The statue of Major-General Robert Clive17 minute read


The statue of Major-General Robert Clive (1725-1774), also known as Clive of India, erected in 1916, now stands proudly between the Treasury and the Foreign Office. The statue commemorates Clive’s actions in India in the mid-eighteenth-century yet there was little call for his immortalisation in bronze until 1907, and at that point, his grave remained unmarked and forgotten. This is an important aspect that we will explore later in the main body of the text. A key focus of my analysis is what this statue, and other similar statues, represent. In this case, does the figure of Clive celebrate colonial history or does it convey the power and brutality of colonialism?

figure one
Figure 1

To address the commemoration of Clive in this manner through a cultural perspective may initially seem difficult. Particularly, given the definition of culture being often perceived as loose and thus hard to pinpoint. (Apte, 1994) There is suggestion that culture does not exist but is an idea constructed as means to ‘order, control and define others’ in the pursuit of profit’ (Mitchell, 2000). This idea of ‘culture’ strongly resonates with the perception of Clive and the East India Company. In this essay, I will analyse culture as bi-product of empire building that is intrinsically linked to the power. Through analysis of what the statue shows and does not show we can unravel the changing relationship between our nation and its’ violent history.  At conception, the statue was a means to celebrate the individual as well as British overseas rule. However, I will address the changing perception of Clive’s statue and the cultural implications of it remaining in its prominent position including how we may view this Imperial palimpsestuous object from a contemporary perspective.

To understand the cultural significance of the statue, we must first understand how it came to being and why it was erected long after the pinnacle of Clive’s military career. Following Clive’s death in 1774 it took 138 years before the statue was commissioned. In ‘Clive: The Life and Death of a British Emperor’ Harvey depicts Clive in a manner that is extremely open to interpretation. (Harvey, 1998) Do we view Clive as a pioneer who sought to open the door to a new world or as a cruel tyrant who sought to increase his wealth at the expense of a whole nation? (Dalrymple, 2015) In 1773 Clive faced the task of defending his actions in India in front of a parliamentary committee. Perhaps both confirming the brutality of his actions in India and providing explanation regarding the time between Clive’s death and the commissioning of his statue.  Lord Curzon, who at the time was the Governor General in Indian, believed it necessary to honour to the de facto founder of the British Empire in India. Through an article in the Times, in 1907, Curzon managed to gain overwhelming public support to fund the statue of Clive. This was on the back of contemporary sentiment of ‘national pride and jingoist superiority over the native populations of the subcontinent.’ (Geppert & Muller, 2015) The context of resurgence in support for Clive was a movement towards legitimising past actions and the conveying the concept of an ‘imperial nationality of British subjecthood’. (Gorman, 2006) Although the construction of this memorial to Clive, in such a prominent position, seeks to inspire pride in the empire. It also facilitates long-term critical analysis which may result in less support for an imperial nationality, therefore, shortening the life of any contemporary positive imperial sentiment. The nature of the source of funding for the statue of Clive, partially through public donations, links back to the notion of a changing relationship between our nation and it’s violent history. In this sense, the statue of Clive and its reception serves as a palimpsest of sentiment towards empire.

The first point of discussion surrounding this imperial artefact will centre around how it conveys power and brutality of the individual, Clive, and the British Empire.  This essay will argue that the statue of Clive communicates a particular version of empire and colonialism as well as acting as a symbolic monument to celebrate imperial power. The figure itself features three reliefs of crucial turning points of Clive’s actions in India.

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Figure 2

They depict a British narrative of Clive’s Indian campaign, and therefore this raises the issue of “power-geometry” about this artefact. (Massey, 1994) In the reliefs, the Indian people do feature however they are portrayed as submissive, defeated and to an extent the servants of the British. Viewing Clive’s actions through this prescribed lens suggests that certain groups may feel alienated and excluded by the Anglo-centric and Imperial narrative.  This suggests the ability of individual monuments to “produce and sustain social meaning” which relates to the concept of ‘palimpsest’ as we can only analyse the meaning of this statue from a ‘palimpsestuous’ perspective. (Cosgrove & Jackson, 1987) This is supported by Dillon who composes that ‘the present of the palimpsest is only constituted in and by the presence of texts from the past as well as remaining open to further inscription by texts of the future.’ (Dillon, 2005) This is due to the changing public opinion of Clive, and more generally empire, since the death of Clive and more importantly since the erection of this statue. Therefore, we can see this artefact as a palimpsest of the changing relationship between our nation and its violent history. The construction of imperial artefacts serves to convey a certain message to those engaging with imperial spaces. Mitchell questions the existence of culture as an idea constructed as a means of control and to ‘define others’ in the pursuit of personal gain. (Mitchell, 2000) If we relate this idea to the statue of Clive, this would suggest it was constructed as a means of control and as a reminder to British colonial subjects of the power and dominance of the British Empire. In essence, this creates a sense of ‘othering’ which seeks to highlight fabricated differences between British Citizens and those throughout the rest of the Empire. (Nguyen, 2010) To some extent, this negative message is still conveyed by this statue to those visiting London and particularly to individuals from the Commonwealth Nations.

