There is nothing more ‘London’ than Trafalgar Square, an impressive expanse of white granite whose four-sided symmetry lends a commanding respite of order and control amidst a chaotic intersection of bustling pedestrians, speeding bikers, and honking cab drivers. Today, Trafalgar Square’s embodiment of Great Britain’s military prowess and political might of its heyday and role as an iconic London landmark makes it one of the city’s most popular tourist attractions and imperial artifacts. In fact, it ranks as the ninth most popular ‘Point of Interest,’ according to tripadvisor.com (1). Tourists flock to the Square for its history (built as a memorial to the British defeat of French and Spanish navies in the Napoleonic wars), the art it houses in the National Gallery, and its place as a natural starting point for the tour of London’s greatest hits: 10 Downing St., Big Ben, Houses of Parliament, and Westminster Abbey. Perhaps tourists even come to take in the sights of a familiar backdrop in a number of feature films, posing in the same spot where A-List celebrities have fired a gun or made out with their on-screen lovers. Yet, Trafalgar Square’s welcoming presence to those traveling to London is undercut by the closed-off persona of the country it represents. The UK’s anti-immigration stance (in light of the Syrian refugee crisis) stands in sharp contrast to its openness towards tourists and visitors, which fuels the UK’s lucrative tourism industry. Thus, it seems that London fully embraces foreigners when they visit places such as Trafalgar Square to admire British history, yet when foreigners come to the city to resettle, a furor is ignited among the locals. Summed up, Trafalgar Square represents British imperialism of the past, and continues to perpetuate those imperialistic ideas of power and control in the present day with the glamorization of history and role in a marginalizing political climate. Looking into the future, perhaps the balance of power can shift. With Trafalgar Square now being a popular site for protests, demonstrations, and cultural celebration, the area can be reclaimed by people searching for a place to belong in the oftentimes exclusive city of London. In short, it is clear that the culture of Trafalgar Square, whether it is a historically powerful space reminiscent of imperialism or a space where freedom of identity is the priority, is something deeply affected by memory, the purposeful manipulation of perception, and the current political climate.
The history of Trafalgar Square is important in dissecting the site’s role as an imperial artifact, as the reasons for it being built are rooted in memorializing British military might and celebrating the achievements of the British Empire. Originally conceived as a natural extension of Pall Mall to Saint Martin’s Church in 1826, Trafalgar Square has since become a sprawling space flanked by the west end of the Strand, Whitehall, and the National Portrait Gallery on its northern face (2). Geographically, Trafalgar Square is located in heart of London, and two notable rays stem from the Square like arteries: the first is a direct route to Buckingham Palace, where one simply needs to stroll down the Mall to reach the front gates, and the second is a route down Whitehall, the “administrative center of the British Empire,” where one can pass 10 Downing Street, Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, and the Houses of Parliament all in one go (3). These two routes shed light on the importance of Trafalgar Square as a starting (or ending) point for viewing the most iconic monuments from British history. For example, moving south to north along Whitehall allows Trafalgar Square to broaden magnificently in your vision, a flat, white sheet of stone unfurling before your eyes. The geographic location of Trafalgar Square seems purposefully chosen to provoke a powerful reaction of awe for British splendor. Thus, Trafalgar Square is imprinted in memory as the culmination of British achievements and is a place for retrospection and nostalgia for the British glory days.
A more tangible representation of British imperialism in Trafalgar Square is Nelson’s Column, the tall, monumental structure directly in front of the National Gallery. Constructed in 1840, Nelson’s Column commemorates Admiral Horatio Nelson and his role in the Battle of Trafalgar, in which he led British troops to a decisive victory in the Napoleonic Wars (4). The British success in the Napoleonic Wars led to a time of relative peace, called the Pax Britannica, in which Great Britain established itself as the world’s foremost power and began its ‘imperial century.’ (5) During this time, the British Empire expanded to include Asia and Latin America, asserting control over international trade routes and maritime paths. Thus, Nelson’s Column stands as one of the most prominent artifacts from a past era of power and conquest, blatantly celebrating the achievements of General Nelson in a flamboyant manner. In addition, to its historical significance, its physical attributes suggest a boastful and proud attitude towards the ‘imperial century.’ From its ancient Greek design of a fluted column with an extravagant Corinthian head to the four sculpted lions guarding its base, Nelson’s Column is physically a grandiose experience that attracts attention and awe. It is clear what its role is in Trafalgar Square: it points to Britain’s imperial past, reminding tourists and everyday passersby of the country’s legacy of power and control in the world.
