Trafalgar Square as imperial artefact18 minute read

Trafalgar Square has been a site of national importance since the fourteenth century. Formerly a royal mews, it was not until 1843 with the erection of Nelson’s Column that it began to resemble the Square we know today. Trafalgar Square primarily serves as a commemorative space remembering various naval and military men who had roles in the expansion of British political hegemony including Admiral Nelson, Sir Henry Havelock and Sir Charles James Napier. It is the celebration of these individuals that makes Trafalgar Square an imperial site, earning it the title the “heart of empire”(Felix and Driver,2000:28). Trafalgar Square reflects the role of urban space in constructing and reinforcing national identity; hosting the social, historical and political “aspirations”(Stefanidou,2008:14) of the nation. The Square further is indicative of the way in which urban landscapes are used to reinforce and maintain socio-political order which is implied by formal meanings and narratives(Hall,1997). I intend to explore the spectrality”(Dillon,2005:249) of Trafalgar Square as a palimpsest of national identity, looking at the way the Square has informed British identity in its representation of imperial history and how this history interacts with the present. As with all official narratives of history and identity there is implicit erasure and othering(Sumartojo,2015). It is this exclusion which makes the site inherently political triggering the ongoing contestation and subsequent transformation of national identity. I will explore how contemporary national identity has been transformed and reimagined through various projects surrounding the vacant fourth plinth of the Square. Along with the transformation of national identity the Square is also used to contest identity, it is this role as a site of anti-imperial protests that makes the Square a “contradictory imperial space”(Felix and Driver,2000:29). I will explore the ways in which those marginalised by imperialism inscribe new narratives to the Square and challenge the imperial order that is not only represented by Trafalgar Square, but which also resides in British national identity(Cherry,2006). Concluding that the tension between those seeking to reinforce, transform and contest the history and identity reflected in the Square should be harnessed to allow identity to evolve beyond a single historical narrative, instead looking to combine both the past and present to inform the future.

National identity is renewed and reinforced through history and commemoration. Trafalgar Square acts as a “unifying device”(Miles,2011:347) within this process of consolidating national identity. The Square is a “lieu de mémoire”(Cherry,2006:664) combing history and memory by commemorating various imperial figures and implicitly the “imperial prestige”(Gilroy,2004: 98) once held by Britain. According to Schöpflin(2000) a society that does not remember its history is “blind”(Schöpflin, 2000:74) to the present and future as these are informed by the past. However, history is not neutral, and favourable recollections of the past are established with the intention of creating a collective sense of national identity based within this history. This is the case in Trafalgar Square where imperial ‘heroes’ Napier and Havelock are presented sword and scroll in hand as strong and honourable men. This representation of imperialism is “white washed”(Gilroy,2004:3) allowing nostalgia and evoking “enthusiasm and national pride”(Cherry,2006:664).

figure one Nelson's column
Figure 1: Nelson on top of Nelson’s column


The idea that Britain’s imperial history is white washed can be seen literally in Trafalgar Square where all the individuals commemorated are white men. The exclusion of women and people of colour from such a famous commemorative land mark indicates and reinforces a social order and national identity that revolves around the “martial and masculine”(Sumartojo,2012:75). Further, there is no remembrance of the victims of imperialism, this erasure is intentional allowing the “superimposition”(Dillon,2005:254) of official narratives of imperialism that ignore its brutalities. As British national pride and identity still draws from its former dominance over other European countries and its imperial subjects there is a reluctance to enquire beyond official narratives(Renan, 1990).

This is because acknowledging the victims, and confronting the violent realities of imperialism would undermine its moral legitimacy subsequently undermining national self-esteem(Gilroy,2004). The censored representation of imperial history in Trafalgar Square reinforces a single narrative of national identity that is grounded in Britain’s former imperial prestige.


