London’s Imperial Statues, Black Lives Matter and the Culture War

Alan Lester

I’ve been spending more time than I’d like in St Thomas’ Hospital lately. St Thomas’ is at the centre of Britain’s memorial landscape, just across Westminster Bridge from the Houses of Parliament. Thanks to the Black Lives Matter movement, I’ve become more aware of London’s imperial statuary on my walks to escape the ward.[1] The Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust has recently removed the statue of Sir Robert Clayton, President and renovator of St Thomas’, and a major shareholder in the slave-trading Royal Africa Company.[2] However, I’ve encountered many other men on pedestals who made their reputations, careers and fortunes exploiting people of colour in the British Empire.

The first thing that struck me as an historian of the British Empire was the dates of these statues’ erection. Victorian Britons professed an aversion to the “tawdry glitter” of other European empires. In the 1870s Disraeli acceded only reluctantly to Queen Victoria’s request for the title “Empress”, fearing accusations of being un-British. Statues tend not to have been erected during the period when Britons were most complacent about their global power. Most of the ones in Westminster date from the end of the Victorian and the Edwardian periods, when the Empire was facing new challenges from American and European rivals and anticolonial resistance. Britons sculpted their imperial figures not in triumphal self-congratulation, but in a desperate gesture of reclamation. Now that I’ve opened my eyes to them, I can’t stop seeing petrified imperial men around Westminster. 

Challenge and Amelioration

When protestors finally pulled down the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol last June, they drew attention to the distancing and disavowal of violence against people of colour that is generally inscribed in this late imperial British memorial-scape. Colston, like many other slave traders and absentee slave owners, was cast in bronze because he was a generous philanthropist within his community. In 1895, when his statue was erected, the source of his largesse – the savage exploitation of enslaved Africans – was overlooked. Colston and others ‘traded’ people marked by a difference of phenotype as if they were commodities. As apologists like to point out, Africans too were extensively involved in the capture and trading of other Africans, but they tend not to stand on pedestals in British towns and cities.[4]

The slave-owning system that Colston and other Britons scaled up during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries relied upon markers of physical difference – on Blackness as a proxy for inferiority. But it wasn’t just the trans-Atlantic trade in people that was facilitated by this difference.

Once relocated on colonial plantations in the Americas and the Caribbean, colonial authorities could police the mobility and behaviour of the unfree so much more efficiently if they were generally distinguished in appearance from the free. This was why slavery was such a powerful contribution to a systemic imperial racism that long outlived emancipation, and which spread far beyond the Caribbean during the 19th century. The markers of difference between free and unfree became those between planter and labourer, master and servant, citizen and subject, colonist and colonised around the British Empire as it expanded and reoriented to the east and south, conquering, subduing and colonizing people of colour in the aftermath of abolition.[5]

Fig. 1 Mary Seacole

Upon leaving St Thomas’ main entrance, the first statue I encounter bucks the trend. In 2016, the memorial of Mary Seacole was erected in a small garden in the hospital grounds.[6] Despite the addition of the woman voted Greatest Black Briton to the National Curriculum, most Britons’ schooling has left them in profound ignorance of the realities of Britain’s imperial rule and its implications for Black subjects.

A cynical interpretation would see Seacole as a relatively comforting Black figure for inclusion in what imperial apologists like to think of as “the national story”. She determinedly surmounted the racism of the Victorian Establishment in order to aid British troops fighting an imperial war against Russia in the Crimea. 

The addition of Secole’s statue, like those of Mandela (2007) and Gandhi (2015) in Parliament Square, is a good thing, even if it is ameliorative rather than transformative of conventional views of Empire. Better to have a Black British woman than another statue of a white man whose fame relied upon imperial conquest. However there are still many figures of the latter sort littering the streets around the hospital.

