The statue of William Beckford, Guildhall.16 minute read

The statue of William Beckford (1709-1770) stands in the Guildhall, London. Beckford is “flanked by the allegorical figures of Britannia and Commerce” (Dresser, 2007: 174), portrayed as an upholder of civil liberties. This representation, however, is filled with ironies. Despite Beckford’s depiction as libertarian whilst MP for London and Lord Mayor of London, the evidence linking Beckford to imperial slavery is monumental. Beckford’s inherited estate in Jamaica consisted of thirteen sugar plantations, and approximately 3000 slaves (History.ac.uk, 2017). This artefact was chosen due to its connotation to attitudes towards ethnic minorities and migrants in the United Kingdom (UK) today. At a time when there is pressure on the government to restrict the entry of ‘others’, resulting in the UK voting to leave the European Union (EU), we must challenge these cultural hierarchies that are informed by the legacy of empire.

This representation of Beckford, and lack of acknowledgement of those enslaved, is significant from a cultural perspective because it shows the dominance of white, European culture, and silencing of colonised people’s suffering. This essay will argue that this representation helps to uphold a “hierarchy of belonging” (Back et al, 2012) in the UK. This notion of cultural hierarchy weaves into London’s “schizophrenic space” (Gilbert et al, 1998) of being simultaneously imperial and anti-imperial to form palimpsestuous hauntings of the “legacy of racism that hold its post-colonial past present” (Back et al, 2012: 150). These cultural hierarchies are problematic because they naturalise the notion that difference is equated with “other” (Hall, 1997). They define what is constituted as ‘normal’ and who should be removed, causing profound effects on contemporary culture and contemporary politics.

Stuart Hall (1996) defines culture as a site of struggle to define how life is lived and experienced. Different cultural practices articulate the meanings of social practices and events; they define the ways we make sense of them, how they are experienced and lived (Hall, 1996: 158). This essay will use Hall’s definition to analyse the representation of Beckford within this artefact from a cultural perspective and the impact it has on contemporary culture in London. Before it is possible to fully examine this representation of Beckford this essay will explore culture and cultural hierarchies and explain why it is important to analyse cultural practices. Following this, the depiction of Beckford and the silences it produces will be scrutinised regarding both the power relations that allow these representations to occur and the space this statue consumes. Finally, the implications of these depictions on contemporary society, for migrants and the feeling of Britain being ‘colonised’, will be analysed. The essay will conclude by focussing on how we should view culture today and how this representation of Beckford should be altered to allow for marginal voices to be heard.

To fully understand the cultural implications of this representation of Beckford, it is important to investigate culture and cultural identity today, specifically hegemonic cultures. The definition above by Hall (1997) indicates that there is a struggle in society as to what should embody culture. As Don Mitchell (2000) states, we must look at the value of culture to fully understand it, because although a dominant culture may be good for one group it is not necessarily good for all. Hall (Rutherford, 1990) argues that it is through analysing cultural identities that we can assess how culture emanates. Only by looking at cultural identity as points of deep and significant difference which constitute ‘what we really are’ or ‘what we have become’ can we understand the traumatic character of the colonial experience, and the power and normalisation of hierarchies that accompanies it (Rutherford, 1990: 225).

Although London today is one of the most multicultural cities in the world, with the presence of people from 179 countries in the world (Wills et al, 2009), London is fraught with difficulty. Driver and Gilbert (1998) accurately argue that there are ‘two Londons’: a place restless chaos, difficult to render as a whole; and a site of unity, the site of imperial power and heart of the world. Historically, London has always been a cosmopolitan city, creating a home for a multiplicity of “aliens” and “ethnics” (Driver and Gilbert, 1999: 269). There is not a point in the history of London when cultural differences have not played a part in shaping the city, continuing today through a hybrid of cultures within London emanating from throughout the globe. Nevertheless, these cultures in London are not seen as equal. If we take Hall’s (1997) definition of culture, then hierarchical and hegemonic cultures are crucial to our understanding of London and the UK. Hegemony can be defined as “the concrete process by which ideology enters into larger and more complex relations of power within the social formation” (Hall, 1996: 161). In this case, Europe belongs to the ‘play’ of power which manipulate the lines of “force and consent”, to the role of dominant (Rutherford, 1990: 232). Those who do not identify as European are thus not seen to occupy an equal place in British culture. Following from hegemonic cultures, the notion of ‘otherness’ has become a popular discourse in British society: “us” against “them”.