Apart from conveying power and the brutality of global imperialism, it is possible to see the statue of Clive as a means to celebrate the legacy of Britain’s past empire and its contribution to contemporary London. It is indeed difficult to separate the cultural geography of London we see today from its past ‘roots’. (Schneer, 1999) Mainly because London is considered an imperial city shaped by past empire and colonialism through large-scale projects and erection of statues to project prestige and create imperial spaces. The idea presented by Said that the ‘British empire integrated and fused things within it’ echoes the suggestion by Schneer that overseas actions of individuals such as Clive significantly shaped Britain and London. (Said, 2014) This draws us back to the statue of Clive being seen as a palimpsestuous object physically signifying London as a social palimpsest. It is often difficult to know where to look for evidence of this in a city of intertwined palimpsests of various empires and areas. However, in the case of this Imperial artefact, we can perceive the strong connection between the physical and social aspects of this palimpsest. Such a link can obviously encompass accurate social representations as well misrepresentations. This suggests that the construction of this statue to celebrate our imperial heritage celebrates Curzon’s, and other supporters with similar views, comprehension of the empire which may not be wholly accurate but rather formed by differing yet intertwined perspectives and accounts. The nature of the formation of this social palimpsest, therefore, echoes my earlier suggestion that imperial palimpsestuous objects are not a complete and accurate record of the past but in fact selectively magnify some aspects of history while omitting others. In this case, the image reflects Clive’s power and governance with no mention of the death, famine or public uproar created by his actions. The perceived power conveyed by this statue of Clive relates to the critique of how geographies of inclusion and exclusion are made through figures and objects such as this.  We are led to question whose history this sculpture conveys and how effectively power was, and now is, communicated through this form?  The statue serves to extend a political system to those viewing it, this in essence summons figures from that past that we remember in our cities to ‘tell us who we are, who we ought to be, or who we want to be’. (Carnes, 2017)

However, the ability of the statue of Clive to express authority, power and a prescribed political system appears to be far less significant than it would initially seem. Through its ability to act as a mnemic symbol, the Statue of Clive leads us to question the past and present influence of empire.  Cities can be ‘places where ghosts can gather, uncannily and spookily’ however ‘they are also places of mourning and forgetting’, where people simply live through the ordinary violence of everyday life. (Pile & Thrift, 1996) The statue of Clive can be seen as a ‘ghost’ of past empire which can be related to new cultural geography which broke past the dependence of environmental determinacy. Although we can consider the ‘signs and significations’ of cultural objects as a means to define less powerful groups in a manner prescribed by the more powerful groups. (Harvey, 1989) However, these ‘oppressed’ groups are not just a product of those who are more powerful. If we look at the concept of ‘superorganicism’, we can conclude the culture is a tangible entity, however, the individuals living with or under such a culture are not purely defined and shaped by it.  The reliefs on the statue of Clive are important both for what they show and for what they neglect to show. By emphasising how Curzon recounted the history of Clive we have a monument which fails to represent the people of India. Therefore, the statue of Clive now presents an outdated recollection of events whereas individuals, particularly the Indian people, can compare their views to those presented. This may serve to weaken the legitimacy of any apparent power and prestige communicated through the statue. Overall, to draw once again on Mitchell, ‘culture is a product of asymmetric power relations and therefore cannot be devoid of critical, political theory’. (Mitchell, 2000) Such asymmetry ultimately weakens the long-lasting ability of imperial artefacts such as this statue of Clive to convey power and the legitimacy of past empire.

To comprehend the cultural implications of the statue of Clive of India, we must address the changing reception to both Clive and the memorial of this iconic individual. Through this, we will be able to analyse the changing relationship between a nation and its violent history. The focus will be to breakdown the suggestion that public sentiment towards Clive fluctuated with the success, and perception towards, the British Empire. (Bowen, 2004) Following Clive’s accumulation of vast wealth through his campaigns in India, he became the scapegoat ‘nabob’, a derogatory term for East India Company (EIC) employees, for all those who profited from the East India Company’s questionable actions in the East which questioned the legitimacy of British colonialism. (Mycock & Loskoutova, 2010)

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Figure 3

However, following his death in 1774, we witness a change in the public perception of Clive which is when we begin to witness the cultural implications of Clive and empire on contemporary London. Critically, member of the EIC’s harsh past actions became more accepted in the wake of the Indian Mutiny of 1857. The national perception, at the time the statue was erected, was that Clive and similar other individuals sought to bring order to other nations echoing a poem focussing on Nicholson, a British General during the mutiny. (Andrews cited in Silvestri, 2009)

‘Great warrior, ever brave as thou were kind

Thy sword was drawn to bring back gentle peace,

Not to work endless vengeance. Thy pure mind

Looked onward to the time when wars should cease’

