the purchase of Paxton House and its inheritance is linked to a family fortune derived from enslavement.
Built in the 1700s under the supervision of James Nisbet, Paxton House has strong links to the sugar plantation in Grenada, Caribbean. Ninian Home, who bought the house from his cousin Patrick, was an established sugar planter owning over 500 acres of land in Grenada, and was appointed Governor of Grenada in 1792. As such, he had many slaves working the land in his plantations – many of whom were often mistreated by the slave managers.
So how and why did it become the nation’s house?
After being passed down the family through generations, John Home Robertson, a Labour Member of Parliament, and Member of the Scottish Parliament, decided to give the house and its 80 acres of grounds to the nation. Cutting the family’s ties to slavery and giving the house over to the nation is a start to perhaps acknowledging the part they played in slavery.
Today, Paxton House is open to the public and is a partner gallery of the National Galleries of Scotland. The Paxton Trust is sharing and being open about the way Paxton’s past owners were involved in slavery. The National Galleries of Scotland are reviewing their collections to ensure that works associated with slavery, racism and colonial exploitation will be publicly acknowledged and highlighted to visitors.
Forming a close relationship with Descendants Youth, a Black-led organisation, is another step toward reparations: one that can ensure that the legacy of those who who have been enslaved will not be forgotten, and that out of something negative, a positive sense of ownership can emerge for our future generations.
What brought this message home was seeing all the Descendants’ children’s work on display, encapsulating the rich history of African people in a house that was once owned by slave owners. The proud faces of the children from African and Caribbean heritage when they saw their contributions to the project was a great achievement and a proud moment for all involved.
Descendents Youth’s main focus is on African and Caribbean culture. They help young people explore history, and experiment with art, craft, music, drama and dance. Find out more.
The artwork around this project is currently on display at Paxton House until 2023. You can learn more about the history of the House and its link to colonialism on their website.
For details on ARE’s work with young people in schools, contact Brianna Cyrus.