If RHUL wants to talk about decolonizing the curriculum they should start with the “Empress of India” statue
The Queen Victoria Statue stands in the Northern Quad in Founders
The statue of Edward Colston, the 17th Century British Slave Trader, was pulled down in Bristol on the 7th of June by protestors at the BLM Protest. This comes at a time when the general British public has begun to engage in conversations about Britain’s colonial past and what statues, such as of Edward Colston, really represent in today’s climate. More broadly, this follows the BLM Protests which have been happening globally, that are addressing the ongoing issue of racism in our societies.
But at RHUL, there’s a statue of Queen Victoria with an inscription that literally reads “Empress of India”. RHUL have released statements on racism and the BLM movement, but have made no effort to address or change what could be widely regarded as a problematic and racist inscription on one of its own statues.
The toppling of Edward Colston's statue is not an attack on history. It is history. https://t.co/saJu4zHsZk
— David Olusoga (@DavidOlusoga) June 8, 2020
If the concerns are about preserving history, then how’s this: David Olusoga, a British-Nigerian Historian, Presenter and Producer, and Professor of Public History at Manchester told BBC News “Statues are about saying ‘This was a great man who did great things.’ That is not true, he [Colston] was a slave trader and a murderer.” He added in a later article that this “…is not an attack on history. It is history.”
Before the toppling of the Colston statue in Bristol, multiple petitions have been circulated over various social media platforms asking for the National Curriculum to teach children about the realities of British Imperialism and Colonialism.
It has been brought to many people’s attention that Britain’s history of colonialism and imperialism is not something that we are taught about in schools, and is something that is not generally spoken about in Britain. This has led to many being unaware of Britains Colonial History and its connections to America.
At Royal Holloway the statue of Queen Victoria is accompanied with the “Empress of India” inscription. The statue stands in the centre of the North Quad. The Royal Holloway web page states that: “Queen Victoria opened the Founders’ Building in 1886, giving us use of the title ‘Royal’ in our name, and royal visitors and patrons play a role to this day.”
— Royal Holloway (@RoyalHolloway) June 30, 2016
Queen Victoria was given the title “Empress of India” in 1877 – though the Crown had controlled India since 1858 – by Benjamin Disraeli, the Prime Minister at the time. This was done in an attempt to further the link between the monarchy and its empire. Queen Victoria during her reign ruled over Canada, large areas of India, Australia, New Zealand, some parts of South America and Africa. She ruled over nearly 25% of the worlds population.
In the light of the current events Sir Geoff Palmer, Scotland’s first black professor, as stated by BBC News, has once again called for plaques on Scotland’s statues to give a truthful account of their links to the slave trade. He argues that adding plaques to statues discussing their history would perhaps be a better move than taking statues down out of ‘guilt’.
With this in mind, it can now be asked if the statue and its inscription are appropriate and what can the University can do to move past its connections with colonial history. Therefore the question would a plaque alongside the statue discussing the meaning of ‘Empress of India’ be a step in the right direction, or would more be needed?
Jess, a third year at RHUL, told The Tab: “I feel conflicted. On one hand, the statue of Queen Victoria is an imperialistic relic of the past, on the other hand it’s a big part of Royal Holloway and the United Kingdom’s history.
“In a perfect world I’d ask the statue to be removed and an alumni like Sarah Parker Redmond to be put up instead. She’s a slavery abolitionist who attended our uni and I think it’s appropriate to replace a colonialist with a colonial abolitionist.”
Harry, a third year student, said: “I can’t say I know much about Queen Vic, so I’ll shy away from commenting on what should be done with her statue, if anything. But, I do think that some general principles are helpful in dealing with whether certain statues are better placed in museums.
“Essentially, we have to take into account the context of the time (what the prevailing views were then), the responsibility of each actor for any racist actions and the extent to which any racist views impacted upon the actions someone was known for. In the case of the slaver whose statue was taken down, he was someone whose wealth was built on slavery and rightly the statue was removed.
“However, in other cases, because for a long period of time nearly everyone was a racist, I believe it is unfair to negate the vast majority of certain individuals’ lives and their great deeds, if they happened to also be racist. Basically what I’m saying is, it matters what the person was known for, and also what they did. What are we celebrating when we put a statue up? This is an important question.”
Second year Ruh added: “For me it’s just a statue, I’ve got no beef with it. Victoria was arguably the most powerful person in history and a woman. We should remember people for the good stuff they did rather than the bad. We shouldn’t judge people by 21st century standards. The Victoria statue in Calcutta has survived many generations of mutiny and protest and each time people haven’t removed it as it’s an integral part of their history and culture.
“As someone from Indian Heritage I think it’s important to show that Indians and large part the BAME community is represented in British History. Like the empire depended on us. But to be honest, it’s just a statue and I wouldn’t lose sleep if someone took it down or moved it.”
Milo, another student, said that it was important to remember that Queen Victoria opened the Founders building and that is why the statue is there in the first place. He told The Royal Holloway Tab: “I think its tricky – Royal Holloway does have a history course about decolonising the curriculum which goes into understanding the Empire. Queen Victoria is reviewed mixedly in the modern era.
“She did a lot of social good for Britain but lived in a time in which the empire was normalised. And so therefore that reflects badly. But I don’t think the world was ready to decolonise back then. I do think that it’s important to remember the reason why the statue is there – Queen Victoria opened the Founders building. It’s not there to celebrate the empire, or to celebrate her reign. That is what it has become since then over the last century and a half or so. But more importantly, I think we have to remember that history is full of the good and the bad. It’s important to remember history so that the bad cannot be repeated. If we wipe all history with a clean slate, then what are we?
“Britain cannot simply forget the Empire. That would be ignorant and disrespectful to all of those that were colonised, and that served, and that lived in that time. You can’t pick and choose the bits of history that you like; that’s what’s gotten us in the situation we’re in today.
“That isn’t to say that we have to celebrate Victoria, or her reign, or the Empire, or the good and the bad things that came from it, it’s simply just a reminder that history connects us all in various different ways and is what shapes a lot of the world that we know today, both the good and the bad.”
The Royal Holloway Tab contacted RHUL for comment.