Much of the views of hegemonic cultures and hierarchies of belonging find their roots in colonialism and the slave trade. For example, “the common-part division of people by race is in part a product of the Atlantic slave trade and of slavery” (Barnet, 2008). This point exemplifies the issues of Beckford’s representation as an upholder of liberties, precisely because he helped his division of people by race within his role in the slave trade. Although Jameson (1984) argues that the “postmodern hyperspace” of the 20th and 21st centuries are “fundamentally challenging the convenient fiction that mapped cultures onto places and peoples.”, the memory of colonialism still feeds into cultural discourses of the UK. Thus, hegemonic politics and culture needs assessing “to ‘cut into’ the processes by which a dominant cultural order is consistently preferred, despite its articulation with structures of domination and opposition” (Hall, 1996: 445).

A key way in which hegemonic cultures are manifested is through systems of representation because “representation attempts to naturalise the difference between belongingness and otherness” (Hall, 1996: 445). Representational systems are central to the processes by which meaning is produced (Hall, 1997) because they help to give meaning to culture and thereby people, objects and events. Representations and memory always involve power relations and thus we must pay attention to the complex meanings surrounding representation (Dresser, 2007). If statues and memorials are ‘memory texts’ as Dresser (2007) argues, then we must ask who was remembered and celebrated in British history and why.

This artefact’s representation of Beckford is an impediment to public memory. Cherry (2006: 684) states that memorials are not only about the subject of their representation, but also about who encounters them in the everyday life of the city. The Guildhall is free to the public, thus people of all races, nationalities and classes encounter the image of Beckford as the ‘protector of civil liberties’. The Guildhall is also used for special occasions, for example the Great Hall is “The spectacular setting for the annual Lord Mayor’s Banquet since 1502” (Guildhall.cityoflondon.gov.uk, 2017). This means that not only do the public encounter the image of a slave-owner as libertarian, but so do policy-makers. This is important; policy-makers have the means to shape policies that can build or break down cultural hierarchies, as will be outlined later in the essay. Furthermore, the Guildhall is situated in The City of London. Subsequently, Beckford does not stand on a neutral site because the City was “identified in the public imagination as the heart of empire” (Driver and Gilbert, 1999: 96). The City is palimpsestuous, invoking memories of empire which continue to inhabit the present in many ways. It is “an imperial space in a post-imperial age” (Driver and Gilbert, 1998: 18). Thus, the interaction between Beckford’s statue and people from all backgrounds problematises the representation of Beckford as an upholder of civil liberties because it upholds hierarchies in contemporary society. Consequently, to alter the power relations in play it is worth making the fact known that Beckford was a man who participated in and gained his wealth from the slave trade.

Furthermore, this monument of Beckford was commissioned and paid for by private patronage. This has important implications for the representation of Beckford and notions of who can be remembered and who cannot. Gupta and Ferguson (1992) state that the distinctiveness of societies and culture is based upon a seemingly unproblematic division of space, that groups occupy “naturally” discontinuous spaces. That the elite can build representations and memorials, such as Beckford’s, creates a power dynamic where the elite are remembered and those who are marginalised are forgotten about. This is important because, as Hall (Rutherford, 1990: 222) states, “who speaks, and the subject who is spoken of, are never identical, never exactly in the same place.” Consequently, less powerful voices are suppressed. From the perspective of many in the 18th Century, Beckford may have appeared as a protector of civil liberties because he used his power in the City of London to further William Pitt’s, the ‘great commoner’, cause. This included reforms for annual parliaments, equal representation, extension of the franchise, invalidation of general warrants, and championing the rights of the American colonies (Oxforddnb.com, 2017). However, these were the liberties of the white British, and Beckford’s actions in the slave-trading industry is viewed as abhorrent today.

