The Africa House Statue: Imperial Artefact17 minute read

Between 16th-20th centuries, Britain had acquired the largest overseas empire the world has ever known. At its greatest, the empire covered almost a quarter of the Earth’s land surface and had included nearly a third of its population (Ferguson, 2004). Various artefacts in London show that the city has been heavily shaped by Britain’s links with the empire (Walk the World, 2015). This essay begins by analysing how the statue of Africa House on Kingsway celebrates the Imperial ideology of racial superiority of Britons. It is followed by a discussion of cultural implications of racism in modern societies. Furthermore, the essay identifies the presence of classism in the statue as well as during the construction process of Kingsway somewhat and the way in which it was shadowed in the gentrification of Tower Hamlets. By doing so, it aims to discuss the multifaceted cultural implications of the chosen imperial artefact in contemporary politics.

Africa House was built on Kingsway in 1921, which is a road that was built to fare with great boulevards of Paris (Partridge, 1921). The sculpture that is fairly high up the building places a great focus on a female figure, seated in the centre armed with a sword and shield. Below to the left of the woman, there is a black man who is relatively less clothed, muscular and is carrying tusks from an elephant, possibly shot by the colonial who is bearing a rifle at her feet. Below right stands figures resembling Arab traders who are accompanied by a camel. Together they form an imperial artefact since the statue seem to signify a celebration of the British Empire and the widespread ideology about race and culture at the time. The central figure is most likely to be Britannia and her position, with the armour she bears act as a powerful representation of her Empire’s sovereignty, might and racial supremacy (Speel, 2015). This is supported by the way in which Victorian Britons considered the empire to be the ‘ruler of the waves’ by singing songs such as Land of Hope and Glory (Gikandi, 1996). In addition, the culture and racial characteristics of non-European colonial subjects embodied by the black servant on the right comes across as uneducated, inferior and almost slave-like to the authority of Britain (Speel, 2015). Such racial prejudices stemmed from ‘fake’ sciences such as phrenology which, when studied the shape of African skulls, classified the black people as ‘inferior’ to that of Europeans. It helped support the argument that “The Negro in general is a born slave”, suited only for hard work but not academia as mentioned by Sir Harry Johnson, a British colonial administrator in Africa. Aspects of evolutionary theory also played a part in explaining that the British were the most ‘civilised’ race whilst the Africans were “primitive”, thus either doomed to be ruled by or destroyed by the superior races. As a result, the relative position of Britannia and the black slave is signifying a belief in the superiority of the British Empire and its people, serving as a justification to the expansion and continuation of imperial rule (ibid.). Lastly the Arab traders are dressed nobly in their own clothing with their traditional mode of transport. Therefore, it seems to suggest that relative to the black slave, the Arabs are depicted as people with a culture that is notable and exotic. However, Said (1978) analyses such imagery as ‘orientalism’ whereby the West creates an “essentialised view” of Middle Eastern, Asian and North African societies meaning Arab culture, however exotic, is deliberately depicted as yet underdeveloped in order that colonial ambitions can be justified in an implicit manner. It is further noted by Mahmood (2004) that there is an emphasis of the notion that in relative terms, the Western society (Britain) is a better developed, rational, superior nation.

With the British Empire no longer in its former glory, it is questionable as to whether the certain images of ‘other’ races are created by the white-British today and whether they used obtain certain political endeavours. On one hand, it could be argued that explicit racial propaganda, racial prejudice and discrimination has fallen tremendously due to numerous social changes that have occurred in Britain. Post the world wars, Britain had invited colonial members to fill in labour requirements in London’s health, transport services initiating a surge in immigration of workers from the West Indies (BBC News, 2002). Such changes would have meant that there are greater chances of encountering foreigners by Britons and the formation of one’s own opinions about different races and ethnicities. This reduces the scope for racial prejudice and consequently racial propaganda to work (Ford, 2008). Most importantly, legislations have been passed to explicitly prohibit racial discrimination and reduce the incidences of racial tensions within Britain. The Race Relations Acts of 1965 and 1968 have outlawed direct discrimination on the grounds of race, colour, ethnic group and national origin in some public spaces and gave unfairly treated individuals the right to pursue justice through the courts (Equality and Human Rights Commission, 2010). Also, the Commission for Racial Equality was established under the Act to tackle racial discrimination and create equal chances for people to live lives free of racism, and in an amendment if 2000 required public bodies to assess the impact of their decisions on people of different ethnic backgrounds and promote equality (ibid). Equality and Humans Rights Commission (2010) emphasise that such developments have played a pivotal role in transforming Britain into a fairer place. Solomos (1989) contend that there is now a general political consensus built around the celebration of diversity, with heavy condemnation of public figures such as UKIP’s Nigel Farage who make prejudiced comments in the public arena, also contributing to the reduction of racial prejudices publically.

