Colonial history at Marble Hill House

Wendy Shearer storytelling outside Marble Hill House

This summer I was commissioned by Coney, a company specialised in interactive theatre. They asked me to develop and tell stories about 17th century Black British people and objects connected to the English Heritage property – Marble Hill House. My storytelling performances were part of Coney’s launch for Watching The House – an interactive smartphone storytelling adventure created by Rhianna Ilube. Visitors can listen on their phones to the audio guide which encourages them to ‘watch, listen and remember’ whilst exploring the colonial history of the house including the origin of objects present in the house. I chose to tell the African diaspora stories of Olaudah Equiano and Phillis Wheatley – both published authors whose works were catalysts to the abolition of the slave trade. Alongisde this I also dug into the colonial history of the house and its objects, sharing stories about the mahogany and shells that originally came from Caribbean islands. 

Wendy Shearer storytelling at Marble Hill House - photographer Ross Kernahan
Wendy Shearer storytelling under a tree - photographer Ross Kernahan
Wendy Shearer storytelling at Marble Hill House - photographer Ross Kernahan

Mahogany and shell trade

Whilst researching the colonial history of the house owned by Henrietta Howard, I discovered horrifying details about the history of the mahogany trade which I’d never come across before. Enslaved Africans like Olaudah Equiano were forced to cut  down mahogany trees on the mosquito coast of Honduras (present day Belize). Many were grouped in gangs of 30 or 40 in the mahogany forests of the Caribbean. Men were forced to cut, women made to haul the logs and children used to bundle them up. Deforestation made way for huge sugar plantations, enabling them to supply the flourishing Mahogony Trade in Britain. Cabinets, staircases, door handles are just a few of the furnishings created for the lavish homes. My stories also shed light on the beautiful Caribbean shells which can be found in the bedroom of Marble Hill House. Archeologists have uncovered traces of them in the Garden Grotto behind the house. These grottos were quite popular during this time where shells were shipped over from the Caribbean islands  – collected, traded and used to decorate objects and rooms. 

Mahogany Staircase at Marble Hill House

African Diaspora History

My stories were aimed at adults, however people of all ages listened to my stories about the writer and former enslaved Olouda Equiano who published his memoir and poetry from Phillis Wheatley 1753–1784. She was the first Black woman to have her poems published in the UK despite being captured from Senegal or Gambia and enslaved from the age of 7 years old. Both of these astounding people are featured in my book of Bedtime Stories: Beautiful Black Tales from the Past.

We had many people listening to the tales which spoke of how these shells may have been used domestically by Caribbean labourers and decoratively by the indigenous people of those lands. Afterwards, people  ventured inside Marble Hill house to seek out these objects for themsleves, listen to the phone guide and follow up on what they’d learned.

It’s been tremendous for me to research these African and Caribbean diaspora histories and creatively weave folklore, poetry and achievements into the stories for everyone to experience them as more than hidden tragedies. I’m back again at Marble House Saturday 20th July 2024 to tell these stories. These sessions are free and open to all – so please come and join in!