London's controversial statues continue to celebrate Britain's brutal colonisation of India, 74 years since it became a Republic
India celebrates its 74th Republic Day on 26 January, marking the day it fully threw off the yoke of the British Empire in 1950 and adopted its own Constitution.
Yet, Britain continues to celebrate India as a colony, adorned by statues that glorify those who played a prominent role in looting the country.
"British rule in what is today India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and parts of Afghanistan and Myanmar – collectively called British India – began in the mid-1700s with the East India Company, a ruthless multinational with a private army that seized control of the entire region"
An estimated 35 million people died due to famine in British India between 1757 and 1947, according to the Indian author and politician Shashi Tharoor, not counting punitively or violently killed.
The local economy was also completely destroyed, and economist Utsa Patnaik calculated in 2018 that Britain drained around 45 trillion US dollars from the colony.
British rule in what is today India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and parts of Afghanistan and Myanmar – collectively called British India – began in the mid-1700s with the East India Company, a ruthless multinational with a private army that seized control of the entire region.
"Many of those who were responsible for this colonisation are immortalised through statues around London, visited by millions of locals and tourists who often unknowingly celebrate those who brutally subjugated and looted British India"
The Crown took over governance in 1857 after crushing a major Indian revolt and continued to rule over their wealthiest colony for nearly a century till 1947.
Many of those who were responsible for this colonisation are immortalised through statues around London, visited by millions of locals and tourists who often unknowingly celebrate those who brutally subjugated and looted British India.
The debate over how Britain should confront these statues is growing louder over the years, as more people understand the controversial histories of those memorialised. So who were they, and why were they controversial?
Robert Clive, sometimes known as Lord Clive, is acknowledged to have laid the foundation of the East India Company in British India. A brilliant commander and strategist, he led the Company’s troops to a famous victory at Plassey (Palashi) in Bengal – then India's wealthiest province – before winning the right to collect taxes in the region.
"Clive left India in 1767 with a fortune estimated at 40 million in today’s money"
Shashi Tharoor estimated in his book Inglorious Empire that Clive left India in 1767 with a fortune estimated at 40 million in today’s money – which included ‘presents’ he received and helping himself to any jewels he fancied.
"[T]he British had the gall to call him 'Clive of India', as if he belonged to the country when all he did was make sure that a good portion of the country belonged to him," he wrote.
While he is hated in India, Bangladesh and Pakistan, he was also deeply unpopular in Britain during his lifetime where he was seen as an entirely corrupt and rogue Company official.
Yet, his statue stands prominently outside the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (which was once the India Office). Foreign dignitaries have expressed their disgust at seeing his statue there, according to Anita Anand in the podcast ‘Empire,’ lionising a man who was responsible not just for murder, loot and plunder, but also for the deaths of millions during the catastrophic Bengal famine of 1769–1773.
A key moment in India’s history was the First War of Indian Independence in 1857 – called the Sepoy Mutiny in Britain – when Indians, both soldiers employed by the EIC and civilians, rose up against their masters and killed hundreds of Britishers across north India.
The reaction by British forces, however, was unbelievably horrific and is remembered as the ‘Devil’s wind’ in north India.
In Delhi, they slaughtered every male above the age of sixteen. There are accounts by British soldiers describing their horses as sliding, rather than walking, out of the city for the streets were so slick with blood and human remains. Similar violence ensued in the cities of Lucknow and Kanpur.
"There are accounts by British soldiers describing their horses as sliding, rather than walking, out of the city for the streets were so slick with blood and human remains"
The retribution was far, far worse than the original revolt, according to William Dalrymple, and was the biggest atrocity ever committed by the Company forces in India.
Colin Campbell was the recently-appointed Commander-in-Chief of the British forces during the rebellion whose soldiers were involved in the violence and brutality.
Campbell was immortalised with a statue at Waterloo Place. He is portrayed standing in a uniform on a large granite pillar, above what appears to be an allegorical representation of victory or a depiction of the British Empire.
Henry Havelock’s statue has a prominent place next to Nelson’s Column at Trafalgar Square. Revered in Britain as the ‘hero of Lucknow’ who held out against a siege of Indian rebels, he is remembered in India for participating in the brutal putdown of the rebellion in 1857.
He was one of the British commanders who liberated Kanpur (then Cawnpore) and Lucknow from the Indian troops, where tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of Indians – combatants and civilians – were slaughtered. According to some stories, the women and children were forced to lick up the blood of those the British had butchered, while others were tied to cannons and blown to bits.
Just north of London Kings X lies the “Delhi Outram Estate” in Islington, a council estate built in the late 1970s which appears to commemorate the Indian Rebellion of 1857 (& its brutal suppression by the British) with streets named after those associated with its key events 1/ pic.twitter.com/lVTBFYgvvS— Saugato Datta (@sd268) November 28, 2022
Havelock and Campbell are among several British officers who played prominent roles in putting down the Indian revolt to have been commemorated in London.
Bizarrely, a London council built the Delhi Outram Estate around 1980, which commemorates several of these British figures, including Campbell and Havelock, as well as others such as James Outram and William Brydon.