With Trafalgar Square’s historical context defined, it is now important to analyze how the site’s past influences the way people view the Square in the present. In this case, the memory of British imperialism still incites a sense of pride and nationalism; Trafalgar Square, as the heart of London and, by extension, the British Empire, is a space filled with history and memories of a grander past, a protected sanctuary in the middle of a modernizing and, admittedly, a non- imperial country. The relationship between Trafalgar Square’s connotations of the past and the way it is currently viewed was evident in the year 2000, when the then-mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, called for the removal of two statues of Victorian generals from the Square (6). Livingstone remarked, “I have not a clue who two of the generals are or what they did,” and stated that Trafalgar Square, being the main square in the city, should house statues that are identifiable to the general public (7). Livingstone’s words reflect a grain of truth: the statues are aloof from the popular lions that have been rubbed dull from tourists clambering over them and are rarely the backdrop to any tourist photos. Yet, his call for their removal nonetheless incited an uproar of dismay and panic. Perhaps Deborah Cherry said it best in her essay “Statues in the Square;” she writes, “The generals and their statuary may have slipped out of memory and history. But their removal would allow an amnesia, not just of the individuals, but of the traumatic and transformative effects of their lives and actions, of the bloody arenas in which they were actors and agents.” (8) The statues are remnants of the past, and to remove them would be, in a sense, rewriting history and forgetting about these small but significant kernels of antiquity. In the end, the statues were not removed, allowing Trafalgar Square to remain a static space that preserves the past and honors British imperial history. This event highlights the importance of memory in one’s perception of space; though most people are oblivious to the historical significance of the generals, the fact it exists is enough for tourists and the like to reflect on the heritage of the Square.
In addition to statue placement, Trafalgar Square’s general appearance has been heavily manipulated in order to induce a certain feeling in the space. The Square, and by extension, its themes of imperialism, have somewhat been glorified, with efforts to beautify and glamorize the area effectively altering the reality of the space. For example, the presence of pigeons and their interactions with their surroundings have significantly influenced the culture of the Square. In 2003, Ken Livingstone (the same mayor who ordered the removal of statues) embarked on an effort to give the Square a facelift. This procedure, in addition to the renovation of the thoroughfares around the Square, called for the removal of pigeons and their droppings. Feeding pigeons became banned by law and all buildings were to be cleaned, a process that inevitably came with a hefty price tag (9). According to Livingstone, it was worth it; removal of the pigeons would allow tourists to enjoy a “cleaner, healthier, [and more pleasant] environment.” Since the changes have been put in place, the dense flock of feeding pigeons has disappeared. Without the thick swarm of dark pigeons ruining the white stone, the Square appears that much more stately and refined. Hence, the sense of magic and surrealism that Trafalgar Square projects and the way it easily communicates a sense of power and imperialism is the product of a thousands-of-pounds project devised by the London government. Livingstone’s actions bring to light a sense of superficiality that shrouds the Square; an invisible authority surreptitiously colors one’s perception of the site.
The interplay between fact and fiction is also apparent in the media portrayal of Trafalgar Square. The cleanup of Trafalgar Square had inadvertently led to it playing a bigger role in feature films: since then, the Square has starred as a film backdrop in movies such as 28 Weeks Later and Captain America (10). In the latter film, Trafalgar Square makes for an impressive setting as people celebrate V-Day, the camera making sweeping turns and pans, capturing the Square’s stone vistas and regal structures. In the scene, uniformed men and women cheer and wave flags as military jets zoom from behind the National Gallery, creating a portrayal of World War II victory that is both spectacular and pulsing with feelings of nationalism. Here, Trafalgar Square is a deliberate symbol of British victory, not unlike the atmosphere of power it exudes on a daily basis as a tourist destination. The grandiose portrayal of Trafalgar Square in feature films such as Captain America allows fiction to augment reality and create an almost fantastical image of the Square that permeates one’s perception of the real experience. Thus, Trafalgar Square is able to easily communicate an impressive and glorified image of British imperialism.