India and Lesser Known Imperial Conquests

Once across Westminster Bridge and around St James’ Park, the most imposing statue is of Robert Clive, the East India Company officer who helped British shareholders reap dividends from Indians, first through outright plunder and, in the longer term, through the extortion of rent. I could not agree more with William Dalrymple when he says “it is not just that this statue stands as a daily challenge to every British person whose grandparents came from the former colonies. Perhaps more damagingly still, its presence outside the Foreign Office encourages dangerous neo-imperial fantasies among the descendants of the colonisers”.[7]

Fig. 2 Robert Clive

Despite imperial apologists’ refrain, “what about the railways?”, which they seem to believe were gifted by Britons to Indians, the Company regime that Clive conceived and which first built those railways, gave very little thought to the welfare of its subjects. Governor General Dalhousie, who first promoted an Indian rail network in the 1840s, was quite explicit that the tracks would be for the benefit of British investors and producers, and that rapid rail movement of troops would enable the more effective conquest of India’s remaining independent states.

When, in 1833, the East India Company was finally prevented from pursuing further commerce, Parliament guaranteed its shareholders continued dividends of 10.5%. From then on, their income was drawn from the rent charged to Indians for the privilege of being governed by them. This ruthless rent extraction continued even throughout the famine of 1837-8 which killed 800,000 British Indian subjects – the same number, incidentally that were simultaneously freed from the apprenticeships succeeding slavery in the Caribbean. It went on under the guise of the Raj which succeeded the Company during the 1878-9 famine, which killed another 5 million.

Fig. 3 Garnet Wolseley

The next statue came into view as I wandered into Horse Guards Parade, and it led my thoughts from India to other parts of the Empire that have been relatively neglected in the culture wars. Field Marshal Sir Garnet Wolseley was Gilbert and Sullivan’s “very model of a modern Major-General”. Mounted in 1920, the plaque underneath his horse indicates the diverse sites of his military exploits: “Burmah 1852–3 / Crimea 1854–5 / Indian Mutiny 1857–9 / China 1860–1 / Red River 1870 / Ashanti 1873–4 / South Africa 1879 / Egypt 1882 / Soudan 1884–5.”

Wolseley’s first campaign experience was the result of provocation by Dalhousie’s expansionist Company government and resulted in the annexation of Lower Burma. After the Crimean campaign, Wolseley joined the army led by Sir Colin Campbell, which relieved the siege of Lucknow and brutally suppressed the Indian Uprising of 1857. Very much in accord with Charles Dickens’ call “to blot [the Indian race] out of mankind and raze it off the face of the earth,” thousands of Indian civilians were peremptorily hanged, and rebels blown to pieces by cannons in reprisal.

Three years later Wolseley was in China, helping to enforce legalisation of imported, Indian-grown, British opium. Having helped secure this lucrative imperial narcotics trade on behalf of the Treasury, he participated in the looting of Beijing’s Imperial Summer Palace. Charles Gordon, whom Wolseley would later try to save from a famously stoic death in Khartoum, complained that “These palaces were so large & we were so pressed for time that we could not plunder carefully”.

The British imperial policy which did most to shape Wolseley’s subsequent impact on the world was Confederation. It was pursued by Lord Carnarvon, Secretary of State for the Colonies, after the shock of the Indian Uprising had prompted the more integrated governance of the empire from a new building – the current Foreign Office, outside of which Clive now stands. The rationale for the policy was outlined in Charles Dilke’s popular book Greater Britain which spoke of “the grandeur of our race, already girding the earth, which it is destined, perhaps, eventually to overspread”. Dilke was quite frank that the “defeat of the cheaper by the dearer peoples” was an essential precondition for this spread of British civilization.

Carnarvon’s first step was the confederation of the separate colonies in Canada, so that they could form a better administered and more prosperous whole within this Greater Britain. In 1869, however, Métis people of mixed First Nations and French colonial descent, recognised as aboriginal to Canada, established an independent government of their own at the Red River Colony, in today’s Manitoba. They did so rather than be absorbed into the Canadian federation as Carnarvon wished. The Red River Métis declared their intention of joining the federation, but on their own terms: representation in Parliament, a bilingual legislature and chief justice, and recognition of their land claims.

Wolseley was charged with leading an expedition to put down the Red River “rebellion”. He arrived in Manitoba too late to capture any rebels, but succeeded in suppressing the most viable attempt by aboriginal people to have their interests represented in a united Canada.

