One Year in the Afterlife Of the British Empire:
April 9, 2015: A statue of Cecil Rhodes is removed from the University of Cape Town, a result of the Rhodes Must Fall campaign
November 8, 2015: (approx, that’s when the news stories seem to be published) A group calling themselves “Mountain of Light” demands the return of the Kohinoor diamond to India. British historian Andrew Roberts explains that the Kohinoor belongs in Britain “in grateful recognition for over three centuries of British involvement in India, which led to the modernisation, development, protection, agrarian advance, linguistic unification and ultimately the democratisation of the sub-continent.”
November 10, 2015: Karnataka decides to celebrate Tipu Sultan Jayanti; public debate (also riots, violence) about whether he was an anti-colonial hero, religious tyrant, or both. (I suspect forced religious conversion may have been an effective rulerly practice; I suspect his tyranny may have been exaggerated by British historians for their own ends; I suspect that the decision to celebrate his birthday ten days before his actual date of birth was not an innocent one. I have a suspicious mind.)
November 25, 2015: An exhibition titled Artist & Empire: Facing Britain’s Imperial Past opens at the Tate Britain. Of this more anon.
Sometime in November, 2015: I write a trollish column about Tipu, the Kohinoor, memorialising history, and museums. (I don’t publish it, for reasons that are not political ones.) (If I was cleverer at formatting that whole column would go here: please scroll down and read it and imagine it here, in these parentheses.)
Sometime in November, 2015: I discover that Tipu’s Tiger, on display at the V&A in London, can also be viewed on the museum’s website:
Yep, they’re playing God Save the Queen.
Multiple sometimes in December, 2015: Various (three) British men explain to me that the while the British Museum makes them personally uncomfortable, at least some of the artefacts are safer there than they would be in their countries of origin, and at least it’s free. I am polite and do not draw up a list of expenses for my own visits to the British Museum (but if we are, let’s start with the cost of a language test for my visa application).
January 17, 2016: Rohith Vemula kills himself. This is a post about Britain and empire, and I don’t wish to usurp for Britain any of the credit for the violence that India’s savarna state (the HRD minister was directly involved) and society inflict upon young Dalit students. But the role of the state, the memorialising of particular national narratives (Rohith was accused of anti-national activities, obviously), the university as a site of protest against these, all are in play here.
January 19, 2016: Oxford Union students vote to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes from Oriel College, following the Rhodes Must Fall movement’s campaign.
January 29, 2016: Angry donors threaten to withdraw millions in funding, unless the college continues to honour Rhodes and his (racist) legacy. The statue stays.
January-present, 2016: Protests on Indian University campuses, protests off Indian University campuses, more students’ lives being threatened, fascinating use of colonial laws against the country’s citizens. I’d say something obvious and platitudinous but true about university campuses being a space where debating national legacies, histories, narratives, etc is possible and necessary and how that space is being gradually threatened, but this week Baba Ramdev wants to behead you for not saying “Bharat Mata Ki Jai” and it’s hard to imagine what one could say.
February 13-18, 2016: Everything is burning. It’s also Make in India week. (Is this linkable to everything else we’ve been talking about? Probably, but at the risk of losing focus. Still,) I’d be remiss if I failed to point out that the Modi government’s big development initiative also has a big steampunk cat for its symbol.
March 26, 2016: I finally go to Artist and Empire: Facing Britain’s Imperial Past (it is important to write out that title in full), and have cleverly timed things so that three of my favourite critics can come to it at the same time. By this time we’ve read some unfortunate reviews of the exhibition, so we’re aware that this isn’t going to be all that we could wish.
It is not all that we could wish. Here is a storify of our reactions, which (alas) omits the annoyed people who edged away as Maureen or I started muttering, or Paul’s amused tolerance or my face upon seeing Niall Ferguson’s Empire prominently displayed in the shop outside, next to Fanon.
Possibly the closest we can get is this George Stubbs painting (“A Cheetah and a Stag with two Indian Attendants”), which was one of the better things on display. The cheetah’s name is Miss Jenny and she has a most expressive face. I know just how she feels.
March 28, 2016: I stop by the V&A to pay homage to Tipu’s Tiger, as you do. I’m surprised by how uncomfortable its presence there makes me feel, even though I quite like the V&A. There’s lots of wandering through the “Nehru Gallery” (of course) and muttering to myself and having rude thoughts. In front of the Tipu’s Tiger display case a toddler is fascinated, and asks her mother why the tiger is eating the man. The mother pauses and then explains that the man has been very naughty. That makes me feel better.