However, there is an underlying tension and subtle contradiction between London’s tourism industry, Trafalgar Square’s appearance, and the UK’s current immigration stance. So far in this essay, Trafalgar Square has been described as a site emblematic of British history and a visual archive of the achievements of Britain for both tourists and locals alike. Its appearance, which has been heavily cultivated by the British administration, attracts tourists to the heart of London, where the vestiges of British imperialism are most apparent and celebrated. However, the UK’s stance on immigration, especially in light of the recent Syrian refugee crisis, has undermined Trafalgar Square’s welcoming presence towards newcomers in the country and instead has perpetuated the themes of control and power (this time over tourists). According to the Business Insider, the latest report from the Bank of America Merrill Lynch says, “Britons would vote to leave the EU immediately if immigration was not reduced or more tightly controlled.” (11) In other words, when Prime Minister David Cameron announced that the UK would accept only 20,000 refugees in the next few years, he was appealing to the anti- immigration attitude common to the majority of Britain. For comparison, Germany has pledged to accept 800,000 refugees. This anti-immigration stance changes Trafalgar Square – typically a space that welcomes foreigners with open arms, it now accepts foreigners under the condition that they eventually leave. Instead of simply viewing the Square for its allusions to past imperialism, foreigners are now controlled by that same sense of power and ownership. In his book Understanding Cultural Geography: Places and Traces, Jon Anderson writes, “By understanding place as an ongoing composition of traces it facilitates the interrogation of these traces and how they come to confer cultural meanings to geographical sites.” (12) The UK’s position on immigration is a mindset that leaves a tangible trace on Trafalgar Square, changing and contradicting its welcoming atmosphere.
Moving into the future, however, power and control can be redistributed and reclaimed by utilizing Trafalgar Square as a center for cultural celebration, moving away from the notion that the Square can control a person’s sense of belonging in a certain place. For example, Eid in the Square is an annual celebration of the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr held in Trafalgar Square and is one of London’s most prominent cultural events that sees attendances of up to 25,000 people (13). Images of the festival show the square practically swarming with people, the white statues and monuments hidden behind colorful tents and flags, and one can only imagine the sounds of celebration and the smells of Middle Eastern cuisine wafting through the air. Though Islamophobic sentiment exists in Britain, the celebration transforms Trafalgar Square and its monuments, population, and purpose, turning the site from an uncomfortable space of unspoken exclusion to a safe bubble of religious festivities and inclusion, if only for a moment. In Cherry’s words, “Trafalgar Square is no longer just about living with the dead,” and the space is not just solely for the commemoration of past imperialism, power, and control (14). In this way, festival- goers are able to reclaim and take ownership of the space within Trafalgar Square, a place that has only before celebrated the British legacy of power and strength over marginalized communities.
In conclusion, Trafalgar Square has perpetuated ideas of power and control in the past and continues to do so in the present. Built and designed originally as a reminder of Britain’s past position of global power, with its location as a natural extension of London’s most prominent imperial sites and its commanding design and architecture, Trafalgar Square exudes an atmosphere of supremacy. In the present, the Square continues to maintain and promote these notions of power. The British government actively makes an effort to showcase the Square, instigating laws to prevent damage to the cultural site and protecting the history it represents. Furthermore, feature films often depict Trafalgar Square as the gleaming heart of London, provoking fictitious and glorified portrayals of the Square to intensify reality. From a political perspective, these ideas of control and power have extended to corroborate the xenophobic attitudes of Britain towards asylum seeking refugees. As a tourist destination, it is welcoming to foreigners only on a temporary basis, and as such, the Square reflects the historical attitude of fear for foreigners. Yet, through the ownership of space and the reclamation of the kind of celebrations that take place in the Square, immigrants and their families can find a place to belong. Using the anecdotes presented in this essay, it is clear that many things can alter the cultural geography of a certain space, whether it is appearance or current political thought. Trafalgar Square, as one of the many imperial artifacts in London and the primary example in this paper, is a fluid space that is constantly changing and redefined based on how it is used, manipulated, and perceived.
1 Travel website providing user-generated reviews of travel-related content
2 G.H. Gater and F.R. Hiorns, “Trafalgar Square and the National Gallery”, Survey of London
3 Deborah Cherry, “Statues in the Square: Hauntings at the Heart of Empire”, Art History 29:4 (2006), pp. 681
4 “The British Empire”, http://www.victorianschool.co.uk/empire.html
5 G.H. Gater and F.R. Hiorns, “Trafalgar Square and the National Gallery”, Survey of London
6 Deborah Cherry, “Statues in the Square: Hauntings at the Heart of Empire”, Art History 29:4 (2006), pp. 660
7 Ibid., 660
8 Ibid., 665
9 “Feeding Trafalgar’s Pigeons Illegal,” BBC News
10 Andy McSmith, “The pigeons have gone, but visitors are flocking to Trafalgar Square,” The Independent
11 Lianna Brinded, “This report proves that Britain is overwhelmingly anti-immigration and it could prompt Brexit”, Business Insider
12 Jon Anderson, Understanding Cultural Geography: Places and Trace (2015), pp. 13
13 “Eid Festival 2015 on the Square”, London Assembly
14 Deborah Cherry, “Statues in the Square: Hauntings at the Heart of Empire”, Art History 29:4 (2006), pp. 692