Contesting Landscapes: creative interventions at Balmacara Estate

Here are excerpts from “Contesting Landscapes: creative interventions at Balmacara Estate” by Barbadian artist Annalee Davis, whose creative intervention ‘Contesting Landscapes of Distraction’ at Balmacara Estate explores the complex shared histories of the Scottish Highlands and Barbados. Read the full article and endnotes at the National Trust for Scotland (NTS, 3 February 2022) site.

[. . .] Contesting Landscapes of Distraction is the collective title for a series of creative and entangled interventions that I am working on with the Trust as part of their Facing Our Past project. My art practice explores post-plantation economies and shared transatlantic histories. For this project I’ll explore the lesser known, entangled ties between Barbados – Britain’s first sugar isle – and Scotland.

Contesting Landscapes emphasises an interdisciplinary approach, responding creatively to a centuries-long shared history exploring extractive economies on both sides of the pond including the transplanting of people and plants. [. . .] Having returned to Barbados, armed with a weighty library of books on botany, history and healing, I am reflecting on my time there.

The project acknowledges the acquisition of vast tracts of lands in the Highlands and Islands, by men whose wealth came from Caribbean sugar plantations manned by enslaved people. These men were able to sanitise the source of their wealth and at the same time come to be seen as benefactors, constructing churches and schools, and gardens and mansions, as architectures and landscapes of distraction.[1] In the essay Plantation Slavery and Land Ownership in the West Highlands and Islands: legacies and lessons, co-authors Ian MacKinnon and Andrew MacKillop state that ‘Scores of estates in the West Highlands and Islands were acquired by people using the equivalent of well over £100 million worth of riches connected to slavery in the Caribbean and North America. Many would go on to be leading figures in the Highland Clearances, evicting thousands of people whose families had lived in their newly procured land for generations.’

Scottish owners of Caribbean plantations financed shifting agricultural practices that altered the Highlands and Islands. This included evicting poor farmers, some of whom migrated to Barbados where many Scots had already settled, most notably after the Battle of Culloden when defeated Jacobites were put to work as indentured labourers on Barbados. Dia Da Costa and Alexandre E Da Costa, who write collaboratively about ‘multiple colonialisms’ in order to examine the complex relationalities of multiple and converging colonial relations in historical and contemporary contexts [2], provide a lens which reminds me of Édouard Glissant’s relational thinking.[3] Together, their thinking allows for a more nuanced framework to examine the convergences and divergences of the rampant colonial machinery that shaped the British Isles and the British West Indies.

Similarly, Barbadian history was impacted by complex patterns of migration from Scotland: Scots came as forced migrants and as indentured labour, but also as economic migrants taking up roles as bookkeepers, drivers of labour, doctors, coopers and managers. More spent time there in a military or naval capacity – and some, a small élite, as governors.

For example, Scottish soldier Sir James Leith – Governor and Commander-in-Chief of the Leeward Islands (1816) – and his troops quashed Bussa’s Rebellion, the island’s most infamous slavery revolt in a quest for self-liberation.[4] While Barbadian historians recognise this as a ‘significant development in the history of the local anti-slavery movement’ [5], Governor Leith, rather than understanding the revolt as an act of resistance by the enslaved, accused the island’s free Black community of spreading dangerous ideas about equality and freedom leading the enslaved to question their ‘natural’ condition. [6]

Maintaining ties with a National Trust for Scotland property for the implementation of this project, the focus of my work will be at Balmacara. The estate was once owned by the Mackenzies of Seaforth, a family connected to Barbados through Highland landowner Francis Humberston Mackenzie, Lord Seaforth (1754–1815). He was Governor of the island from 1801–1806 and later acquired plantations and enslaved Africans in Guyana to maintain his Highland property.

An amateur botanist, Seaforth brought plants from Barbados and nearby islands to gardens in England. While these historical facts sourced from more readily available research on the landed gentry initially influenced the choice of this specific Trust property to work with, the aim is to unearth chronicles of those less visible in the archives, attempting to foreground that which has been erased, forgotten, confiscated or absented from the official records and more well-known narratives.

For example, I am interested in the historic practice of spiriting away (kidnapping) children, homeless people, women working in brothels, prisoners and others shipped off against their will from Britain to Barbados to work as indentured labourers on sugar plantations. Their invisibility as poor men, women and children, was mirrored in Barbadian society given scant information about their lives marked by early deaths and impoverishment.[7] Exploring these buried histories – and the potential relationship between the erasure of villages and eviction of crofters and cotters during the Clearances, and vanishing villages in the Scotland District on Barbados’ Atlantic Coast due to land slippage and the loss of indentured labourers’ homes on less productive soils – provides an opportunity to draw multiple lines across imperial economies enforced in two territories reshaped by transplantation and displacement. [. . .]

Read full post and notes at https://www.nts.org.uk/stories/contesting-landscapes-creative-interventions-at-balmacara-estate

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