figure two Statue of Sir Henry Havelock
Figure 2: Statue of Sir Henry Havelock

Though Trafalgar Square continues to offer an official narrative of the nation this has been increasingly challenged(Cherry,2006). It is increasingly unrealistic to present a homogenised idea of nation as there is no unitary understanding. Growing ethnic and cultural diversity means there is less consensus between cultural codes. Consequently, official narratives of the nation, particularly those that include the celebration of imperial figures are understood differently and less accepted(Hall,1997). Under new levels of scrutiny Napier and Havelock’s campaigns in India do not leave them deserving hero worship, these “defining moments of empire”(Cherry, 2006:678) are seen as moral failures opposed to victories. Similarly, Admiral Nelson’s heroic portrayal is disputed, now being labelled a “white supremacist”(Hirsch,2017). Favourable accounts of Britain’s imperial history have long been privileged over that of its victims. The favouring of this version of history has led to the erasure of alternative histories and perspectives not only from memory but also the built environment. Despite the absence of monuments to the victims of British imperialism in memorialising the perpetrators, the lives and “ghosts”(Cherry,2006:684) that are often overshadowed by nostalgia can remembered. Moreover, the growing presence of their descendants with post-colonial migration further allows these ghosts to remerge, these histories now competing with the dominant and official narratives. This can be seen for example with the Slavery Remembrance Day service that has been held in Trafalgar Square since 2016. This shows how various, contesting histories reside in Trafalgar Square and how the Square can be given various, sometimes contradictory meanings by various groups of people(Hall,1997). While the Square is a place of mourning for diasporas in Britain it remains a place of celebration for others.

The spatial and the social are “inextricably”(Keith and Pile,2004:6) linked, sites such as Trafalgar Square allow individuals to understand their relationship with the nation and national identity(Jones and Fowler,2007). This prominence has allowed the Square to be used as a setting for various national events both historically such as VE day celebrations and in the present day. Today, the Square is used to celebrate contemporary victories that in turn bolster contemporary national pride and identity. However, the past is not perfectly erased and within these contemporary victories there are remnants of the past(Dillon,2005). This was seen with the selection of London to host the 2012 Olympic games. The announcement and the consequent celebrations took place in Trafalgar Square. However, the Square was not merely a backdrop to this celebration but the imperial history it represents remerged, informing the contemporary narratives being developed(Cherry,2006). This was evident through various media outlets making direct comparisons between London’s success over Paris, another candidate city in the bid and Nelson’s victory over France in the 19th century. The Sun newspaper writing “the French had been sunk again”(Wheeler and Blair,2005). This shows the palimpsestuous way in which Britain’s imperial past interacts and continues to shape its present and even future(Gilroy,2004). The preoccupation of the British media and public with regaining parts of its imperial history is indicative of the pervasive nostalgia of Britain’s former dominance across society. The Olympic bid also established new narratives within British national identity. Many politicians and media outlets owing the success of the bid to London’s multiculturalism. This narrative of diversity simultaneously reinforces and undermines the narrative of London as an imperial city(Sumartojo,2015). This paradox not only indicates the complexity of national identity, and the role of the past inhabiting the present but also the range of narratives that can simultaneously be ascribed to both place and identity.

Figure three Olympic bid celebrations in Trafalgar Square
Figure 3: Olympic bid celebrations in Trafalgar Square

The contestation of history and presence of competing narratives of national identity provide the opportunity for the transformation and reimagination of national identity(Sumartojo, 2012). Trafalgar Square’s fourth plinth has been used a vehicle by which national identity has been reimagined, and more contemporary ideas of nation and national identity presented to the country. The desire to make the Square more reflective of contemporary society was first expressed by the former Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone. He called for the removal of the statues of Havelock and Napier criticising them for being unrecognisable to the “ordinary”(Livingstone,2000) person. Livingstone believed that as a reflection of the nation the Square should host “identifiable”(Livingstone,2000) figures. The Fourth Plinth Project and The Fourth Plinth Commission were deployed to take control of this change, both groups were committed to a new vision for the Square agreeing that another permanent statue would be too traditional and instead that the fourth plinth was to become a rolling project and platform to display ever changing ideas of nation and identity. In 2003 Sculptor Sokari Douglas Camp’s ‘NO-O-War No-O-War-R’ was shortlisted to be apart this transformation. This piece was a tribute to the history of protest and resistance in the Square, the individuals in the sculpture carrying placards demanding ‘NO WAR’, a direct response to the naval and military men occupying the remaining plinths. This work sought to present “ordinary people as heroes”(Kapferer,2007:77), subverting the official narrative of Trafalgar Square which presents those commemorated as unique and extraordinary individuals. This encourages British national identity to be reimagined and evolve away from fixating on former political hegemony and pedestalling the “martial and masculine”(Sumartojo,2012:75). Instead celebrating the political power that resides within everyday individuals and that can be channeled towards  resistance.

