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The Relics of History: Reckoning with Statues of our Colonial Past

By Bharati K.

Calcutta’s memorial to Queen Victoria, 1921. PA Archive

I recently visited Kolkata; a city infamous for its post-colonial hangover. Kolkata, or Calcutta as it was once known, rose to prominence in the early days of the British Raj, with the East India Company practically building the place up. During my tour of the city, I visited the Victoria Memorial, where I was struck by the imposing visage of Queen Victoria on the throne, in the heart of the city. I hadn't seen such remnants of colonial pride and power before. From the Victoria Memorial to random streets in the city, Kolkata is littered with the relics of its colonial past.

The memorial itself was designed to celebrate the British monarchy and the empire, and even now, houses several portraits of Victoria and Albert. The gardens of the Memorial are home to the statues of colonial figures like Robert Clive, Lord Cornwallis, Arthur Wellesley, all of whom have left behind less than savoury legacies of British imperialism and exploitation in India.

While visiting the memorial, I remember making an off-hand joke about placing all the colonial figures in a museum for ridicule, and that sparked a conversation with my friend, who is training to be a historian. What followed was a vital conversation on the importance of visual history, collective memory and how do we actively decolonize our current understanding of the past? And honestly, why do statues exist? What is their purpose and why do people care about them so much? How do commemorative structures like statues, street names and monuments alter and influence our perception of identity and history? And why do we need to revise the narrative around these problematic figures in history to reflect the truth of their actions?

From Standing Tall to Rhodes Must Fall

Admittedly, there is a lot to unpack here, but broadly speaking, statues of public figures are more than just objects of decoration or a landmark on Google Maps. Statues are symbols of power and authority. Erecting statues and naming public property after influential people to express the legitimacy of power has been the name of the game for centuries. After all, it is the rich, influential, and powerful who get to have streets named after them and statues built to their name. Existing in our urban environment, many of these larger-than-life figures continue to live on. Depending on their relevance, some statues continue to remain prominent in the public eye, while others fade to obscurity.

As to why statues are important in today’s context, well, statues are tangible symbols from the past, giving us a way to learn about history. However they may not be the best physical representations of what happened, as the saying goes, history is often told from the winners perspective. And who were the winners when it came to colonialism? Definitely not the working-class people of Kolkata who are now watched over by statues of former enslavers. The public visibility of the statues is what lends them their sense of power and authority over the populace.

The discourse on the relevance of statues, especially of yester-year colonial figures is nothing new but became increasingly pertinent in the wake of the Black Lives Matter Movement. During the intense political and social turmoil last year, it was rightly pointed out how statues have become a visual representation of the conflict between competing versions of history and collective memory, between the oppressed and oppressor. But this debate started much before this, with prominent campaigns like ‘Rhodes Must Fall’, which began in the University of Cape Town in 2015 and spread to Oriel College in Oxford, with calls for removing his statue from both university campuses. Cecil Rhodes, the man with the statue in question, was a British imperialist figure who wanted to continue British rule over South Africa and considered African people “lesser-than” the British.

And whilst the Rhodes Must Fall campaign has been ongoing for years, the Black Lives Matter Movement’s resurgence last year did galvanise the debate and brought the demands to remove statues of colonial and racist figures to the forefront of the political conversation. In 2020 after the wave of BLM protests in the UK, the statue of slave trader Edward Colston was toppled in Bristol and dumped into the harbour, followed by the removal of Robert Milligan, the 18th-century slave owner who owned 526 slaves in Jamaica, was removed from outside the Museum of London Docklands. Meanwhile, in Belgium, the statue of King Leopold the II, who oversaw and made immense wealth from the horrific colonization and enslavement of the people of Congo, was taken down in Antwerp. Similarly, there has been a clamour for the removal of Confederate statues in America, with the most recent case being the removal of Confederate leader Robert E Lee’s statue from Richmond, a city that was once the capital of the Confederacy. This was the largest Confederate statue in the city and one of the most prominent monuments of the Confederacy in America.

The Politics of Commemoration

These were all small achievements but didn’t come without backlash and controversy. Many advocated for statues to remain as they are because removing them is synonymous with “erasing history”. Proponents of the pro-statue stance argue that these statues form a vital part of our history and thus need to be kept in their pristine condition. Most of the pro-statue crowd are people who express certain pride in Britain’s (or insert any other European imperial powers) colonial past. And it is safe to say that this pride is terribly misplaced and largely misinformed. History has now come to reckon with the people it slighted, acknowledging the cost of the colonial enterprise and the repercussions of which can still be seen reverberating through the global South. It’s particularly ironic in Britain where the Empire and colonial history isn’t taught in schools. So how many people had really heard of Cecil Rhodes or Edward Colston before there were calls to take their statues down? Not very many. And that shows that it isn’t really about the statue itself, but the fact that removing them represents the take-back of power by marginalised people.