Consequently, the image of Beckford as someone we should remember without acknowledgement of those he enslaved for his own wealth is challenging from a cultural perspective because, although biased, it appears objective. As Dresser (2007: 165) argues, “if monuments are about remembering, who and what gets ‘forgotten’ in public discourse is just as significant”. Enslaved and colonised people that Beckford gained his wealth from are depersonalised, made invisible so that the passer-by does not know their, nor his, entire history. This naturalises the dominant cultural hierarchies discussed above, something that the authorities in London are complicit in (Dresser, 2007). For example, Westminster Abbey contains five memorials that are linked to anti-slavery activists. However, these depict only white abolitionists as opposed to slaves who fought for their own freedom. This marginalises the experience of enslaved Africans “in favour of a self-congratulatory and nationally defensive political agenda” (Dresser, 2007: 164).  Thus, the black subject is positioned “within its dominant regimes of representation” (Hall in Rutherford, 1990: 233). The discourses that are evident through these silences of those affected by the British Empire are “discourses of exclusion” (Duncan and Ley, 1993: 6). Consequently, this exacerbates the power relations that has occurred throughout the history of empire. For example, after the abolishment of slavery the government gave a compensation of £20million, however this money went to the slave owners, not the newly freed people (Barnet, 2008). Today, this power dynamic continues in that we remember those who owned slaves but the experiences of those enslaved are forgotten and misrepresented.

The above is evident in relation to the United Kingdom itself; London’s wealth was created through the plunder of a quarter of the world, yet this is ignored. As Dorling and Tomlinson (2016: 4) state, “the majority of people under 50 only have a hazy idea of what the Empire and Commonwealth were all about.” Migration from the Commonwealth after World War Two and since have invoked “nostalgic memories of empire and memories of being white in the imaginations of white Britons” (Gilbert and Driver, 1999: 271). This is seen today through anti-immigration and anti-Islamic narratives in the media. Consequently, minority communities are positioned differently in the new ‘hierarchies of belonging’, the “fantasy of white restoration is replaced by a racial reordering, a differential inclusion that is selective and conflict-ridden” (Back et al, 2012: 140). The central foundation here is that through Beckford’s representation, and new narratives of hierarchies of belonging, difference is represented as “other”. They define what is normal: who should be included and who should be excluded (Hall, 1997). Thus, ethnic minorities are often positioned as the “unspoken or invisible ‘other’ of predominantly white aesthetic and cultural discourses” (Hall, 1996: 441). Immigrants, especially, are “created and racially scripted” (Back et al, 140). However, this is not all immigrants. White immigrants in some ways become invisibilised (Wills et al. 2009), whilst other immigrants are marked out for distinction and exclusion. Further tensions are subsequently formed because audiences are not passive (Mitchell, 2000). For example, many Black Britons today feel personally excluded by the public commemorative conventions of their country (Dresser, 2007: 165).

