Ghosts at the Feast: Britain, Memorials, and the Specter of Empire

Amid Confederate memorial debates in the U.S., and in the second installment of our series “The Monuments Among Us,” Erstwhile contributor Travis R. May (PhD candidate, CU Boulder) reflects on memorialization in Britain and parts of its former empire. The first in our series treats Bears Ears National Monument.


Delhi’s Coronation Park.

In 1877, the British viceroy Lord Lytton organized and hosted a feast of unprecedented splendor and opulence just outside the city of Delhi. The durbar celebration, held to honor the ascension of Queen Victoria to the title of Empress of India, lasted a full week. Feeding some sixty-eight thousand maharajas, satraps, and officials the finest culinary delicacies that money could buy, it may well have ranked among the most expensive single meals in human history.[1] In the surrounding countryside, even as the British colonial administrators and their local favorites supped and dined on gourmet luxuries of all variety, at least one hundred thousand impoverished Indians succumbed to famine and disease, their skeletal remains often left exposed to the elements and carrion beasts on the highways and in the ruins of their homes in depopulated villages. Millions in India died between 1876 and 1878 in an even greater calamity in raw numbers than the one that had befallen Ireland during the potato blight years of the 1840s: both Ireland and India suffered enormously as a result of their treatment as colonies in the British Empire, and both crises were exacerbated by liberal economic dogma that forbade government interference in the marketplace, no matter how horrible the consequences for colonial subjects.

Today, there are no pavilions or pageants at the Coronation Park in Delhi (which hosted subsequent durbar celebrations honoring Edward VII in 1903 and George V in 1911). After India secured independence from British rule in 1947, the park was slated to become an exhibition area, where the new government could move contentious colonial-era statues for display as historical artifacts in their proper context. To this end, Indian authorities commissioned the construction of nineteen plinths, and a handful of statues from the Raj were actually moved there, the most famous among them an enormous statue of George V that had once sat in the shadow of the India Gate First World War memorial. The relocation and preservation project was eventually abandoned due to lack of public interest and lack of funding, however, and now the park and the statues stand largely neglected, their features eroded by the elements and their plinths bereft of identifying inscriptions or other information of historical value.[2] The park has taken on the air of a Soviet statuary graveyard—a place where troubling or painful reminders of the past have been consigned to the dustbin of history.[3] There are certainly museums in India where potentially controversial British figures like Queen Victoria remain prominently displayed in the form of monumental statues, but there are many other instances—like Coronation Park—where such statues have been removed or repurposed or even left to rot by Indians since the end of colonial rule.[4]


Durbar Celebrations in Delhi, 1877.

While the current debate over the fate of Confederate memorials rages across the United States in the wake of the recent traumatic events at Charlottesville, the United Kingdom and the former colonies of the British Empire have experienced parallel arguments over the future of imperial monuments. The historical context is, of course, very different: the Confederate monuments honor individuals who betrayed their country in order to support the creation of an acquisitive slave state by taking up arms against the federal government. British imperialists, on the other hand, often enjoyed the official sanction of their government as they plundered land, cattle, and mineral wealth (to say nothing of cheap labor) from indigenous populations across the globe—all of this was just another day’s work under the aegis of the “civilizing mission” and the “White Man’s Burden” that left millions dead from the cumulative devastation of overt violence, disease, and famine.  There are no traitors or rebels here, because the government of the United Kingdom during the imperial period was never subsequently dissolved or overthrown. Today’s government in the United Kingdom then is essentially a somewhat more democratic continuation of the ones that presided over the partition of the globe—albeit one upon which the sun has mostly set now. And, although the imperial project disproportionately padded the pockets and bolstered the esteem of upper crust “gentlemanly capitalists,” it also provided work to Britons from all walks of life, from the merchant mariners of Liverpool to army veterans who went abroad as colonial policemen in Shanghai to textile workers in Dundee.[5] And so, while certain segments of the British population have been ardent anti-imperialists since the nineteenth century, the legacy of imperialism runs deep in the veins of the British nation.

As the historian Yasmin Khan recently remarked, Britain itself seems to have developed a collective “amnesia” of empire—an unwillingness or an inability to recognize Britain’s checkered imperial past.[6] And among those who are aware of the empire, there is little sense of contrition for the damage it caused: in 2014, more than three times as many Britons felt “proud” of their former empire than ashamed by it, and that number has not changed appreciably in recent years.[7] This fact is reflected vividly by the very different treatment afforded British imperial memorials and statues in the former colonies and the metropole in the wake of decolonization: while many colonial-era memorials have been decommissioned, repositioned as historical artifacts in museums, or even destroyed by newly independent countries,[8] similar efforts in Britain have repeatedly met with failure.[9]


The Cecil Rhodes statue, formerly on the University of Cape Town campus.