And this is the crux of a larger issue that the statue debate is just one part of. The demand that ‘statues must fall’ is a call for decolonizing our history and environment, as the monument does not stand as an accurate representation of the area or people’s history. It’s in tandem with decolonizing our education systems, our streets, and ultimately, our mindsets. It’s an anti-colonial campaign that rests in large part in the politics of memorialisation and changing the narratives of colonial iconography. Scholar Johannes Schulz (2019) argues that “commemorations constitute a wrong when they degrade or alienate. To be degrading is to be expressive of a disrespectful ideology which has enduring social significance, and alienation occurs when this infrastructure denies sources of self-respect, failing to assure all in the society of their equal status.” This is the memorialisation that colonial relics encompass, with the ideologies of white supremacy and imperial violence living on through them as our social structures continue to oppress the same communities that were colonial subjects.

And it's not just European colonial figures facing a reckoning with history, but it's also our own ‘celebrated’ nationalist leaders who are getting a dose of revisionist history in other parts of the world. A great example is the ‘Gandhi Must Fall Movement’ at Ghana University. The movement to remove Gandhi’s statue in Ghana came about as an act of protest against his racist and anti-Black comments made during his time in South Africa. Similarly, in Manchester, the University Student Union expressed its desire for the removal of Gandhi’s statue from the city centre, not only because of his problematic past in Africa but also the current BJP government’s stance on Kashmir, which has been riddled with human rights violations.

The common theme in these protest calls is the shared history and trauma of oppression faced by minority groups at the hands of colonial powers and the fight for a narrative that recognizes that.

Some argue for a middle ground solution, where the statues remain, but they are attached with a nuanced sense of historical consciousness and perception of history. Commemorative structures like statues are used to cement public memory and to create a narrative about the collective history of the country. It is difficult to remove or re-write the history of such problematic figures when they impact so much of our reality. Take for instance the statue of Cecil Rhodes in Oxford, the college administration is against the idea of displacing his statue, with the explanation stating that the statue “was a reminder of the complexity of history and of the legacies of colonialism.” In reality, the removal of the statue not only threatens the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship but assets and endowments owned by the university worth millions. It's safe to say that the profits incurred by this outweigh the grievances of their ethnic-minority students.

What about India?

While the rest of the world was furiously reckoning with the physical remnants of their respective colonial legacies, I was curious about the strange silence in India. As a country that was once considered the crown jewel of the British Empire, we have our fair share of colonial relics lying about. And neither are we strangers to statue-related controversy - from the 300-foot-tall statue for Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel in Gujarat to the Dalit Prerna Sthal built by Mayawati, India has pretty much seen it all.

In India, power and politics play a vital role in deciding who gets to be remembered and memorialised, and whose history fades out of public memory. Post-Independence, there has been a certain disinterest attached to colonial statutory on India, where they have either been sidelined and left to the ravages of time, like the Coronation Park in Delhi, a forgotten spot in the capital that houses several commemorative busts and statues of colonial figures which have been left to rust and rot. Or in Kolkata’s case, where the city has absorbed its colonial past into its urban DNA.

But with the removal of the old, there is the chance of rewriting a version of history that is true in its interpretation of facts and reshaping commemorative infrastructure with this in mind. For example, Ghana University Professor Ọbádélé Kambon suggests that Gandhi's statue be replaced with a statue of Dr Ambedkar, as someone who advocated for the total annihilation of caste, and thus the racial hierarchies that come with it, in solidarity between oppressed communities in both India and Africa. But like I mentioned before, it's those who are in power who get to decide how stories are told and who is to be glorified, so campaigns on who shouldn’t be commemorated are only one part of the battle.

And beyond statues, there is an urgent need to decolonize our understanding of history, to decolonize our streets, classrooms, political institutions and organisations that run off the legacy of oppression and exploitation. It is the nature of history as a discipline to constantly record the changes in narrative and interpretation of facts based on new evidence, leading to the writing of revised history and stories that better reflect the society we currently inhabit. We can’t divorce the act of history writing from current political action either, which is why movements like the BLM are important, they allow for a conversation that better centres on those normally left out of the narrative. Movements like these create space for multiple realities and multiple histories to exist. And as long as there is space of the histories to strive and not be subsumed under a singular homogenising narrative, we’re in a better place than before.


About the author

Bharati is a research assistant at Institute for Human Development. She holds a master’s in Development Studies from Ambedkar University Delhi and an undergraduate degree in history from Miranda House. In her spare time, she enjoys music, knitting and the company of her pets.


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26. Sept. 2021

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