Wolseley’s reputation soared in Britain. He became trouble-shooter in chief for the Empire. If independent-minded people of colour blocked British aspirations, Wolseley was the man to lead a punitive expedition against them.

His next campaign was against the Asante kingdom. In 1872, the Colonial Office was seeking to consolidate Britain’s fragmentary governmental entities on the West African coast, in accord with the larger objective of confederation in the settler colonies. This included the purchase of the Dutch Gold Coast with its port of Elmina, and its incorporation within the British Gold Coast colony. However, Elmina was also the powerful Asante kingdom’s sole remaining coastal trade outlet, and a key source of its revenue. In early 1873 Kofi Karikari, the Asante king, ordered his army to attack the British in an attempt to reclaim the port.

Wolseley’s expedition, including Black West Indian troops and Fante allies, destroyed the Asante capital Kumasi, burning down villages as it went. The expedition was justified in Britain as an attempt to end Asante practices of slavery, but used enslaved women among its 17,000 porters. The official haul of plunder from Kumasi included King Kofi’s state umbrella and a golden stool, which Wolseley gave to Queen Victoria and which are still in the royal collection.

Since the prize money from the Asante loot was considered too little to distribute among all the soldiers who participated, as Wolseley’s army field guide advocated, Disraeli’s cabinet decided to award them an extra thirty days pay in lieu. Asante gold is now in the British Museum, the Wallace Collection; the Royal Artillery mess at Woolwich; the National Army Museum and the Green Jackets Regimental Museum.[8]

Having helped bring the Asante kingdom under British “protection”, Wolseley next joined the long running campaign to bring Southern Africa’s diverse colonies, Boer republics and independent African kingdoms under confederated British rule, following the Canadian precedent. Here, his trajectory converged with that of the very next imperial man that I encountered, standing on a plinth on the Victoria Embankment, just along from the Houses of Parliament.

Antislavery and the Conquest of Africa

Sir Henry Bartle Frere had come to southern Africa as High Commissioner, also determined to effect Confederation. His reputation was that of an antislavery man of action.

After 1833 and the abolition of slavery in the British colonies in the Caribbean, the Cape and Mauritius (but not yet in India), Britons patted themselves on the back as the most benign exponents of imperial rule in history. But being antislavery did not mean that they were anticolonial or antiracist.

Fig. 4 Henry Bartle Frere

Far from discouraging further aggression against Africans, Britain’s mantle as an antislavery nation actually encouraged it. It was not just Wolseley’s assault on Kumasi that was justified as an anti-slavery intervention. As the historian Richard Huzzey explains, “Anti-slavery traditions helped to translate private interest and personal ambitions into national interest and patriotic duty ”.[9]

Bartle Frere was in the forefront of this new, moral crusade. Under Dalhousie, he had been the East India Company’s Resident in Satara, one of the first states to be annexed by the freshly aggressive Governor General. From there, Frere moved to Sind, where he installed a postal system based on Britain’s, which was subsequently adopted across India. It is often proclaimed as one of the enduring, positive, legacies of British rule. As Governor of Bombay he again sponsored modernizing, liberal projects, including the Deccan College at Pune, and a specialist college to instruct Indians in civil engineering.

Both a high churchman and a member of the Antislavery Society, Frere had long condemned what he called the “fashion of looking down on all men who differed from us in colour or in race.” He also bemoaned the British public’s general ignorance of the Arab-led East African slave trade. In March 1872, Frere invoked the original struggle of Thomas Fowell Buxton and his generation against slavery in the Caribbean, exhorting “the present supporters of the anti-slavery movement to imitate their predecessors and to be up and doing”.[10]

Fig. 5 Buxton Antislavery Memorial

(Thomas Fowell Buxton’s son Charles had also sought to revive waning British antislavery commitment, with a monument to his father’s campaign first erected in Parliament Square in the 1850s. However, in a development that Robert Jenrick would presumably oppose, it was removed in 1949 because its gothic style did not fit with a classical re-design of the Square. In 1957, on 150th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade, it was rebuilt, without its piped water and drinking cups, on Victoria Embankment, where it now sits next to Frere.)