The study of Nicholson draws clear parallels with the Statue of Clive with both individuals painted as fighting for long term peace and collectively prosperity and not to profit from and dominate other civilisations. However, this is not reflected in the ability of imperial artefacts to alienate specific groups by seeking to highlight perceived or cultural distinctions and by serving as a reminder of such differences through a form of colonial othering. (Nguyen, 2010) As with the statue of Clive, Andrews’ poem regarding Nicholson’s statue demonstrates that issue that ‘place can be a political project’. (Massey, 2004) The statue of Clive is certainly no different, the reliefs shown and the placement of the statue itself seeks to impress upon passers-by the power and significance of past empire. Although, Nicholson is illustrated as a worn soldier in comparison to Clive’s almost regal appearance, suggesting that the excesses of the EIC became less acceptable as time went by. However, the support for imperial artefacts is highly dependent on the current domestic situation. Immediately following the Great War, the extent to which overseas actions affected those at home led to a general distaste towards overseas aggression and control. (Gilbert & Driver, 1998) Clive’s representation by the media leading up to WW2, as the Great War became more of a memory, further improved his image as well as the perception of the British Empire as positively impacting upon London. (Jacobs, 2011) In this way, Clive’s statue acts as a palimpsest of the changing relationship between the nation and empire.  It emphasises that contemporary political and military factors altered how this sculpture is viewed more so than the actions of the individual it represents.

However, in recent years there been a significant resurgence in anti-imperial sentiment. This applies to the Statue of Clive as well as other imperial artefacts and spaces of empire in London. Therefore, reinvoking the discussion regarding the role of divisive monuments and whether they are ignored, seen as a positive reminder of past atrocities or as an object supporting and condoning past imperial action. The ability of Clive’s statue to conjure discussion regarding the ‘past, present and future’ is a key argument supporting the suggestion that imperial artefacts, such as this, should not be removed (Cherry, 2006). Removing the statue may convey the idea that any past atrocities are being ignored and are not seen as worthy of discussion anymore?  There is the argument that removing such statues ‘has the potential to harm our understanding of History.’. (Rohrer & Dresser, 2015) Therefore, the statue of Clive can help remember the actions of the past and allows those viewing the statue to reflect, thus ‘summoning its ghosts and demanding a reckoning’. (Mace, 2017) Overall, when a nation transitions from being a colonial to post-colonial state some certain remaining aspects such as the statue of Clive take on particular significance serving as both a source of reminder and unravel ‘the geographies of broader political and cultural shifts’. (Whelan, 2002)

The power of imperial artefacts also arises through their multifaceted ability to be used as sites of protest with their removal possibly being seen as symbolic as their erection. (Whelan, 2002) The subject of ‘Iconoclasm’, literally the destruction of icons, is currently a keenly debated topic around the world. The representation of Clive displayed in London sees him holding a sword in one hand and a parchment in the other, drawing comparisons to Nicholson ruling by pen and by the sword. This image suggests that to force our laws on foreign lands the threat and actions of violence were necessary. However, if we sought to remove the statue of Clive would it help lessen past wrongs? This also raises the question whether imperial artefacts should be moved, rather than destroyed, and relocated to a commonplace seen in both Delhi, with colonial artefacts and Budapest with Communist statues. The need to educate current generations so that past mistakes are neither forgotten nor repeated would go some way towards alleviating the ‘power-geometry’ created by the legacy of imperialism and ultimately allow reconciliation and a reduction of the ‘othering’ power conveyed by imperial and colonial sculptures. (Massey, 1994) (Nguyen, 2010)

Throughout this essay, I have established that culture and power are a by-product of empire conveyed through artefacts such as the Statue of Clive.  The statue of Clive was erected to serve as a reminder of the contribution of Clive, and empire, to Britain. Through both its prominent position and the nature of Clive’s depiction it also served to project the power of empire and British superiority. The collection of imperial artefacts and spaces in London sought to present London to the world as an Imperial Metropolis on the scale of Paris, Brussels or Vienna. However, their presence has facilitated continued evaluation of both Clive and other imperialist’s actions provoking re-thinking of what these artefacts stood and do now stand for. In this sense, it is there continuing presence that has damaged the reputation of empire more so than their actions which would otherwise be confined to History. Therefore, the contemporary message conveyed by the Statue of Clive has undoubtedly altered. Rather than simply communicating power and the significance of ‘othering’ it now serves many as a means of education and a reminder of past wrongs. Through its status as a palimpsestuous object, it highlights a palimpsest of changing public perception towards empire in response to what is shows and more importantly what it fails to show. During this essay, the argument that the statue of Clive conveys imperial power has been undermined by its own presence and it leads us to question what is represents and what is fails to represent. Therefore, the Statue of Clive was constructed to convey the power and importance of the British Empire yet it now predominantly serves as a reminder of past mistakes that demand a reckoning from a contemporary perspective.


Thomas Cracknell


Pictures Index

FIGURE 1: Statue of Robert Clive, 1st Baron Clive (Clive of India). Web. 4 Dec. 2017

FIGURE 2: Clive at the siege of Arcot,  September to November 1751. Web. 4 Dec. 2017

FIGURE 3: Brigadier General John Nicholson . Web. 4 Dec. 2017



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