Researching Community Heritage

  • In the archives

Shared Heritage

The postcolonial critic and Palestinian political thinker, Edward Said, famously discussed the ‘intertwined histories and overlapping territories’ of Britain and its former Empire. From Jane Austen, to Rudyard Kipling to the Brontës, he argued, those who produced the canon of English literature were strongly influenced by the colonial context in which they wrote. The shared histories enjoining Britain to the former empire run much wider than literature. Whether we’re talking about national art collections; major museums; country houses; public statues; or famous street names, British heritage is tied up with Empire, built with money raised by slavery, the East India Company and other imperial exploits and inflected by colonial circumstances. When Franz Fanon (a psychiatrist, revolutionary and philosopher) wrote that ‘Europe is literally the creation of the Third World’, he encapsulated something of the impossibility of understanding a Europe, or a Britain, disentangled from its colonial past. All ‘British’ heritage is, to some extent, a ‘shared heritage’ with the wider world. But the extent to which this has been taken on has been patchy to say the least. Liverpool, for example, with streets bearing the names of slave-owners and abolitionists alike and Britain’s first International Slavery Museum, has to a large extent had to face up to its imperial past. Rural areas of England, by contrast, have rarely engaged in colonial legacies and through strategic historical ‘forgettings’ can sometimes present themselves as rural idylls or white spaces, untouched, by uncomfortable memories of Empire. Meanwhile, the National Parks, have noted that ethnic minority groups are unrepresented in the numbers of visitors to these places of natural beauty, even when, in the case of the Peak District national park, there are high numbers of ethnic minority communities living round their edges.

In ‘The British Raj in the Peak District’, I worked with Hindu Samaj, as Sheffield based community group promoting Hindu faith, culture, arts, and languages, to try and uncover some of the ‘shared heritage’ that has historically bound India and Derbyshire. Our research had two strands. Firstly, we explored the use of Indian cotton in the mills that dot the Peak District and the surrounding area. Calver Mill for example, span cotton from India right through the nineteenth century, as well as cotton from the US, Egypt and elsewhere. Putting the History of the East India Company, and its aggressive creation of an exploitative monopoly over Indian textile production, provides a useful supplement to the more traditional narratives of the Industrial Revolution told at Cromford, Arkwright’s famous mill. Secondly, we looked at how Edward Carpenter, the socialist writer and advocate of sexual freedoms who made his home in Millthorpe in Derbyshire. Carpenter was deeply influenced by Hindu teachings, particularly the Bhagavad-Gita, and studied Indian Teachings and Eastern Spirituality. He visited India and Ceylon, wrote Adam’s Peak to Elephanta based on his travels, and corresponded with key Indian thinkers including Rabindranath Tagore and Mahatma Gandhi.

The phrase ‘Shared Heritage’ does not only (or indeed usually) refer to these kinds of connections but can also be used to acknowledge the common ownership of the past that is not always present in either academic or political endeavours. The project did not just illuminate the shared heritage between Britain and India it was itself a process of sharing and learning. As an academic historian, I was familiar with how to use the local archives but visiting with the Hindu Samaj made me see it in a new light. I learned lots by listening to the stories that members of the Hindu Samaj told of their memories and experiences of cotton in India. Acknowledging that all heritage is ‘shared heritage’ opens up opportunities for learning more about the places and times in which we live.

Dr Esme Cleall