The statues in Trafalgar square present a limited and rigid idea of British national identity. The narrative of imperial dominance is inadequate in reflecting the growing diversity of British society. In 2009 Antony Gormley attempted to capture the heterogeneity of the nation through his ‘One & other’ installation. This included the rotation of 2400 individuals occupying the fourth plinth for an hour. This “occupation”(Gormley,2009) allowed individuals to engage in any activity or promote any message. For an hour these individuals were pedestalled alongside Havelock, Napier and Nelson. This project was described as a “symbol of freedom”(Skinner,2009) democratising the often exclusionary act of monumentalising individuals and philosophies. The “spectacle of diversity”(Miles,2011:348) created by Gormley was seen as more reflective of Britishness than the permanent statues of the Square offering a contemporary and “composite”(Miles,2011:351) picture of the nation. ‘One & other’ challenges who and what we consider worthy to include in official narratives and presentations of nation. ‘One & other’ encourages us to accept the nation as a nuanced and diverse body of individuals opposed to a monolith. It directly challenges the immortalisation of imperial figures that is seen throughout the Square, temporarily elevating ordinary individuals. It is through the recognition of multiplicity that identity can be reimagined and allowed to continuously evolve (Sandercock,2006).

Figure four Various members of the public occupying the fourth plinth as a part of 'One &other'
Figure 4: Various members of the public occupying the fourth plinth as a part of ‘One &other’

The fourth plinth also provided an opportunity to reimagine national identity by reconciling Britain’s imperial past with contemporary national identity. Artist Yinka Shonibare’s ‘Nelson’s ship in a bottle’ featured a replica of Nelson’s HMS victory on which he won and commanded the battle of Trafalgar. As well as enhancing Trafalgar Square’s symbolic accretion referencing the success and reach of the British Empire (Sumartojo,2015). Shonibare’s work also highlights the relationship between imperialism, naval power and global trade using Dutch wax fabric for the sails of the ship. Shonibare resists the typical erasure of imperial subjects and their influence on British identity which is seen with the imperial monuments that permanently reside in the Square. Shonibare celebrates the multiculturalism found in Britain but also contextualises it as an implication of Britain’s imperial history(Sumartojo, 2015)(Keith,2005), this is done in a palimpsestuous way where present and future national identities are recognised to be constituted by the past(Dillon,2005).

Figure five Nelson's ship in a bottle with Nelson’s column in the background
Figure 5: ‘Nelson’s ship in a bottle with Nelson’s column in the background’

Trafalgar Square has not only been used as a site to inform British national identity. The Square has been a part of a long-term process of reconfiguring of other national identities through protest. The Square is used as a “stage”(Sumartojo,2009:412) upon which marginalised groups can project their visions of nation and national identity. This non-prescribed use of the Square can both undermine or reinforces its official purpose, to commemorate imperial figures. The undermining of this official purpose is exemplified by the use of the Square for explicitly anti imperial protests. These protests create an “obvious irony”(Mace,1976:7) subverting the historical and official narratives of the site. For example, the India leagues protests for national independence against British colonial rule. These protests were overlooked by the statues of Napier and Havelock, two men who had significant roles in the subjection of India that was being protested. Here the discourses of the colonised and the coloniser intersect, the statues in the Square not subject to indifference as suggested by Musil(Musil in Cherry,2006) but the imperial order these figures themselves imposed is being directly challenged(Dillon,2005).

Another example of protest being used to reconfigure national identity and reject imperial order is the anti-apartheid protests hosted in Trafalgar Square. These protests against the apartheid regime in South Africa, a legacy of colonialism called for the British government and businesses to divest from South Africa politically and economically. The use of Trafalgar Square for these protests was deliberate, it is here that various imperial histories collide from the statues in the square, to its proximity to the South African embassy and Whitehall, the former technical centre of empire. The Square was also used to remember the victims of the apartheid regime. On the ten year anniversary of the Sharpeville massacre British students re-enacted the event in remembrance. Here the Square literally became a stage on which the violence of apartheid was recreated. This reenactment not only brought the realities of imperial legacies to light where they are often overlooked but further, the act of remembrance reconfigured who and what was seen as worthy to be remembered and publicly mourned. This is significant as often only a select few are deemed worthy to mourned in public spaces of national remembrance. It is through these protests and political gatherings that Trafalgar Square was able to become more than an emblem of empire. However, this transformation into a site of political contest was resisted. This can be seen with the 1964 rejection of  the ‘anti-apartheid movement’ protest and later in 1967 the denial of the ‘movement for colonial freedom’ protest(Mace,1976). This shows the desire to take a narrative of resistance away and maintain imperial order with the Square representing a single, uncontested narrative(Hall,1997). Today, calls for the end of an apartheid state are repeated in the Square by those protesting  the occupation of Palestine. Again, the use of Trafalgar Square is intentional. The use of the Square to protest apartheid in South Africa gave a new meaning to the square which accreted, informing this decision to use the Square again. This was made explicitly clear, with one speaker at the protest saying “It was you English… who first tackled South African apartheid. It was right here[emphasis mine]”(Thomson,2006:450). Firstly, this exemplifies how the history and purpose of the Square has been transformed through protest and how this in turn has transformed how Britain in perceived in global affairs. This statement portrays Britain as a superior moral authority, erasing its complicity in the violence of imperialism and support for previous apartheid regimes. This is a whitewashed understanding of Britain’s history much like the statues in the Square seek to present. Showing that even when attempting to challenge dominant narratives which favour imperial order these narratives are never permanently gone.

