A Heart for Africa

The Harrogates

stone
Photo by Sue Vincent

After having lunch in the market town of Pickering, the tour group made their way up the narrow, twisted path flanked by colorful hedges and shrubs, paused to take photos of the stone monument before trekking across the sprawling acres of land to the Harrogate Estate, one of the stately homes in Yorkshire associated with the slave business.

Rashida stood in the impressive Great Hall at the Harrogate estate, studying the paintings which hung from the walls.  They were mostly family portraits and other members of the aristocracy.  The estate belonged to James Harrogate, a banker and sugar importer who held shares in 20 ships involved in the slave trade between Barbados and Africa.  It made her sick to think that this man, like many others such as he, became rich off of Africans who were taken from their homes and brought to strange lands as slaves.  The journeys were long, treacherous and many slaves died.

She studied the portrait of James Harrogate.  He was a stately looking man with dark brown hair and dark eyes.   His expression was impassive.  She heard the tour guide remark that he never married.  It was believed that he had illegitimate children with one of his slaves.  Her name was Siti and she was taken from Africa to live and work on his plantation in Barbados when she was a girl.  While the other slaves lived in quarters, she lived in the main house with him.

When Harrogate came to England, he brought her with him.  He was at least twenty years her senior.  When Siti died from consumption five years after moving to Yorkshire, he had her portrait painted and hung beside his which caused quite an uproar but he didn’t care.  He declared that Siti was his “grande passion”.  He requested that he be buried beside her on the grounds right where the stone monument was erected.

Rashida’s eyes shifted to the portrait of Siti.  She was not lovely or even attractive by any means but she had a pleasant face.  She was sitting with her hands in her lap,  dressed in a pale long sleeved dress and a cloth head wrap which contrasted sharply with her ebony complexion.  There was a hint of a smile on her face.  “How old was she when she died?” she asked, Joseph, the tour guide.

“Thirty years old.”

“She died at such a young age.”

“Yes, she did.”  He studied her for a moment.  “Are you Nigerian?”

She looked at him in surprise.  “Yes, I am.  I’m from Ibadan.  After I graduated from university I moved to London.”

“Siti was from Nigeria,” he said before turning to the rest of the group and announcing, “Let’s proceed to the music room where guests were entertained after dinner.  It was one of Sir Harrogate’s favorite rooms.”

They followed him into a large room with a high ceiling, antique chairs arranged in a circle, an enormous expensive rug in the centre, a fireplace, hanging crystal chandelier, more paintings, two long tables in the corner and of course, a grand piano.  It was a lovely room.  And she could just imagine the fine gentlemen and ladies milling around, exchanging pleasantries or sitting rapt as they listened to someone play or sing.

After the tour of Harrogate Estate was over they walked back along the same path to the coach.  Then it was on to the idyllic village of Hutton-le-Hole where they spent time exploring the rugged moors.  Joseph walked alongside Rashida.  “How are you enjoying the tour so far?” he asked.

“I like the English countryside.  It’s so picturesque.  How long have you been doing this tour?”

“For about eight years now.  I do it in the summer when I’m on vacation.”

She stared at him.  He was a very attractive man with thick, silky dark hair and light brown eyes.   “You remind me of someone,” she said.  There was something familiar about him but she couldn’t imagine what it was.  She knew she’d never seen him before–that was something she would have definitely remembered.

He shrugged.  “Maybe I have one of those faces,” he said.  He had decided since he saw her this morning that when the tour was over, he was going to make arrangements to see her again.

They talked about other things and then they were off to Castle Howard, the last stop of the tour.  Castle Howard, reputed to be Yorkshire’s grandest and most famous stately home was the setting for the TV and film versions of Brideshead Revisited.   They spent the rest of the afternoon there, walking in the manicured grounds, the woodlands and going through the stately home.  And then, it was time to leave.

When they were alone at the designated drop off point, he turned to Rashida.  “I hope you don’t think I’m being forward, but I was wondering if you would have dinner with me tomorrow evening.”

She smiled.  “I would like that very much,” she said.  She gave him her number.  “Thank you for a great tour.”

“You’re welcome, Rashida.  Have a good evening.”

“Thanks, you too.”

They parted company.

After she was gone, a black sedan pulled up beside Joseph and he got in.  “Where to, Sir?”

“Home, Robert.”

“How was the tour, Sir?”

“Better this time.  I think I found her.”

“Found who, Sir?”

“One of Siti’s descendents. Remember, when Siti was at the plantation in Barbados, she had relations with one of the slaves and got pregnant? That’s why she was brought here after she had the baby. The child was left with his father. That child grew up to be a famous author whose writings about his experience as a slave helped to turn public opinion in Britain against slavery. I think met one of his descendants today on the tour. I’ve asked her to have dinner with me tomorrow evening.”

“Do you think that’s wise, Sir?”

“I don’t know, Robert.  Only time will tell.”

For the rest of the drive there was silence.  “Have a good evening, Sir,” Robert said, when the car stopped.

“Thank you, Robert.  Have a good evening yourself.”  He got out of the car and walked quickly to the entrance.

He let himself into the foyer.  Jasper the butler met him.  “Good evening, Sir.  Dinner will be served shortly.”

“Thank you, Jasper.”  Before he went up to his room to take a bath, he went to the Grand Hall and stood in front of John Harrogate’s portrait.  Yes, he could see why Rashida thought he looked familiar.  There was a distinct family resemblance.

His gaze shifted to Siti.  Despite the hint of a smile, there was sadness in her eyes.  After she gave birth to her child, she never saw him again and she had no choice but to come here because John Harrogate threatened to sell her baby and his father if she didn’t.  He turned away in disgust.  How he hated being a Harrogate.  His family’s legacy filled him with shame.  If it turned out that Rashida was one of Siti’s descendants, whatever hopes he had for a relationship with her were dashed.

It is unfortunate that in most cases when the sins of the father fall on the son it is because unlike God, people refuse to forgive and forget and heap past wrongs upon innocent generations ― E.A. Bucchianeri, Brushstrokes of a Gadfly,

This is a response to the Thursday Photo Prompt – Stone at Sue Vincent’s Daily Echo.

Sources:  Historic England; York Press; Encyclopedia Virginia; Travel Start; York:PM; Viator; Biography Online;

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7 replies to “The Harrogates

  1. Well told. It is one of those bits of history we prefer to hide from consciousness. We are all taught here about how we set about abolishing slavery… but we are seldom taught how much of it we were responsible for in the first place or how much resistance there ws to its abolition by those growing rich on the ownership of human beings.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks, Sue. And you’re absolutely right. This is the kind of History that we would rather sweep under the rug or not deal with like some do with the Holocaust but we have to talk about it. We have to acknowledge the victims of these systems which dehumanized people based on their race and religion and applaud those who fought to bring freedom to those to whom it was denied. History is there for us to learn from.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I agree…and even more so with something such as slavery, which is still a problem in the world today, even though we would rather not notice ( in case we feel we have to actually do something about it… 😦 )

        Liked by 1 person

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