Kashmeri: The Function Of Memorials

Sep 12, 2017

I spent my early years in what was then called Bombay, where after Indian Independence, I saw first-hand the removal of statues that honored English monarchs, generals, and other luminaries of the more than two hundred years of British rule in India.

I especially remember the time when the Indian government removed a very large and exceptional marble statue of Queen Victoria that dominated an intersection leading to the heart of the city. But the city itself is full of imposing Victorian era buildings that were financed by leading Indian businessmen whose fortunes were built on the Opium trade with China.

It was under Queen Victoria’s reign that industrial scale production of Opium was established in India for distribution in China. This was in furtherance of the Victorian policy of bringing China to its knees so that Colonial Britain could enrich itself on the backs of the Chinese, as it had done already for centuries on the backs of Indians - excepting of course the Indian businessmen who had collaborated with the English to establish and conduct the Opium trade with China.

I couldn’t see what possible good it would do to remove Queen Victoria’s statue, while leaving intact all the surrounding buildings that were the result of investment by willing Indian partners in the British policies that created millions of Chinese Opium addicts.

And just as I could name a number of prominent Indian corporations that today owe their success to the ruthless escalation of Opium addiction, so too could I easily name a number of prominent New York financial institutions that enriched themselves by financing Southern businesses built on slave labor.

Come to think of it, maybe that’s why so many statues of Confederate General Robert E Lee face north – to remind us that a large part of the Southern slave economy was, in fact, underwritten by Northerners.

Human history is a messy process, and resists most efforts – no matter how well-intentioned – to make it all neat and tidy. But art is capable of distilling complex events into powerful and illuminating images that command our attention; that oblige us to remember - and try to come to terms with - how we got to be who we are.

So I guess if it were up to me, I’d leave the statues where they are, and let them speak for themselves. They're an integral part of American history. Southerners may have built an economy on slave labor, but Northerners certainly enabled America's original sin.