Consequently, a “ghostly trace” of our colonial past is incapable of being detangled from today’s culture in the UK and London (Dillon, 2005: 244). This is evident in today’s immigration laws, where the “politics of space and the politics of otherness line up very directly” (Gupta and Ferguson, 1992: 17). Culture and cultural differences are created and maintained due to power relations and hierarchies, and the restriction of immigration is “one of the main means through which the disempowered are kept that way” (Gupta and Ferguson, 1992: 17). The UK has sought to develop a “semi-permeable” border which allows in those who are seen to abide by the cultural hierarchies: white, talented and wealthy, excluding the poor and minorities (Wills et al, 2009: 260). Non-white immigrants are placed in “a national space that is not naturally theirs… their subjectivity as citizens is determined by others” (Amin, 2002: 978). The result is differential immigration statuses, leading to a divergence in entitlements, rights, and labour market experiences (Vertovec, 2007: 1025). The nature of immigration policies has a profound impact on labour supplies because migrants often arrive with poor language skills and few alternative sources of work (Wills et al, 2009: 258). This is most evident in London because many migrants reside here. However, almost half of migrants from the poorer, post-colonial, countries end up in the bottom quartile for the labour market within their first three years (Amin, 2002: 262). Thus, migrants make a significant contribution to London’s low-wage economy, they are in many ways necessary for the functioning of a global city. This contributes also to an “ethnic division of labour” in areas such as the cleaning industry (Holgate, 2005: 464). Consequently, palimpsestuous links to colonial exploitation occur because immigrants are “confined by racism and wider socioeconomic disadvantage to remain in ‘bottom-end’ jobs” (Wills et al, 2009: 258).

Furthermore, attitudes in the UK towards migrants have been negative, viewing migrants as ‘bogus’ or ‘really economic migrants’ (Vertovec, 2007: 1028). This anxiety about the ‘other’ is due to the adjustment Britain has had to make from an imperial power to a less powerful nation and because of feelings that Britain is being colonised. That the experiences of minorities are silenced through both imperial representations around our cities, as shown by Beckford’s memorial, and through the media, allows for a politicisation of immigrants. As Gilroy (2004: 165) argues, the figure of the immigrant “provides a key political and intellectual mechanism through which all thinking is held hostage.” Any problems with the UK, such as lack of housing and jobs, are blamed on immigrants, who are at the bottom of the ‘hierarchy of belonging’. Popular politics of place has led to a culture of loss and nostalgia playing directly into the hands reactionary movements (Gupta and Ferguson, 1992: 13). This “new age of racism” (Herbert et al., 2008) is most evident in the Brexit campaign. As Danny Dorling and Sally Tomlinson (2016) point out, the Brexit campaign is the “last death throes of Empire working its way out of our systems.” Brexit can be read as the legacy of white rule and white nostalgia because of the more pronounced overt ethnic discrimination that exists in Britain (Amin, 2002: 978). Arguably, much of this is related to representations of the ‘other’ discussed earlier. By silencing the experiences of the marginalised, we are unable to see the power-dynamics that occur in British culture. Instead of understanding migrants as lacking opportunities, they are stereotyped as ‘stealing British jobs’ leading to campaigns to ‘renew’ white dominance, further placing minorities at the bottom of the cultural hierarchy.

This essay has sought to analyse the representations of William Beckford’s memorial from a cultural perspective and its impact on contemporary British society. The representation of Beckford as an upholder of civil liberties, and the silencing of voices of some 3000 slaves reinforces the cultural dominance of the white European, supporting ‘hierarchies of belonging’ that marginalise minorities. This has profound consequences for British culture, as the tightening of immigration policies and Brexit have shown. Britain’s culture is focussed on the oppression of the ‘other’ grounded in nostalgia for its colonial past. To move beyond this hierarchy of culture, there must be a better hand at capturing the voices of others and a willingness to interrogate, culturally and historically, the narratives of “us” versus “them” that has been created (Gupta and Ferguson, 1992: 16). Hierarchy can be challenged by altering the narratives created by representations such as Beckford’s, for to remove them would simply “allow for amnesia” (Cherry, 2006: 665). Instead, “One must reckon with them. One cannot have to, one must not not be able to reckon with them” (Derrida in Cherry, 2006, emphasis in original). Thus, context must be given. Although a product of its time, the Beckford artefact should clearly inform the public he was a slave owner. Furthermore, we must interrogate the nostalgia for the empire and White dominance in British culture. As historian Deana Heath (Dorling and Tomlinson, 2016) has noted, our national history curriculum avoids the impact of empire on either the colonised people or the colonisers. This needs to change, for education is the only way we can move beyond the nostalgia of empire and, consequently, the hierarchy of belonging that resides in British culture.

Tara Petterson


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