Who’s afraid of Queen Victoria?
Attacks on monuments perpetuate the Victoria cult
Should Queen Victoria fall? The ongoing discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves of First Nations children on the grounds of Christian residential schools has posed this question in Canada. Public anger has unleashed a wave of demonstrations against the nineteenth-century politicians who planned these deadly institutions.
Activists in Toronto toppled a statue of the Methodist politician Egerton Ryerson, then mounted its head on a pole. Statues of Sir John A. Macdonald, formerly celebrated as a father of Canadian confederation but now reviled as the architect of residential schools, have vanished even from his hometown of Kingston, Ontario.
The moves against Ryerson and Macdonald resemble the Rhodes Must Fall campaign in Britain, which has sought to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes from its place of honour at the front of Oriel College, Oxford. They target imperialists whose policies aimed at the forced assimilation or even extinction of indigenous peoples. The symbolic decolonisation in Canada has now advanced further still, to target the figureheads of the Empire in which such attempted genocide occurred: the British monarchy.
On Canada Day, protestors in Winnipeg covered a statue of Queen Victoria with red paint, then toppled it. Having decapitated Victoria, they threw her head into the Assiniboine River. As they also toppled the statue of Elizabeth II, their actions can be seen as an expression of anger at the Crown for breaking already unfair treaties with First Nations in what became Manitoba. Jagmeet Singh, the leader of the federal New Democratic Party, spoke for Canadian progressives when he extenuated the action by observing that “the British monarchy represents a painful legacy of dispossession and colonization for Indigenous peoples who reel from those injustices until this day.”
Iconoclasm does not so much liberate Canadians from colonial history as perpetuate its reach
The fall of Victoria, which followed the defacing of her monuments in Victoria and Vancouver, British Columbia on Victoria Day, has made a stir but aroused little serious opposition. The left has met conservative grumbles with the argument that the removal of statues makes history rather than erasing it. As in Britain, historians have encouraged this conviction, maintaining that the putting up or pulling down of statues belongs to politics and has no impact on history. As Singh argued: “Taking down statues that represent the monarchy doesn’t erase the institution from history any more than honouring it out of context erases the horrors it caused.”
Yet the risk is that this iconoclasm does not so much liberate Canadians from colonial history as perpetuate its reach. The intense emotions now centred on Victoria and the determination to fix on her the evils of colonization are an inverted tribute to the ideology that once erected her statues.
In Canada, as elsewhere in the British world, Victoria’s subjects identified her person with the British Empire. After her death in January 1901, grief-stricken crowds heaped up floral wreaths at existing statues of her and soon raised new ones to her memory. This was the origin of Winnipeg’s now fallen statue of Queen Victoria. Sculpted by the British artist George Frampton, it went up in 1904. A year later, Leeds unveiled an equally imposing statue by Frampton: in strange anticipation of its Canadian cousin’s fate, it was defaced during the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 with the slogans “racist”, “colonizer” and “slave owner”.
The basis of the Victoria cult, which preachers and politicians encouraged throughout the British world, was the belief that her personal virtue not only symbolised but magically guaranteed the economic and political expansion of the settler Empire. When the Canadian Pacific Railway was completed in the year of Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, unifying Canada economically and politically for the first time, the first train from Montreal to pull into its Vancouver terminus in May 1887 had its engine decorated with a portrait of Victoria.
As an icon of her Empire, Victoria justified the exactions of the imperial state. When her grandson the Duke of York travelled to the Canadian capital of Ottawa to unveil a memorial to her in September 1901, he also decorated veterans of the recent war in South Africa, associating her with collective imperial sacrifice. Conversely, resistance to the Empire often took the form of hostility to Victoria.
By 1916, one writer noted that in India, sentries were having to guard statues of Victoria from nocturnal vandalism by the discontented population. In her lifetime, British radicals had mocked her as a Famine Queen who had engineered the mass starvation of Irish and Indians, saying that her Jubilee procession through London in 1897 should include “any remnant of the aboriginal Australians who survived the murder and rapine of the most Christian monarch Victoria”.
Destroying the material remains of colonial history is unlikely to resolve its painful legacies
This myth of sovereignty was and is so potent that it would be futile to demonstrate what was in fact the case: Victoria was not personally responsible for the dispossession or aggressive assimilation of indigenous peoples. The impetus for such policies came from the land hunger of settlers. Indigenous leaders from Canada to New Zealand recognised as much when they repeatedly but unavailingly petitioned Victoria or her colonial Governors General to step in against their oppressors. Historians have shown that her sympathy with their lives was real if fitful but that her power to intervene in colonial governments was minimal. Yet it is not the job of historical scholarship to defend statues.
Though Victoria has been fished out of the Assiniboine, it seems unlikely that she will ever return to her pedestal. What scholarship can do is to suggest that destroying the material remains of colonial history is unlikely to resolve its painful legacies.
Canada was not alone in its veneration of Queen Victoria or its vicious treatment of indigenous people, but the obstacle to genuine reconciliation today is not the Queen or even “the Crown”, but the Canadian state. The best way for Justin Trudeau’s government to allay unease about the past would be to finally implement the concrete recommendations of its own Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
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