George Nathaniel Curzon, generally known as Lord Curzon, was the British Viceroy (representative of the Crown) in India from 1899 to 1905. Known for his racist attitude, he believed in the British’s mission to ‘civilise’ the Indians and rejected the idea of an Indian ever being named the Viceroy, saying "in the whole continent there is not an Indian fit for the post."
Lord Curzon is best remembered for his disastrous decision to divide Bengal, India’s richest province, in an attempt to pit Muslims and Hindus against one another and prevent them from uniting against British rule.
This practice of dividing communities is a well-known British ploy, and its best-known example is the Partition – when a line on a map divided India from Pakistan in 1947, causing the biggest known mass migration in human history and the deaths of at least two million people.
"Lord Curzon is best remembered for his disastrous decision to divide Bengal, India’s richest province, in an attempt to pit Muslims and Hindus against one another and prevent them from uniting against British rule"
Curzon’s statue stands at Carlton Terrace, not far from Colin Campbell’s statue and a few minutes away from Buckingham Palace.
Curzon also sought to legitimise the East India Company’s rule in India and pushed for erecting the statue commemorating Lord Clive outside the foreign ministry.
Standing in front of the UK parliament, Winston Churchill’s statue is always incredibly popular among tourists and Londoners alike.
"Churchill’s wartime policies and exhaustive use of Indian resources led to the famine"
In Britain, he is viewed as a hero for successfully leading Britain through World War Two. In India, however, he is held responsible for the 1943 famine in Bengal which killed four million people.
Reports show that Churchill’s wartime policies and exhaustive use of Indian resources led to the famine. Westminster reportedly diverted stocks of Indian rice to already well-equipped soldiers during the war, leaving Indians to starve at home. Churchill called Indians "beastly people with a beastly religion" and said the famine was their own fault for "breeding like rabbits." When informed about the tragedy unfolding in Bengal, he is reported to have written "why isn’t Gandhi dead yet?"
Ironically, Mahatma Gandhi’s statue stands just across from Winston Churchill’s in Parliament Square.
The wartime Prime Minister’s reputation is untouchable in Britain however, which makes it difficult to critique him at all.
"Churchill […] is a demigod in the UK for some parts of the population," said Dr Meera Sabaratnam, a Reader in International Relations at SOAS. "And so it’s not very possible to have a balanced conversation in many quarters about what Churchill represents or who he was."
So many of these statues are situated around the halls of power at Westminster, Whitehall and Buckingham Palace in London. There are dozens of others, including Louis Mountbatten, Charles Napier, Queen Victoria, John Lawrence and Lord Nelson – all of whom are regarded as British heroes, but their colonial pasts are rarely recognised.
The presence of controversial statues is being increasingly acknowledged around the world as people are becoming more aware of their history.
In the UK however, the discussion is viewed through the lens of a ‘culture war’, according to Sabaratnam. Instead of it being focused on public education, she said, "there’s a sort of moral panic being developed around the status of statues as if these are somehow some kind of sacred monuments."
She added, "If we think about those statues that are erected, they’re often erected by particular supporters of a particular figure or with particular legacies," she said, adding that putting up a statue of Clive in the 18th century would be like erecting a statue of Bill Gates today.
"Those are the kinds of people that had statues in this period, right when these statues were erected. But we can’t think of a Bill Gates as being sacred, that if we took down a Bill Gates statue, we’d be somehow erasing history," Sabaratnam said.
One of the main arguments made by those in favour of these statues remaining as they are is that they are part of Britain’s heritage, and memorialise figures who should not be forgotten. That however means that they end up telling only one side of the story.
"You only have the commemoration of this figure as they wanted to be commemorated or the way their contemporaries wanted to commemorate them," said Alice Procter, a writer and art historian who grew up in London. "It really does feed into this narrative of legitimacy and an uncontested singular truth of these histories, in a way that is incredibly damaging and incredibly destructive."
Many of these statues were erected years after the death of the person they commemorate, often for ulterior motives – such as to legitimise Britain’s imperial policies. Clive’s statue, for example, was lobbied for by Lord Curzon, despite the fact that Clive had been a hated figure in Britain for much of his life.
"There is a real complacency around addressing [colonial] history in Britain... at least until a few years ago, when this kind of public discussion has just massively escalated"
Britain has been especially reticent about coming to terms with its unpleasant history, but progress is being made.
"There is a real complacency around addressing [colonial] history in Britain," said Procter, "at least until a few years ago, when this kind of public discussion has just massively escalated."
Procter argues that people should be given more information and begin these important conversations before the statues are eventually moved from public spaces to somewhere more suitable where they can be used to educate visitors.
"I think in most cases, removing the statues should be the goal," she said. "But you have to slightly hold people's hands to get them there sometimes."
As the rest of Europe grapples with its colonial past, Britain is also on the verge of facing its unpleasant past. Understanding colonial history has never been more important in an increasingly polarised world, and while often dark and terrible, can be used today to build bridges between the colonisers and the colonised.
"The key thing is for [us] to understand the various ways in which they’re entangled and related to each other," said Sabaratnam.
"Understanding a shared history and shared responsibility and different heritages should bring people into a closer relationship or a more cooperative relationship. So my hope is that understanding that colonial history helps develop empathy, responsibility and cooperation."
Ali Abbas Ahmadi is a staff journalist at The New Arab.
Follow him on Twitter: @AliAbbasAhmadi2