Trafalgar Square: Imperial Artefact; Site of Struggle18 minute read

Trafalgar Square can be conceived of as a space of empire (Gilbert and Driver, 2000) which was constructed in 1843 to mark Admiral Nelson’s maritime triumph against the French and Spanish fleets in the Battle of Trafalgar (1805). The Battle of Trafalgar was part of the Napoleonic Wars whereby the French Empire fought against a range of European powers directed by Great Britain in the quest for imperial power. Trafalgar Square can thus be conceived of as a space of empire because it was built in order to legitimize the idea of Britain as the dominant imperial power in Europe. During this essay, I will refer to culture as a site of conflicting meanings which is inextricably bound to power. Power is exercised by those who assert their right to ascribe meanings or impose their representation and interpretation of the surrounding reality (Schoenmakers, 2012). Culture is a product of asymmetric power relations and therefore cannot be devoid of critical, political theory (Mitchell, 2000). As culture is a dynamic process, it is important to recognize how disputes over representations and definitions of Trafalgar Square have evolved over time. This will necessitate a palimpsestuous perspective in order to understand how Trafalgar Square can only be constituted in and by the presence of the past. The palimpsest is an involuted structure where otherwise unrelated texts are intricately entangled and inhabit one another (Dillon, 2000; De Quincey and Lindop, 1988). In this essay, I will demonstrate how Trafalgar Square is a palimpsest of struggle between dominant and weaker members of society. The first cultural implication I will discuss will be the struggle over the ownership, representation and definition of space between Britain the imperial power and its imperial subjects by examining the statues and monuments within Trafalgar Square. The second cultural implication is the use of Trafalgar Square for activism and how this emphasizes the struggle between imperialist powers and subjects and also between the recognition of universal human rights versus systems of oppression. The final cultural implication I will analyse will be the installation of artwork in the Square to challenge the dominant, hegemonic ideas radiating from Trafalgar Square and how it endeavors to ascribe new meanings to the Square.

Figure 1: Sir General Charles James Napier
Figure 1: Sir General Charles James Napier

Trafalgar Square is a disputed space as it exhibits conflicts between the British who actively sought to extend their dominance and influence and simultaneously suppress the voices of their imperial subjects. In this regard, Trafalgar Square is used to exercise power on behalf of the British as a politically charged component of the social order. Trafalgar Square is a racialized space as all of the human statues within Trafalgar’s Square depict Caucasian figures who exercised great power in furthering Britain’s imperial objectives (directly and through the monarchy). For example, the statues of generals Napier and Havelock stand at the centre of contested histories as they were responsible for the confiscation of Indian land, the disarmament of Indian troops and war atrocities, yet are depicted as heroes (Cherry, 2006). Both Havelocke and Napier wear valiant expressions and are postured as if posing for a painting. To emphasize the power and “bravery” of Napier, he has a sword. With a government awarded scroll in hand he is granted a sense of legitimacy. The statues only illustrate the British interpretation of history as they were not constructed with input from, nor make explicit reference to, Indian imperial subjects who played a significant role in shaping British identity. Therefore, Trafalgar Square is a racialized space as it directly interlinks the Caucasian race to power and to the place itself (Lipsitz, 2007). Moreover, the statues represent a lieu de mémoire where one account of the past is evoked and represented, with some aspects highlighted and others subdued (Nora, 1989). In this way, these representations exhibit vested interests as they attempt to result in the “violent erasure and superimposition of culture[s]” (Dillon, 2006, 254). The British possess the power to represent their interpretation of history and therefore to define and claim Trafalgar Square as theirs. As all the statues in the Square are Caucasian, this is presented as the norm. This results in “Othering”, an exclusionary process which classifies non-Caucasians as “the other” and establishes British identity in juxtaposition to the “Other” (Nguyen, 2010). In Trafalgar Square, othering extends to class and gender as there are no female or working class figures in the Square. The absence of representation of these different groups denies the “Other” of their humanity and of their right to exist. It also denies the “Other” of the defining characteristics of the Caucasian statues: heroism, nobility and dignity (Said, 1978).

