The National Botanic Garden of Wales was conceived in the mid-1990s to be a national botanic garden for the 21st Century, one that is dedicated to the research and conservation of biodiversity, to sustainability, lifelong learning and the enjoyment of the visitor. When the Botanic Garden opened in May 2000, Foster and Partners’ architectural masterpiece, The Great Glasshouse, immediately became the iconic beacon for these values.
This rural site is on land with an increasingly well documented history – it is registered Grade II on the Cadw/ICOMOS Register of Parks and Gardens of Special Historic Interest in Wales. The most overt visible historic features are the late 18th and early 19th century Double Walled Garden, Stable Block, Ice House, parkland and necklace of restored lakes.
Outstanding contemporary horticulture and architecture situated in a historic landscape has been perceived as an important attraction for our visitors. But a growing awareness and uneasiness about the sources of wealth which funded the creation of the historic estate has led us to review the way we want to communicate the story of this land before the National Botanic Garden of Wales was created. We have to grapple with the juxtaposition of the values of our 21st Century botanic garden with those of previous custodians of the land.
Our knowledge about past landowners has come from disparate historical sources which largely concentrated on a Western historical interpretation. Dates, family links, commercial connections and detailed descriptions of the physical manifestations of the wealth created by the protagonists.
But how much can we trust these to be the only ‘facts’ and ‘interpretations’ given that they have been written from a European, white and largely male perspective? The stories we have on the sources of wealth of these past landowners have only dealt with the overt products of wealth, and have turned a blind eye to the horrendous injustices and corruption that made this money. The stories of the male landowners are well known whilst considerably less attention has been paid to the slaves they owned, the cultures they subjugated, the people they exploited and local workers they employed. To some extent, the reason for this is that stories of the underclass have been lost, unrecorded or buried by historians, more interested in the perceived winners of history.
The East India Company was the most influential source of historical wealth on what was known as the Middleton Estate before the Botanic Garden was formed. Three Middleton brothers from the Debighshire town of Chirk helped set up the East India Company in 1600 in order to trade in profitable silks and spices, and with the profits built a high-status mansion with ornate gardens and fountains on what is now a grazed pasture in Waun Las National Nature Reserve.
Two hundred years later, William Paxton returned to Britain from being the treasurer of Bengal for the East India Company. With the vast profits acquired, he employed a large team of workers to create what was considered to be one of the finest Regency period landscapes in Britain. During this period the East India Company develop to such an extent that it had seized control of large parts of the Indian subcontinent, and colonised parts of south east Asia, including Hong Kong. The Company effectively created what became the British Empire in Asia.
But not all historians applauded. Leo Tolstoy, writing to a young Mohandas Gandhi1 in 1908 about the East India Company said: ‘A commercial company enslaved a nation comprising two hundred millions. Tell this to a man free from superstition and he will fail to grasp what these words mean.’ US historian Will Durant’s portrait of a corporation running amok, “overrunning with fire and sword a country temporarily disordered and helpless, bribing and murdering, annexing and stealing”, profoundly shocked its readers in 19302.
So how should we view the wealth accrued by William Paxton? Some accounts of his life suggest that he made his money through hard work, taking risks and being a skilled businessman. But it was only in 2019, through the work of the Botanic Garden’s volunteer historian group, that we learnt of how Paxton’s Agency House financed Governor-General Richard Wellesley in the war against Tipu Sultan of Mysore in 1798-1799. This conflict dramatically increased the territory of the East India Company. We also know that Paxton used this estate to show off to gain greater social standing and spent a small fortune trying to bribe or influence the electorate of Carmarthenshire to make him their MP. Author William Dalrymple3 has recently shown how East India Company men like Robert Clive used the looted money from India to buy both MPs and British parliamentary seats. The Parliament backed the Company with state power because many MPs were shareholders of the EIC and any action against the company would have affected their personal wealth.
The source of wealth of Paxton’s successors are arguably even worse. After his death in 1824, Paxton’s estate was sold to the Adams, later Abadams family. They made their fortune from slavery in Barbados and Jamaica, and from compensation from the abolition of slavery in 1837, an eye wateringly high handout that rewarded only the slave owners, not the slaves. So how much and what should we say about these people?
We now have a growing catalogue of information about the Middletons, Paxton and Adams/Abadams families. We previously published these as webpages and blogs, to explain to our visitors about the known social history of this land. But if we were to consider the metaphor of the scales of social justice, the stories we have told are so imbalanced that they do not reflect the Botanic Garden’s values and commitment to inclusivity. We have therefore taken the decision to conduct further research to ensure our website content is a fair and equitable account. In the meantime, some webpages have been removed and will be subjected to further review.
- Tolstoy, L. (1908) A letter to a hindu, the subjection of India – its causes and cure. Free Hindustan, Vancouver, Canada.
- Durant, W. (1930) The case for India. Simon and Schuster, New York, USA.
- Dalrymple, W. (2019) The anarchy: the relentless rise of the East India Company. Bloomsbury Publishing, London.