(That unpublished column from November)
I’m a little worried about our current obsession with the Kohinoor diamond, an artefact that has for a good portion of its history passed from empire to marauding empire, even as I feel instinctive glee at the thought of Taking Back Things the British Stole. The most recent attempt to reclaim it comes from a group comprised, apparently, of Bollywood stars (of whom I’ve never heard) and businessmen. This does nothing to disprove my suspicion that this particular object is a bit like political power and the Elder Wand, in that anyone who wants to claim them is too morally suspect to be allowed to.
There is an artefact I’d like ‘back’, though. In the Victoria & Albert Museum (the V&A) in London is a musical automaton, created in the eighteenth century, featuring a tiger mauling a European man. The man is wailing piteously, the tiger is making tiger-ish noises, and contains within its stomach a small pipe organ (for, presumably, more dramatic sound effects). Once you know that this thing once belonged to Tipu Sultan it all makes a lot more sense as a symbol. It also makes the fact that it’s in a London museum rather depressing; it’s clear who “won” that round. On the museum’s website you can watch a video in which “God Save the Queen” is played on the pipe organ, which is frankly perverse. But then, historical legacies frequently are.
In India this month (had I been there, and I wish I had), and in the UK always, it would have been tempting to walk around with my copy of Tippoo Sultan’s Incredible White-Man-Eating Tiger Toy-Machine!!!, Daljit Nagra’s second collection of poems, just to provoke. Nagra is British-Punjabi and the son of immigrants, and in his first two collections he draws on all his languages (various Englishes, Punjabi, Hindi), refusing to privilege one register over the other. But to speak and write in English at all is to grapple, in some way, with history and our imperial heritage; and Tippoo Sultan’s Incredible White-Man-Eating Tiger Toy-Machine!!! is often explicitly engaged in that work.
Some of this is done through references to canon. So you have “This Be the Pukka Verse” which begins “Ah the Raj! Our mother-incarnate”; the reader can’t not have Larkin’s “This Be the Verse” and its opening “They fuck you up, your mum and dad” in her head as she reads, and so can’t help but be reminded of the effects of empire upon the rest of us. Sometimes Nagra writes his history into the canon in other ways—“The Balcony Song of Raju and Jaswinder” has its star-crossed lovers confronting the realities of caste, alcopops and Bally Sagoo before a reference to the Hampton Court maze where “we stayed in the deep trying to murder our names”. Kevin Keegan is absorbed into kabbadi; the gaze of history writing is reversed in “A Black History of The English-Speaking Peoples”. Colonial-era spelling (including that “Tippoo” in the title) is adopted and discarded at will. In “The Ascent of a Victorian Woman”, ostensibly an excerpt from a travel journal, our narrator sits in a bullock cart and listens uncomprehendingly to a stream of “Bettychudes and Banchudes” from the Indian driver who often slips seamlessly into a Shakespearean register. It’s clear who has mastery of whose language. It’s not subtle, but why would it be? The poem which shares the collection’s title begins with the poet “rifl[ing]/ through your stash/ of coolly imperial/ diction”; it ends with the word “Raj” transmuted into a tiger’s roar.
This isn’t likely to come as a revelation to anyone who hasn’t somehow missed the last century or so of English literature. Of course we deal with the legacies handed on to us by wresting control of language, of course we hybridise, of course we face, embrace, distort, play with the history that weighs us down; we show our working, are unsubtle, roar. Nagra isn’t here to offer a revolutionary theory of language but to make from it poetry that works.
None of which really explains what we should do with the Kohinoor; diamonds are notoriously less malleable than language. Perhaps we could send it (and the British royal family, and statues of Cecil Rhodes, and memorials to Winston Churchill, and everything all of this stands for) into space?
March 29, 2015: A visit to the V&A Museum of Childhood to look at a mini exhibition on Oliver Postgate and Nicholas Firmin’s work, and pay homage to another great cat. (Bagpuss has nothing to do with empire, probably.) We also go through some of the permanent exhibitions on the history of children’s culture. It turns out there are several golliwogs, scattered about the place and uncontextualised. (Okay, but it’s a child-friendly space, how much context can you give?) (Okay, but it’s a child-friendly space, how are you just going to leave those there?) (Upstairs there’s an exhibition on British child migrants, complete with a video in which adults who survived physical and sexual abuse as children talk about their experiences and we’re sickened and furious and yet I’m still thinking something like “this you felt you could address.”)