Imperial apologists’ second most popular refrain (after “what about the railways”) is “what about the Arab slave trade”. It was this that Frere sought to draw to the attention of the British public in the early 1870s.

Although much of this continuing Indian Ocean slave trade was financed by British Indian subjects in Bombay, British outrage was becoming focused on Zanzibar’s sultan, Barghash bin Said. In 1872 the Foreign Office asked Frere if he would put his campaigning to practical use as the new British envoy to the sultan. Exceeding his instructions, Frere ordered the Royal Navy to seize any slave ships sailing between Zanzibar and the African coast. He then threatened Barghash with a total blockade. Against fierce local opposition, the sultan was forced to close the slave market in Zanzibar, end the import and export of enslaved people, and ban British subjects, including Indians, from owning enslaved people. Arab slave owners, however, were left in possession of their “property”.

By the late-1870s Frere had become a kind of civilian management consultant for the British Empire, just as Wolseley was its military trouble-shooter. Carnarvon now sent Frere to pursue confederation in southern Africa and the two men whose statues stand within a half mile of each other both ended up in South Africa.

By the time Wolseley arrived in 1879, the antislavery Frere had already attacked and defeated the Griqua, the Gcaleka Xhosa and the Zulu in a series of wars of aggression. Wolseley was despatched when it looked like things were going badly after the British defeat by Zulu at Isandhlwana, but he arrived too late to take command before Lord Chelmsford atoned for the defeat with a crushing victory, aided by Gatling guns, at the Battle of Ulundi. Wolseley would have to content himself with finishing another war that Frere had launched and paused before the Zulu campaign, against the Pedi.

Not only were tens of thousands of African people killed in Frere’s and Wolseley’s wars of South African confederation, but viable, independent societies were broken apart and families separated as the template for apartheid was laid. After the fragmentation of their kingdoms, Black South African men were obliged to engage in migrant labour, working at low wages for white employers in segregated towns and cities, their mobility policed by pass laws. Black women were left to scrape a subsistence for themselves and children in environmentally degraded reserves or take domestic service for whites. During the ensuing decades and especially after the South African War, this system was refined by British mining investors and governments. It was inherited and turned to specifically Afrikaner purposes in the guise of apartheid after the 1948 election of the Afrikaner-led National Party.[11]

Wolseley’s next war was waged to preserve control of the Empire’s main strategic lifeline. Egypt was nominally an Ottoman territory, but governed by a pasha who had become indebted to British and French financiers and governments. Its Suez Canal played a vital role connecting Britain with India and the colonies of the southern hemisphere, so when Orabi (sometimes spelt Urabi) Pasha, a soldier in the Pasha’s army, led a rebellion against indirect Anglo-French control in 1882, the British government intervened. One of Orabi’s demands was for an Egyptian parliament like the ones that liberal Britons demanded for themselves, but which they consistently denied colonised people of colour. His was a proto-nationalist rebellion which predated that of Nasser by some seventy years.

After British ships had shelled Alexandria, Wolseley’s troops suppressed Orabi’s revolt at the Battle of Tel el Kebir, killing some 2,000 Egyptians. In 1883, Wolseley returned to the region to put down the revolt led by the ‘Mahdi’, a religious leader of Sudanese groups resisting control by the British-backed Egyptians and objecting to the Ottomans’ lax version of Islam. General Gordon had been sent to Khartoum to oversee the withdrawal of Egyptian troops but had chosen to remain there. At the Battle of El Teb, en route to try to save him, 2,000 of the Mahdi’s followers, whom the British called “Fuzzy Wuzzies”, were killed, and 2,500 more killed thereafter at the Battle of Tamai.

What to do with all the Statues

Statues have become central to today’s culture wars not so much because Colston’s was pulled down by protestors last summer, but because the government chose to fuel a backlash against Black Lives Matter with scare stories of “woke militants” tearing down more statues and accusations that organisations like the National Trust are indoctrinating visitors with self-flagellating rants about slavery.