 Figure 2: Major General Sir Henry Havelock
Figure 2: Major General Sir Henry Havelock

However, the power exercised by the imposing statues is contested. The statues challenge the power of the British as they are mnemic works and thus “conjure other lives, ghosts and spectres who are often overshadowed by these actors in imperial history” (Cherry, 2006, 684). Freud et. al (1960) argued that the memory of the imperial past allows for the remembrance of the existence and experiences of the imperial subjects serves to contest the dominant version of history depicted by the statues. Therefore, the statues embody a struggle between competing narratives, as the voices of the suppressed Indians are interwoven into the overriding British voice as their experiences are indivisible. Consequently, the statues embody both the supremacy of the British and the Indian people’s struggle for existence and the “series of oppressions and displacements” which constitutes their past (Dillon, 2006, 254). The resurrection of the Indian ghosts contradicts the way in which the statues are presented (Derrida, 2006). Furthermore, the absence of representation of the Indian people in the Square can amplify the tension between British and Indian subjects because the ghosts are more open to imagination and interpretation of the public. Contrarily, the statues are confined to a single image which limits the scope of interpretation. As the Indian peoples exist in the imagination, they can be seen as existing in the present as opposed to the statues who appear frozen in time. This grants greater power to imperial subjects to “hantise” (Derrida, 2006, 31) – to never let the present and future forget their existence and struggles. Thus, the non-representation of imperial subjects is a form of resistance and resilience. The placement of the statues in the public arena of the Square denies the possibility of amnesia and allows collective mourning (Donohoe, 2014).

Figure 3: 21st March, 1970. The AAM reenactment in Trafalgar Square which 3000 people watched
Figure 3: 21st March, 1970. The AAM reenactment in Trafalgar Square which 3000 people watched

The idea of Trafalgar Square as a site of resistance and power struggle was strengthened by the use of the site for activism. Activism is inherently cultural because of the way in which it explicitly engages with power struggle and aims to present an alternative perspective and ultimately seek justice. Protests in the square started in the late 1890s and between 1960-1993 the UK’s Anti-Apartheid movement demonstrated in Trafalgar Square. In Trafalgar Square in 1970, the Anti-Apartheid movement recreated the Sharpeville massacre in South Africa whereby 69 out of 6000 black protestors were shot by the police whilst demonstrating against segregation laws (Frankel, 2001) in 1960. In the reenactment, many black South Africans gathered in the Square and were then “shot” by Caucasian men acting as South African police to the sound of recorded gunfire. The protestors then pretended to die (Thörn, 2006). The presence of many black people in the Square threatens the exclusionary and White supremacist nature of the Square and is successful in reclaiming the power that was taken from them by British colonization. The invasion of “British” space by blacks explicitly confronts the issue of colonization and forces London the imperial city to deal with the phenomenon from a reversed position. This act perfectly illustrates the recurrent palimpsestuous interplay of dominations, systematic reversals and subversive persistence (Foucault, 1977). Their mass presence provoked deliberation and engaged with questions of what and who should be represented in the Square and why.

Left: Figure 4: 21st March, 1970. Sharpeville massacre reenactment; Right: Figure 5: Anti-Apartheid protestors outside the South African Embassy in Trafalgar Square
Left: Figure 4: 21st March, 1970. Sharpeville massacre reenactment; Right: Figure 5: Anti-Apartheid protestors outside the South African Embassy in Trafalgar Square
Figure 6: George Ryan
Figure 6: George Ryan

The performance also restored black people of their humanity which was stolen from them by the act of colonization and their representative absence in the Square. The photographic evidence of the 1970 event depicts black people carrying the dying and injured blacks. The black actors appear wracked with despair. This is crucial as it shows that they are capable of emotion which is fundamental to being human (Damasio, 1994). Additionally, protests within the Square brought to light the lived realities of marginalized groups from their own perspectives. For example, the portrayal of life as a black person in South Africa by the protestors directly contradicted the image of George Ryan, an African soldier depicted at the foot of Nelson’s column. He is the only non-Caucasian figure portrayed in the Square and is seen to be fighting on behalf of Nelson in the battle of Trafalgar. This representation portrays blacks as allies of Caucasian people and their ambitions. Similarly, racial inequalities are not alluded to. Resistance against the dominant imagery of Trafalgar Square was also demonstrated by Caucasian people who acted as South African policemen. These actors portrayed Caucasians as brutal, irrational and destructive which greatly contrasted their heroic depiction in the Square. Moreover, photos of the reenactment and of other Anti-Apartheid rallies show Caucasians standing with and fighting for equal rights between blacks and Whites. Both acts of defiance served to dismantle commonly held and sometimes unconscious beliefs that tied certain races to the stereotypes implied by Trafalgar Square.