Figure six Anti-apartheid protest in Trafalgar Square
Figure 6: Anti-apartheid protest in Trafalgar Square

Trafalgar Square was formally a place from which Britain as an imperial power looked out at the rest of the world. Today, it is a site the rest of the world, particularly marginalised groups observe and use as a platform to amplify their grievances to a global audience. This is indicative of the global influence Britain retains from its former imperial dominance. The increasingly international focus of these protests reflects the increasingly international make up of British society and London’s reputation as a global, multicultural city. However, it is also important to acknowledge that Britain often has a role to play in many of these issues whether as the colonial power being rejected or in supporting those who are oppressing these marginalised groups. The challenging of imperial order seen in these anti-imperial protests entails a shift in power between the oppressed and the oppressor as anti-imperial meanings are given to the site(Dillon,2005). This lays the foundation for new layers of history to be inscribed in the future, reimaging and transforming the purpose of the Square as well as the identity that is taken from it.

Musil(in Cherry,2006) argues that overtime imperial sites and statues become disconnected from their histories. However, from a palimpsestuous perspective this past is inescapable as it can never fully be erased. This essay has shown the ways in which the imperial past of Trafalgar Square haunts the role of the Square today. Trafalgar Square retains its original purpose as a commemorative site, remembering Britain’s imperial power. The Square presents a whitewashed recollection of the past and narrative that glorifies the perpetrators and disregards the victims of imperialism. Here, nostalgia of the past informs British national identity. Yet, the Square has also been used to transform narratives of British identity. As explained the fourth plinth provides a platform for new ideas of nation and national identity. Previous installations have not erased the past but instead inscribed new layers and narratives to merge with existing histories. These installations offer progressive ideas of nation and national identity that both challenge and reconcile this past. The interaction between the past and present exemplifies the “spectrality”(Dillon,2005:249) of the Square and the potent nature of Britain’s imperial past. This is seen further with the anti-colonial protests that have occupied the Square. Here, the Square is not simply a passive backdrop. These protests challenge the imperial order that is commemorated and perpetrated by the site. In subverting official narratives and challenging imperial order the integrity of British national identity too is challenged(Schöpflin, 2000)(Renan,1990). Yet, this challenge to British national identity should not encourage a return to imperial nostalgia but the “involuted” (Dillon,2005:245) nature of the Square where the past, present and future interlock and inform one another should be used to inform the evolution contemporary national identity into the future.


Anastasia Lewis


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Picture index:

Figure 1: MOD (2011). Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square, London.. [image] Available at:,_Trafalgar_Sqaure,_London_MOD_45152990.jpg# [Accessed 3 Dec. 2017].

Figure 2: George, R. (2006). Statue of Sir Henry  Havelock in Trafalgar Square. [image] Available at: [Accessed 3 Dec. 2017].

Figure 3: Olympic bid celebrations in Trafalgar Square. (2005). [image] Available at: [Accessed 3 Dec. 2017].

Figure 4: Various members of the public occupying the fourth plinth as a part of ‘One &other’. (2009). [image] Available at: [Accessed 3 Dec. 2017].

Figure 5: Getty Images (2010). Yinka Shonibare’s Fourth Plinth Ship Is Unveiled. [image] Available at: [Accessed 3 Dec. 2017].

Figure 6: Anti-apartheid protests in Trafalgar Square. (1990). [image] Available at: [Accessed 3 Dec. 2017].

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