Such changes have brought about the possibility of greater minority representation in the political arena. Sadiq Kahn who was born into a working-class British Pakistani family and running as a London mayoral candidate for the 2016 elections (Wintour, 2015). He also has a record of being the second British Pakistani to serve as a Minister of State for Communities in 2008. This evidence may be insufficient to argue that full equality and racial representation has been achieved since ethnic minority MPs are under-represented to the population as a whole at 4.2% at the Parliament compared to 12.9% of population resident in the UK being ethnic minorities (Cracknell, 2012). However in relation to the past, there are more opportunities and positions open to ethnic minorities to make substantial political changes under concern. Ethnic minorities are also able to physically compete with the white British that were once seen as their superiors. This is evident in the arena of sports especially since a third of the Great British medals won in London 2012 Olympics were achieved by immigrant athletes such as Mo Farah from Somalia (The Telegraph, 2012). These evidences have contributed to show that people from nations formally considered ‘inferior’ are equally competent if not far more competent at doing the same things as the white British.

However, it could equally be contended that despite the absence of the British Empire and explicit forms of racial propaganda, there are still ways in which images of foreigners are constructed by institutions to achieve certain endeavours. UKIP is a political party in the UK with a great emphasis on civic nationalism and controlling immigration to the UK and it’s 2015 election manifesto includes aims such as capping 50,000 skilled foreign migrants a year (UKIP, 2015). Although the party denies ethnic nationalism through their support of British people from various ethnic backgrounds and cultures, Driver (2011) has pointed out that there are strong “conservative appeals to national sovereignty and traditional social values”. In particular, Mycock and Hayton (2014) criticize UKIP’s “inherent Anglocentrism” when UKIP claims to “restore Britishness” by tackling the threats posed by the Islamification of Britain, since in actual fact, the manifesto is conflating “English”ness with “British”ness. It was also noted that UKIP has made a decision to targeted core supporters to those who are united by an anxiety over immigration (ibid). The way in which UKIP voters have grown from a mere 2.2% in 2005 to 13% in 2015 general elections, could serve as an indication of a rise in the support of such opinions and potentially a desire to restore an “unashamedly uni-cultural” society similar to the UK during its Imperial era. In contrast, Ford and Goodwill (2014) state that although UKIP has gained greater visibility and entered the mainstream politics, it due to a certain group of people the UKIP policies are targeted at. The same study shows a clear social profile of UKIP’s electoral base with over 57% being over the age of 54, 42% working in blue collar jobs, 55% having left school before the age of 16 (24% has completed a university degree) in addition to the statistics of 99.6% identifying themselves as white. This implies that UKIP supporters seem to be those who are less familiar with the modern multicultural social structure, mostly in direct competition to foreign blue-collar immigrant labour and less educated about the foreign cultures, globalisation and changing geographies of race. Ford and Goodwill (2014) emphasises that UKIP “barely registers” with younger Britons who have grown up in a multicultural society referring to only 3% of 17-22 year olds who have the intension to vote for UKIP. The authors also find that the tendency seems to be greater especially among those who have completed higher education at university. Since the support base for UKIP is deeply rooted in class and generational divisions, it is difficult to say that support racial propaganda or the growth in ideology of uniculturalism is common across the whole country.

Further, Andrews (2015) commented in a recent article in the Guardian that racism is no less common in the UK if not increasing despite the improvement in individual rights as an ethnic minority brought about by legislation. For instance, 38% of young black men are currently unemployed in contrast to 17.8% of young white men owing to on-going practices of firms refusing provide job opportunities on the basis of skin colour. In addition, black people are up to 17.5 times more likely to be stopped by the police than white people due to their association with gang crimes. Andrews (2015) condemns that whilst the 1965 Race Relations Act may have outlawed the prejudice of individuals, it has not dealt with “systemic, structural” problems which are oppression of communities based on their colour and can thrive even when open prejudice has declined. Equality and Human Rights Commission (2010) also note the limitations of the Act; it is seen to be heavily focuses on dealing with unfair behaviour rather than preventing that unfairness in the first place and often, individuals will be faced to challenge an organisation which in many cases has far greater resources than they have to fight a case. ‘Institutional racism’, or the cumulative effect of the way organisations are structured e.g. in workplace practices, social norms and cultural expectations also contribute towards the prevalence of racial prejudice as mentioned by Sir William Macpherson in his report on the inquiry into the racial killing of Stephen Lawrence’s murder (ibid). Therefore it cannot be argued that social structures are fully free of racial prejudices as a result of migratory, legal changes that have occurred post World Wars and must be recognised that implicitly, there is plenty of scope for racial image construction as justification for various actions.