The most recent and illustrative example of this divergence is the #RhodesMustFall movement, which began in March 2015 in South Africa. Cecil Rhodes, born into a family of modest means in Britain, emigrated to the Cape Colony in 1870. Within twenty years, he had become the richest man in Africa by way of shrewd investment and ruthless operation of the diamond mines in Kimberley—his enterprise became known as the De Beers Group, the world’s largest diamond business. Its profitability relied on the extensive exploitation of cheap labor performed under dangerous working conditions by indigenous peoples from all across southern Africa. Rhodes subsequently served as prime minister in the Cape Colony, founded the British South Africa Company that violently seized two colonies to the north that were then named after him, and established a charitable fund that continues to award academic grants to study at the University of Oxford. There can be no question that Rhodes was an unabashed imperialist who aspired to paint the map of Africa British red “from Cape to Cairo,” and he once went so far as to claim that he would “annex the planets” if he could but reach them.

The protests began when students petitioned to have a large statue of him removed from the campus of the University of Cape Town on the grounds that he was a racist and an imperialist, and that there was no place for the commemoration of a white supremacist at a public university in the multiracial, post-apartheid South Africa of the twenty-first century. Beyond hoping to remove the Rhodes statue, the movement also aspired to combat institutional racism and to open higher educational opportunities to a larger number of black South Africans, who remain underrepresented in universities more than twenty years after the end of the apartheid regime. After a month of demonstrations, which included activists throwing human feces on the statue, the university’s council voted to get rid of the Rhodes memorial, and on 9 April 2015 it was removed from campus.[10] This victory did not end demonstrations, and the movement has continued to press for the “decolonization of education” in South Africa via provocative and controversial actions, including vandalizing other statues, destroying administrative offices and vehicles, and burning paintings of prominent white South Africans seized from campus buildings.[11]


In the era of social media, the fallout of the #RhodesMustFall campaign at the UCT campus quickly spread across other college and university campuses in South Africa, where colonial and apartheid-era artwork and statues were vandalized, destroyed, or removed from public display. It also became a rallying cry at the University of Oxford, where another prominent statue of Rhodes at Oriel College became the subject of controversy. Activist students demanded the removal of the statue and a simultaneous “decolonization of curriculum” to better represent non-white cultural contributions. Although the campaign generated significant enthusiasm among those looking to expose the “blind spot” of Britain’s imperial past, and gathered thousands of supporters via social media, the outcome at Oxford was very different than at UCT. After initially promising the creation of a consultation group to review the continued placement of the statue, in January 2016 the administration was cowed by pressure from wealthy donors, who threatened to pull well over £100 million in endowment funds if the statue was removed.[12] In what should by now be a familiar refrain to those observing the Confederate monument debate, conservative newspapers accused protestors of attempting to destroy history and of being overly coddled by liberal university environments. The statue remains in place on campus, despite continued protests during the 2016-2017 academic year.

And so more than half a century after the end of formal empire and the beginning of the decolonization process that unfolded in the colonial world from the late 1940s through the early 1960s, it should come as little surprise that London remains a city of statues and memorials honoring imperial heroes. To name just a few of these imperial relics: a statue honoring General Charles “Chinese” Gordon, killed by the Mahdists at Khartoum in 1885, stands in a prominent location on the Victoria Embankment, near the Ministry of Defence building; the explorer James Cook’s likeness is located at an entrance to St. James’s Park; Robert Clive—the victor at Plassey in 1757 and the man most responsible for the initial conquest of India—has a statue at Whitehall, directly above the Churchill War Rooms; General Garnet Wolseley’s statue is positioned in equestrian splendor at Horse Guards. And outside the seat of government at the Palace of Westminster, the shadow of the empire continues to looms large. Parliament Square is chock-full of imperial figures. Winston Churchill’s statue stands with his trademark dogged resoluteness, as though he still is facing down Nazi Germany. Nowhere is it noted that he allowed millions of Bengalis to die in a cataclysmic famine during the Second World War, or that he once remarked that he hated Indians, whom he described as “beastly people with a beastly religion.”[13] General Jan Smuts, the South African prime minister who paradoxically proved instrumental in the foundation of the League of Nations and its successor the United Nations while harboring deep-seated racist and segregationist beliefs, also has been represented in statue on Parliament Square since 1956.

These imperial heroes now stand awkwardly in conversation with statues honoring a few of history’s most famous anti-imperialists, including South Africa’s Nelson Mandela since 2007 and India’s Mohandas Gandhi since 2015.[14] Perhaps this promising development represents the first, small step towards acknowledging the courage of oppressed, colonized peoples, and exposing the racial violence and economic exploitation of Britain’s colonial enterprise. But until more Britons (and their government) begin the process of honestly assessing the past and especially the devastating consequences of the British Empire for many colonized peoples, it seems unlikely that the controversy surrounding imperial monuments will truly fade away.

[1] Mike Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts: El Nino Famines and the Making of the Third World (London: Verso, 2002), 28.