Figure 7: Alison Lapper Pregnant, 2005
Figure 7: Alison Lapper Pregnant, 2005

Despite these powerful acts of opposition, the meanings were sometimes subverted to bolster British patriotism. For example, at a Pro-Palestine rally in 2003 in Trafalgar Square the topic of Anti-Apartheid was revived. One speaker exclaimed ‘It was you English who first tackled South African apartheid. It was right here’ (Thompson, 2005). This statement glorifies Britain and increases British people’s sense of significance and morality in the world, which mirrors what the monuments in the Square try to achieve. The theme of morality is hypocritical as it only presents a fraction of the story and fails to recognize the role of the British in legitimatizing apartheid (Dowden, 1994). Furthermore, the very idea that a rally in Trafalgar Square could transform discourse and policies on race taking place 9000 miles away in South Africa stressed London’s importance on a global scale. This exemplifies a continuation of British imperialism exhibited by the Square and proof that Britain continues attempting to legitimize itself as a superior nation. Thusly, it is possible to see how the unequal power relations first exhibited by the Square in 1843 are still perpetuated within Trafalgar Square.

Figure 8: One and Other - Ms. Wardell a stay-at-home mum with an NSPCC “lollipop”
Figure 8: One and Other – Ms. Wardell a stay-at-home mum with an NSPCC “lollipop”
Figure 9: participant of One and Other
Figure 9: participant of One and Other

The Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square remained vacant until 1999, when Livingstone appointed a new Fourth Plinth Commissioning Group to select an ongoing series of art for the Plinth. The first statue installed as part of the program was “Alison Lapper Pregnant” by artist Quinn (Sumartojo, 2012). Quinn’s statue directly engaged with and contested the built environment of Trafalgar Square as it addressed the patriarchy exhibited by the all-male cast of statues; the idea of heroism solely based on imperial success and the notion of a monolithic British identity which is exclusive to upper class, able-bodied and Caucasian men. Therefore, the statue can be understood as an attempt to ascribe new values based on equality, acceptance and inclusion which serve to oppose and provide an alternative to the dominant values of hierarchy and imperialism. This exercise contributes to the re-writing of the British cultural identity. Similar to the Anti-Apartheid movements in the Square, the “Alison Lapper Pregnant” statue forced the public to reconsider who should be given space, represented and ultimately included not only in the Square, but also in society as the Square is reflective of British society and its imbued power relations. Moreover, the juxtaposition of Alison Lapper against the imperial statues forces the public to consider the connection between them. From this, the public will likely contemplate how Lapper too can be regarded a hero. As a disabled, pregnant woman, Lapper had to overcome many obstacles in order to live her daily life, as society is structured and built primarily for able-bodied citizens. In this way, the supposed accomplishments of the general’s pale in comparison to the humbling everyday achievements of Lapper. “Alison Lapper Pregnant” is inherently cultural not only because of the way it contests values held by Trafalgar Square, but also because of the way in which it contests wider, commonly held beliefs and issues surrounding body image; integration of disabled people and the position of women in society. However, the strength and bravery of Alison Lapper can only be understood in contrast to the male, imperial figures. This notion therefore reinforces the patriarchy and supposed importance of the figures, as they operate as a standard to which all other artworks in the Square can be compared.

Figure 10: Suren Seneviratne of One and Other
Figure 10: Suren Seneviratne of One and Other

