Thursday 2 May 2024

Corinne Fowler, "Our Island Stories"

Corinne Fowler, photo by Osborne Photography

Corinne Fowler is Professor of Colonialism and Heritage in Museum Studies at the University of Leicester. She is co-investigator of the Leverhulme Rural Racism Project, led by Professor Neil Chakraborti at the University’s Centre for Hate Studies. In 2020 Corinne co-authored an audit of peer-reviewed research about National Trust properties’ connections to empire, which encouraged the heritage sector to address its colonial stories and became a major media story. The report won the Museums and Heritage Special Recognition Award, 2022 and the Eastern Eye Community Engagement Award 2023. Corinne directed Colonial Countryside: National Trust Houses Reinterpreted, a child-led history and writing project with Peepal Tree Press with commissioned photographer Ingrid Pollard (2018-2022). Our Island Stories: Country Walks Through Colonial Britain was published on 2 May 2024 by Penguin Allen Lane.

About Our Island Stories: Country Walks Through Colonial Britain
This book of country walks opens up the colonial history of Britain’s rural life and landscapes. The countryside is cherished by many Britons. There is a depth of feeling about rural places, the moors and lochs, valleys and mountains, cottages and country houses. Yet the British countryside, so integral to our national identity, is rarely seen as having anything to do with British colonialism. Where the countryside is celebrated, histories of empire are forgotten. In Our Island Stories, Corinne Fowler brings rural life and colonial rule together with transformative results. Through ten country walks, roaming the island with varied companions, Fowler combines local and global history, connecting the Cotswolds to Calcutta, Dolgellau to Virginia, and Grasmere to Canton.

Empire transformed rural lives for better and for worse: whether in Welsh sheep farms or Cornish copper mines, it offered both opportunity and exploitation. Fowler shows how the booming profits of overseas colonial activities, and the select few who benefited, directly contributed to enclosure, land clearances and dispossession. These histories, usually considered separately, continue to shape lives across Britain today.

To give an honest account, to offer both affection and criticism, is a matter of respect: we should not knowingly tell half a history. This new knowledge of our island stories, once gained, can only deepen Britons' relationship with their beloved landscape.

You can read more about Our Island Stories on the publisher's website here. Below, you can read an excerpt from the introduction to the book. 


From Our Island Stories, by Corinne Fowler

From ‘Introduction: A Colonial History of the British Countryside’ 

I took the train to Pangbourne, some 20 miles west of Windsor. Perched at the confluence of the Thames and the River Pang, the settlement is ancient: its name was first recorded in 844 CE. The Pang, which gives the village its name, is a tributary of the Thames, a chalkstream which remains full of life despite the farm fertilizers, pesticides and sewage which pollute the local rivers. Voles still swim in its water meadows, just as they did when Kenneth Grahame used to go boating thereabouts in the early twentieth century. Along with other riverine creatures, the water vole appears as Ratty in Grahame’s much-loved children’s classic The Wind in the Willows, a book which re-enchanted generations of readers with the English countryside: its financial success enabled Grahame to retire to a gable-ended cottage in Pangbourne, where he lived until his death in 1932. 

Crammed with listed buildings and expensive real estate, Pangbourne has long attracted people with money: people in search of this bucolic idyll. In the eighteenth century, wealth flooded into Pangbourne, much of it linked to the East India Company. Founded in 1600 by English merchants to trade between Europe, South Asia and the Far East, it became far more than a trading company. Acquiring its own army, it fought rival East India Companies from the European powers such as France and Holland, competing for the lion’s share of trade in spices, cotton, silk, indigo and saltpetre. The English – later British – East India Company established and defended warehouses, forts and trading posts all over India, including Bombay, Calcutta, Madras and Surat. Over time, it conquered territory, collected taxes and eventually colonized India. When East India Company employees had made their pile and returned home, many headed for the Thames valley – so many, in fact, that it became known as ‘England’s Hindoostan.’ A former governor of Madras lived 3 miles south of Pangbourne, at Englefield; the former governor of Bengal, Warren Hastings, had a residence at Purley Hall, a mile or so from the village. 

I had come to Pangbourne in search of one of these figures, Sir Francis Sykes. I planned to walk the riverside path along the Thames valley to Basildon Park, a landscaped and wooded estate surrounded by a handsome brick and flint wall and, within it, the house that Sykes built: a grand Palladian pile, constructed with the proceeds of his Indian adventures, and now owned by the National Trust. With me would come the historian Sathnam Sanghera, author of the influential Empireland, a personal journey into British colonial history. As we walked, we’d talk about Britain, India and the culture war into which our work had plunged us both.

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