As well as the racist ideologies, one is able to notice that the statue on Africa House has two white British people but each at different elevations – one seated in the centre above all the other components whilst the other, is at the former’s feet. Although the colonial with the rifle could have symbolised British colonials and their military might, it led to the realisation that lowest British classes are absent in the statue. Thus it led to the consideration of prevailing classism that was inherent within the Imperial nation of Great Britain and it seemed important to highlight its cultural implications in contemporary politics, as embedded in the construction processes of Kingsway. Initially, the cleared area between High Holborn and the Strand was extremely filthy, crowded with poorly arranged houses and death-ridden, as the death rate was almost double that of the rest of London (Schubert and Sutcliffe, 1996). It was classified as a poverty-stricken area with the proportion of people living under poverty being almost half (48.9%) compared to the average (30.7%) of the entire London region (ibid.). As a result, this are mainly occupied by relatively powerless lower classes largely consisting of labourers, porters, hawkers, artisans were made to be seen as ‘disgraceful’ and a social ‘ill’ to the image London as the heart of the Empire causing London County Council to suggest a remedy of reconstruction. However, the whole project has been shown to benefit only a small group of elites rather than the incumbent residents. First of all, a majority of the residents could not enjoy the regenerated area because most were rehoused elsewhere. More than two thirds of affected residents were moved up the river Thames to flats in Millbank, between today’s Pimlico and Westminster. Further, whilst the luxury hotels, various theatres and business premises subsequently built there would have benefitted wealthier classes, it would have been unaffordable to the rehoused incumbent residents (Berthoud, 2012). Moreover, transport infrastructure improvements involving a 100 feet wide road and trams clearly seem to be built to facilitate the mobile middle-upper class workers who could afford the fares or an automobile. At most, the working classes would have saved a few minutes of commuting time per day with better train connections between Euston and Waterloo stations (Schubert and Sutcliffe, 1996). These disproportionate benefits accruing to only certain group of people of a respectable profession, high social status and wealth provide seem to indicate the classist aspects of Imperial Britain shown (or rather not shown) by the Africa House statue.

According to Burns (2000), the post-1980s saw an increasing effort to adopt a decentralised, participatory approach to politics taking into account local government and the opinions of residents. For instance, Islington Council in 1984 decentralised services by holding neighbourhood forums with representatives from various backgrounds, voicing region-specific concerns. With greater scope for variety in the development of policy frameworks in different neighbourhoods, it was then argued that a more idealistic local democracy was being established. However with stronger democratic input from neighbourhoods being argued to caused complexity and greater tension within local authorities than better decision making, participatory politics seemed unpractical. Instead, as mentioned in Harvey Molotch’s growth machine theory, it is ultimately the resource, and network-rich firms and various institutions such as universities that are most able to influence government decision-making structures (Molotch, 1976). Tower Hamlets for instance has had a history of development of different housing allocation policies according to neighbourhoods (Burns, 2000). However, the region is experiencing a housing boom and the dominance of property developers and estate agents with the developments of luxury apartments and flats such as Cinnabar Warf East or Telford Homes Penthouse valued around £1,000 per square feet (Nelson, 2015). This has caused great economic and social polarization between the local residents 23% of which live with less than £15,000 and 53% of children have parents living on unemployment benefits (ibid.). Similar to the Strand-Kingsway development, some working class estate housing residents are being asked to relocate to make way for the expansion of an economic hub valued at over £6 billion per year. Kabir Ahmed, a resident at Holland Estates in Tower Hamlets is concerned that 600 residents are being “forced out of the area” to make way for private, multi-storey apartments without a guarantee that they would be rehoused close to their original home and feeling that many are being ‘socially cleansed’. Another resident, Zed Nelson, acknowledges that the new flats and urban developments around the region is improving the atmosphere of Tower Hamlets but that it is for the enjoyment of those who are able to afford it rather than those who call this area their home. Whilst efforts have been made since the Imperial era to involve participation from differing class backgrounds, the ‘first-class’ centred activity seems to be justified and outweigh the needs of the ‘lower class’, resembling the classist divisions and their implications 150 years ago.

Africa House on Kingsway is a great depiction of how racial superiority of white, wealthier and more influential Britons were celebrated during the Imperial Era and how this imagery was used to justify their treatment of other races or other classes. By looking at the change in race legislation, it has become harder to express explicit racial prejudice without undergoing condemnation or judgement. Also, the evolution of political institutions have made it possible for lower class British citizens to participate in local decision making. However, racism still exists in mainstream politics, justifying the mobilisation of ethnic minorities and there is continued construction boom at the expense of relocating incumbent estate residents in the area of Tower Hamlets. Therefore, whilst the modern social structure may reduce the relevance of cultural implications such as racism and classism that existed in Imperial Britain, it seems to be ongoing process in the current social context. Furthermore, greater comparative research may be needed to examine the continuation of this general trend of cultural implications and how it is affected by conditions within Britain in the future (Ford, 2008).


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