Another art installation part of the Fourth Plinth program was Anthony Gormley’s “One and Other” project, which placed one British person on the Plinth for one hour at a time for 100 consecutive days. Applicants were chosen randomly and collectively represented their region’s percentage of the national population (Sumartojo, 2010). Gormley’s “portrait of Britain… of 2400 people’s lives” (Sooke, 2009) celebrated the diversity of the British population to the rest of the world. This project therefore exemplified how much Britain had achieved in terms of race relations and gender inequality since 1843 (the year Trafalgar Square was constructed) when ethnic minorities, women and other discriminated groups were not even granted the right to be represented. They were made invisible in an effort to write them out of history and memory. Through this project, not only were previously unrepresented groups of people made visible, but were celebrated and exercised the right to express their opinion just as all other participants. This suggests that contrary to the 19th century, British society now validates and cares about the opinions of all its citizens. Although this project centred on the notion of freedom, there were many external factors that limited the autonomy of the individuals. For example, before going on the plinth the individuals’ had to fill out forms proving their identity and ensuring that they wouldn’t break the law nor carry a weapon. Similarly, the selection of individuals was constrained to a specific number from each region. The extent of regulation lessened the project’s ability to portray itself as a revolutionary act which served to defy hegemonic power, Western cultural norms and reproduce narratives relating to nationhood and hierarchy propagated by the Square. In this way, “One and Other” is representative of asymmetric power relations between authority (Fourth Plinth Commissioning Group) and society and echoes the imbalanced power relations between authority and society inherent to imperialism. This highlights the importance of seeing from a palimpsestuous perspective as it illustrates how a true democracy can never be achieved as long as these unequal power relations prevail. Moreover, Miles (2011) explains how “One and Other” actually disempowered the individual because of the way in which they were presented separately, each with their own agenda as opposed to a collective message. In this way, the disparate themes of the individuals were unable to contend with the united and therefore more powerful messages of hierarchy, imperialism and patriarchy emanating from the Square.

During the course of this essay I have demonstrated how Trafalgar Square is a palimpsest of struggle. In the 18th century, the monolithic, imperial nature of Trafalgar Square served to eradicate ethnic minorities from memory and existence by not representing them and thus robbing them of their humanity. This attempt was contested by the very presence of the imperial statues which summoned the ghosts of the imperial subjects who challenged the representation of the imperial figures and their subjective, biased version of history. The contest between the imperial subjects and the imperial powers for recognition, status and claim to space is constantly revived in the Square. The Anti-Apartheid rallies in the late 19th century illustrated how the same global power imbalances that were relevant in the 18th century prevailed more than a hundred years later. This highlights the importance of a palimpsestuous perspective as it allows us to understand how power is transferred from elites to elites over generations and how Caucasian, upper-class men continue to retain and exercise power throughout time, due to the way in which their predecessors already structured society to this groups advantage. Moreover, it became apparent that the hierarchical, colonial and nationalist values embedded within the Square suffused the movement itself, thus demonstrating the power of the built environment of the Square and the values attached to it. In this manner, the Square is able to subvert the meanings of protests which challenged the inherent values of the Square and constantly build upon its global significance. However, it is important to understand how a century after the Square was constructed, a large proportion of society became conscious of systemic systems of oppression and afterwards how they undermined the authoritarian nature of the Square by using it as a democratic space. In the contemporary era, artwork has attempted to ascribe new egalitarian and inclusive meanings to the square to lessen the significance of dominant, hegemonic messages. Artwork as resistance was weakened by the power of the built environment of the Square, as it seemed that the artworks could only be understood within this particular context. The palimpsest proves that unequal power relations in the Square will reign in the future. What is needed to overcome this cannot solely rely on activism and artistic expression within the Square itself. A restructuring of society beyond the Square through discourse and policy is also necessary.


Pictures Index

Figure 1: Thornber, Craig. Sir Charles James Napier. Web. 8 Dec. 2016.

Figure 2: Landow, George. Major General Sir Henry Havelock. 2009. Web. 8 Dec. 2016.

Figure 3: Forward to Freedom,. Pic7002. Sharpeville Re-Enactment, 1970. Web. 8 Dec. 2016.

Figure 4: Getty images,. 1970. Web. 8 Dec. 2016.

Figure 5: Flashbak,. Anti-Apartheid Protestors With Placards Outside The South African Embassy In Trafalgar Square. Web. 8 Dec. 2016.

Figure 6: Londonist,. George Ryan. 2016. Web. 8 Dec. 2016.

Figure 7: Wikipedia,. Alison Lapper Pregnant. 2005. Web. 8 Dec. 2016.

Figure 8: The Telegraph,. Ms Wardell, 35, Described Herself As A “Stay-At-Home Mum” Who Had Never Had Much Involvement In The Arts. She Stood On The Plinth With A Huge Green “Lollipop” Which Had Childline On One Side And The NSPCC On The Other. 2016. Web. 8 Dec. 2016.

Figure 9: Getty images,. One And Other 4Th Plinth. Web. 8 Dec. 2016.

Figure 10: Gg-Art.Com,. Suren Seneviratne. Web. 8 Dec. 2016.

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