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9 April 2024updated 10 Apr 2024 12:37pm

Abolish King Charles Street

Britain must end its fetish for the empire.

By Sathnam Sanghera

In my new book, Empireworld, a work of more than 100,000 words, I argue that there is a catastrophic gap between what British people think its empire did to the world and what the world knows its empire did to the world. In order to write it, I travelled to Nigeria, Mauritius, India, Barbados and other parts of the former empire, to investigate the difference between a post-colonial world that wants to discuss issues such as reparations (for slavery and indenture) and repatriation (of imperial loot), and a former mother country that doesn’t want to listen.

But I could have just got on the bus and visited the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London. For as a group of former senior diplomats and officials point out in a new pamphlet, The World in 2040: Renewing the UK’s Approach to International Affairs, the building is packed with problematic colonial tributes which demonstrate how Britain’s approach to international relations remains trapped in the imperial past. Indeed, the building, which opened in 1866 as the base for the India Office and Colonial Office, and serves as an expression of Britain’s late 19th-century ideas about itself, is nothing short of a celebration of the British empire at its most powerful and racist.

I was given a tour of the building on King Charles Street not that long ago, and was unnerved by what I saw. There are large statues of East India Company and India Office administrators, as well as military generals dressed in togas and Roman breastplates. A Grand Durbar Court, designed for the reception of Indian dignitaries, contains allegorical statues in a style that is said to be half classical and half Indian. Elsewhere, murals by the English painter Sigismund Goetze loom over the main greeting point for visitors and celebrates the Anglo-Saxon empire, including one depicting Africa as a naked child carrying a fruit basket.

Nearby, Spiridione Roma’s painting The East Offering its Riches to Britannia (1778), originally commissioned by the East India Company for the Revenue Committee room in East India House, dominates one wall, and depicts a dark-skinned character representing India willingly offering a pale Britannia all her jewellery and treasures. Violent, bloody looting is turned into an act of peaceful benevolence. You don’t even need to get inside the Foreign Office to encounter such troubling artwork. The exterior of the building is decorated with racist reliefs in the spandrels, where Britain and Europe are depicted as authoritative and mostly-clothed “rational” men and women, whereas the “savage” colonies in Asia, Africa, America and Australasia, apparently in desperate need of Western guidance and “civilisation”, are portrayed as naked or semi-naked women with wild animals and children.

Around the back, there’s a Grade II-listed bronze statue of Lord Clive of India, whose nickname rather distracts from the fact that he actually loathed India. Writing in 1745, at the end of his first year there, he confessed that “I have not enjoyed one happy day since I left my native country,” condemning Indians as “indolent, luxurious, ignorant and cowardly”. Contemporaries and historians have blamed Clive for the Great Bengal Famine of 1770, which is estimated to have killed up to 10 million people. Described as an “unstable sociopath” by the historian William Dalrymple, Clive was unpopular when two statues, inside and outside the FCO building, were put up. In the early 20th Century, the then Viceroy of India, Lord Minto, called the proposal for the statue outside, “needlessly provocative”.

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It’s no surprise that diplomats object to all this imperial nostalgia, or that Lisa Nandy, when she was shadow foreign secretary, complained more than three years ago about colonial artwork in the building. Most diplomats are well educated, have a nuanced understanding of British history and feel the absurdity of managing international relations in such surroundings. Imagine having to meet diplomats from, say, India, under a statue of Lord Clive dressed in a Roman legionary outfit. India is not only a burgeoning superpower that will shape Britain’s future, but which has embarked on an official and sustained programme of decolonisation.

Imagine being a civil servant, surrounded by such racist art, painting black and brown people in various insulting ways, and trying to construct Britain’s response to requests for slavery reparations from Caribbean nations. Imagine formulating policy in these surroundings for Kashmir (where we sowed chaos through decisions taken during empire), or Nigeria (where we seeded instability by amalgamating the country in a crude way during empire), or Myanmar (a country ruined by decades of civil war, poverty, and authoritarian rule, all of which can be traced back to Britain’s colonial rule between 1824 and 1948).

Global interest in the legacies of colonialism is growing. As the report says: “Former colonies are making increasingly vocal demands around the need for reparations from colonialism and compensation for the loss and damage arising from historical industrial emissions.” It’s absurd that our diplomats and politicians are sometimes sitting on furniture commissioned by the East India Company when formulating policy, while surrounded by imperially nostalgic art.  

Of course, there is no possibility of change under this Conservative government, which has embarked on a culture war on empire, hoping to win votes by defending unnuanced views of imperial history. Rishi Sunak has even stated that “trying to unpick our history is not the right way forward” in relation to slavery, when “unpicking history” is precisely what historians do. But change is inevitable. Keep the art and the buildings, I say. Turn the offices, perhaps, into a Museum of British Colonialism. Lord knows, we need to understand the history better. But let’s grow up and do the international relations elsewhere.

Sathanam Sanghera appears at Cambridge Literary Festival on 20 April

[See also: The UK should stop sending arms to Israel]

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