In a previous post, the #RhodesMustFall movement appeared to be the pinnacle of anti-colonial movements at institutions in South Africa and the United Kingdom. The proposal of removing the statue of Cecil Rhodes, the former Prime Minister of the Cape Colony and ardent imperialist, grew in popularity over the past several years. Although Oriel College released a statement explaining why the university will not remove the statue from its campus, the #RhodesMustFall movement succeeded in introducing non-traditional modules to its history curriculum. Protests in the United States, with the most recent one in Charlottesville, Virginia, display a similar attitude toward Confederate monuments. Another movement, #VictoriaMustFall, has emerged from those who seek to remove representations of Queen Victoria at several British universities.
Victoria was the Queen of the United Kingdom from 1837 to 1901, as well as the ‘Empress of India.’ She became the longest-reigning monarch in British history by 1896 (a title which she retained until October 2016). Although she was subject to the rulings of Parliament, as stipulated in the Bill of Rights and Act of Settlement, she did attempt to exert a great degree of political influence. Matters that affected the British Empire, both at home and in the nations of the Commonwealth, deeply enthralled her. For much of her reign, she was the symbol of British imperialism. She directly sanctioned missions to exploit the resources of the Cape Colony, for example, the charter for which resulted in the formation of the British South Africa Company. And her presence at Royal Holloway, University of London, some may argue, praises Britain’s colonial past.
Mere months after the protest at the University of Oxford which denounced the statue of Cecil Rhodes, such protests have centered around the statue of Queen Victoria at the University of London. The #RhodesMustFall movement was instigated by university students in South Africa and further escalated by those at Oxford University. Many feel that extolling the work of British imperialists, such as Rhodes or Victoria, ignores unjust colonial actions taken by British forces and wrongly portrays a historical narrative wherein imperialists are the “good guys.” Both protests are part of a wave of decolonization attempts to remove statues from university campuses. While some claim it was part of a civilizing mission and others point to the fact that African and Asian economies greatly benefitted from the industrial spur, others have highlighted the unjust and racist motives behind colonialism.
Some individuals maintain that “[m]uch of modern racism has its roots in colonialism.” Discrimination based on racial or religious differences—from Ireland and South Africa to India and the Middle East—intensified during the reign of Queen Victoria. During her long reign, her empire saw the proliferation of the White Man’s Burden idea, the hate speech of Cecil Rhodes in South Africa, and anti-Irish beliefs among contemporary scholars.
The issue is not the statue itself, but rather the principles for which it stands. Protesters argue that such representations of the past are not historical, as they merely glorify the Empire for reasons that ignore its mistakes. Yet the protest is, by no measure, a popular movement against British colonialism. Some 43% of those surveyed believe that in the end the Empire was a good thing for the British and world economies. And only a couple hundred students signed the petition for Victoria’s removal. Perhaps the statue should thus remain on campus until the controversy can be discussed further. Despite the suggestions that the British Empire perpetuated a racist dogma, it would be neither entirely practical nor necessary to remove all traces of the past. Instead, the statutes should remain on campus and represent the beginning of open dialogue on the matter. Perhaps the Royal Holloway should take a similar approach to Oxford as they begin to create non-traditional modules within history departments. Scholars at the university should begin to rethink how they represent the British Empire and reframe their narratives about the reign of Queen Victoria. Despite the dilemma the university faces, this issue is inherently historical; by understanding this issue for what it is, scholars can begin to grapple with the historical narrative that they have learned and created.
Image Credit: Royal Holloway, University of London