It should not be necessary to point out to the highly educated Prime Minister and his ministers the distinction between “the past” and “history”, but since they have so often conflated the two, with claims that the past is being “edited”, “censored” or “attacked” by protestors, and that “history” is being lied about, a basic lesson seems requisite. In raising awareness of the racialized and brutal nature of British imperial rule, historians and activists are not seeking to, and nor could anyone ever, change “the past”. “The past” is the sum total of everything that has already happened to anyone anywhere to date. It is done. It has gone and it cannot be changed. “History” is the necessarily far more selective stories about the past that we choose to tell, and the better grounded in diverse evidence that survives from the past, the better it tends to be.

In raising awareness of uncomfortable aspects of the past that have been overlooked or buried by previous generations of historians, today’s historians and community activists are doing history, adding to it, not undermining it. In seeking to decolonise our teaching we are not reducing it; we are expanding it.

For all Frere’s antislavery credentials, it is indisputable that both he and Wolseley behaved as if Black lives mattered little compared to white lives. The main purpose of the latter’s career was the subjugation of independent Black societies to serve British interests. The argument that these were men of their times rings true, even though these particular men were directly responsible for much more killing than most of their contemporaries. However, it is precisely a clear eyed awareness of what those times were and how we might wish to commemorate those who contributed most to them that is needed today.

Across Britain, and much to the chagrin of the government, communities and local authorities are engaged in a re-evaluation of our memorial landscape, but in the current government’s defence of statues there is an echo of the era of imperial decline when those statues were put up. Symbols like the Union Jack and statues of imperial men are being more aggressively valued as Britain’s real geopolitical power subsides yet further in the wake of Brexit. Comfort, and perhaps votes too, are to be found in national pride.[12]

Defending a nostalgic, romanticised, self-congratulatory and often patently false image of the past, however, is no way to ensure the wealth and well-being of a diverse British society in the future.

Now that the government has made it all but impossible for controversial statues to be removed to museums where they can be properly contextualised, perhaps we can do the next best thing: wherever site constraints allow, use statues as focal points for educating Britons about their connections with peoples and places that are distanced and disavowed in a narrow, white-centric “national story”.

We should see, and many are now seeing, the intensification of controversy over statues as an opportunity to educate Britons more, and not less, about the diverse and complex history of the British Empire and the depth of scarring that its racist constitution has imprinted on our society.

Wolseley’s and Frere’s statues, for instance, could enable us to consider Britain’s role in the Indian Uprising and Opium Wars; the plunder of Asante treasures and the debate over repatriation from British museums; Confederation’s role in creating the geographical template for apartheid in South Africa, and the story of early Egyptian nationalist resistance.

At the same time, we could follow the advice of the imperial historian Philippa Levine. Her suggestion for resolving the dispute about Cecil Rhodes’ statue in front of Oriel College, Oxford is to “invite a black British artist, perhaps a Zimbabwean or South African, to shape a memorial to those whose sufferings made Rhodes wealthy enough to endow Oriel, or a piece that spells out a critique of the colonial mindset”.

The statues of Gandhi, Mandela and Seacole in Westminster are all well and good. We need more such memorials of Black figures. But one effect of colonialism itself has been the suppression of our knowledge and understanding of the lives of millions more British subjects of colour who cannot be represented in such an individualist form. Here, as Levine notes, we need public “art that is more innovative and passionate than the dull formalism of statuary and plaques can ever be”.[13]





[5] Alan Lester, Kate Boehme and Peter Mitchell, Ruling the World: Freedom, Civilisation and Liberalism in the Nineteenth Century British Empire, Cambridge University Press, 2021



[8] Thanks to Mary-Ann Middlekoop for information here.

[9] Richard Huzzey, Freedom Burning: Anti-slavery and Empire in Victorian Britain, Cornell University Press, 2012, p. 133.

[10] The Anti-Slavery Reporter, 30 March 1872.

[11] Alan Lester, Etienne Nel and Tony Binns, South Africa Past, Present and Future, Prentice Hall, 2000.

[12] Compulsory worship of national symbols is the sure sign of a culture in decline | Politics | The Guardian


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