[2] Steve Coll, “Things to Think About When Taking Down Statues,” The New Yorker (New York City, NY), August 31, 2017, ;  “Coronation Park: legacy of the raj,” The Indian Express (Mumbai, India), November 27, 2008,

[3] Atlas Obscura, “Fallen Monument Park,” Atlas Obscura (Brooklyn, NY),

[4] Stephen Heathorn, “Angel of Empire: The Cawnpore Memorial Well as a British Site of Imperial Remembrance.”  Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History, Vol. 8, No. 3 (Winter 2007),  The Victoria Memorial stands as evidence that not all vestiges of India’s colonial past have been scrubbed clean since the beginning of the independence era. The memorial functions as a history and art museum, and large statues of Queen Victoria and George Curzon, the viceroy who commissioned the project, are well maintained on its grounds. On the other hand, statues of Curzon have been removed from other locations, and the Cawnpore Memorial Well has been repurposed via the placement of a statue of the rebel leader Tantia Topi.

[5] P.J. Cain and A.G. Hopkins, British Imperialism, 1688-2000 (Harlow: Pearson Education Ltd., 2002); John M. MacKenzie, “‘Comfort’ and Conviction: A Response to Bernard Porter,” The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, Vol. 36, No. 4 (2008), 659; Robert A Bickers, Empire Made Me: An Englishman Adrift in Shanghai (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003).

[6] Yasmin Khan, “Dunkirk, the War and the Amnesia of the Empire,” The New York Times (New York City, NY), August 2, 2017,

[7] Will Dahlgreen, “The British Empire is ‘something to be proud of’,” YouGov (London, UK), July 26, 2014,

[8] Richard Scriven, “Charlottesville Statue: ‘Many Monuments to British Figures were Destroyed or Removed in Ireland Too,’” (Dublin, Ireland), August 19, 2017, In the Irish case, a column honoring Lord Nelson was blown up in Dublin in 1966.

[9] Paul Kelso, “Mayor Attacks Generals in Battle of Trafalgar Square,” The Guardian (London, UK), October 19, 2000, For example, “Red” Ken Livingstone, the Labourite Mayor of London from 2000 through 2008, made the removal of statues of Generals Henry Havelock and Charles Napier (who participated in suppressing the Indian Rebellion of 1857) from Trafalgar Square a priority early in his administration. Due to public apathy and backlash from conservative circles, nothing ever came of this initiative, and Havelock and Napier’s statues are still flanking Nelson’s Column to this day.

[10] British Broadcasting Company, “Rhodes Statue Removed in Cape Town as Crowd Celebrates,” BBC News (London, UK), April 9, 2015.

[11] Kaveel Singh, “Parliamentary Committee Condemns UCT Violence,” News24 (Cape Town, South Africa), February 18, 2016,; Zunaid Ismael, “’One bullet, one settler’, says RMF”,, April 14, 2015. The #RhodesMustFall protestors have subsequently been involved in a number of other scandals as well, including backing a student leader who heaped praise on Adolf Hitler, and ending official communiqués with the incendiary, apartheid-era phrase “One Bullet, One Settler!” seemingly a call to racial violence.

[12] Javier Espinoza, “Cecil Rhodes statue to remain at Oxford University after alumni threaten to withdraw millions,” The Telegraph (Jersey, United Kingdom), January 29, 2016,; Harry Gosling, “Majority of Oxford Students: Rhodes Should Stay,” Cherwell (Oxford, United Kingdom), January 14, 2016, It should also be noted that a poll conducted by Cherwell, a weekly student newspaper at Oxford, suggested that a majority of Oxford students disagreed with the #RhodesMustFall campaign to remove the statue, although among minority students more supported the campaign than opposed it.

[13] Churchill By Himself: The Definition Collection of Quotations, ed. By Richard M. Langworth (New York: PublicAffairs, 2008), 164.

[14] Greater London Authority, “Parliament Square Garden,” By Himself, 342. Churchill had notoriously little regard for Gandhi’s accomplishments in life, and slandered him as a “seditious Middle Temple lawyer…now posing as a fakir of a type well-known in the East, striding half-naked up the steps of the Vice-regal palace, while he is still organizing and conducting a defiant campaign of civil disobedience, to parley on equal terms with the representative of the King-Emperor.” It is interesting to contemplate the surprise and horror both Churchill and Smuts would have felt had they known that their immortal monuments would one day sit across a narrow strip of grass from their bitter rivals.

3 thoughts on “Ghosts at the Feast: Britain, Memorials, and the Specter of Empire

  1. Pingback: What’s in a Name? Louisville’s City Parks as Sites of Learning | Erstwhile: A History Blog

  2. Pingback: Moving away from monuments: Doing southern history well at two South Carolina house museums | Erstwhile: A History Blog

  3. Pingback: Reckoning with the Past: Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial as Model | Erstwhile: A History Blog

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