Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Re-dressing Queen Victoria

Re-dressing Queen Victoria

Dhanesh Wisumperuma

The Nation, 2013-11-10, CHOGM (Special section) p. 6

The statue of Queen Victoria was among the topics discussed by some circles recently. The issue was the action taken by museum authorities to turn the statue to face Nelum Pokuna Mawatha. The statue was moved from the Gordon Gardens premises adjoining President’s House at Fort and was temporary dumped at Viharamahadevi Park in May 2006. Later it was moved to the museum premises and re-fixed.
The sudden ‘facelift’ is attributed by some to the forthcoming Commonwealth Summit. A recent BBC news report said that the statue was moved from its ‘original location’ (Gordon Gardens) to the museum site. There was a statement by a political commentator mentioned in this news, saying that the seven-year-curse has ended.

When we look deep into facts that history reveals, many have forgotten the real history–when the statue was erected, where it was originally located, from where to where it was moved etc. In short, the statue of Queen Victoria was originally placed in front of the Passenger Jetty of the Colombo Harbour in 1902. It was then moved to Gordon Gardens in 1920s, which was a public park then. It was brought to President’s House about 30 years ago.

The story

Queen Vitoria was the queen of the British Empire for nearly 64 years from 1837 to 1901. She became the queen at the age of 18 years.
The diamond jubilee of her enthronement was celebrated in 1897 and many celebrations were held all over the colonies of the empire. The Ceylon Legislative Council, which met on June 22 in 1897, passed a resolution stating that a statue of the Queen be erected in the island at the cost of the public revenue, and as acommemoration of the 60th anniversary of Her Majesty’s accession to the throne. This resolution was proposed by the Governor and seconded by P. Coomaraswamy, the Tamil representative and it was taken as carried unanimously.

Hansard of that day depicts the colonial mentality of Council members. It was said that a statue of the queen was “a long-felt want”. One member said, “If anything were to compensate a people for the loss of their national independence, it is to be governed by such a sovereign as Queen Victoria.” He further said, “Every one of us now and in the future may look upon her face and say that this has been the greatest and best queen that we have ever known.”
The location selected for the statue was a site in front of the Passenger Jetty of Colombo Harbor, and at the junction of York and Church Streets. It is a locality in front of the Grand Oriental Hotel. There stood the Ceylon Tea Kiosk, a popular shop among the passengers and the government paid compensation and acquired that land plot for the statue. Rs. 22,700 was allocated in 1900 to compensate for the owner of the Tea Kiosk. The map of the Fort area in the fifth edition of George Skeen’s “A Guide to Colombo” published in 1901 points the space reserved for the statue.

It took few years to complete the statue. The state of the statue was once questioned at the Legislative Council in October 1901. That revealed the progress of the work and the acting Colonial Secretary, who was in London few months ago, said that he inspected the model. The marble block, which was imported to London from Italy, was on its way to London at that point. The artist was the famous London based sculptor, George Edward Wade. West Ridgeway, the governor opined, “it will be an effigy that at which the Colony will have reason to be proud”.

The statue finally arrived in Colombo in mid 1902, after the death of the Queen. It was ceremonially unveiled on June 25 in 1902 by the Lieutenant Governor Everard F. imThurn. A large number of state and military officials, religious sector representatives, MC members and local elites participated. A news report of the day provided a good description of the statue – it was made out of Carrara marble, imported from Italy. This marble is a type of white or blue grey marble used for sculpture and building decoration from the ancient times. The statue of the queen was in coronation robes. It was mounted on a square pedestal of grey granite with an octagonal base. The total height was 21 feet and the weight was 13 tons.
The accompanying photograph is from the 20th century Impressions of Ceylon, published in 1907.

Gordon Gardens

The statue was at its original location until mid 1920s and then it was moved to Gordon Gardens. According to Allister Macmillan’s Seaports of India and Ceylon published in 1928, the statue was at Gordon Gardens. He wrote,“the old Dutch cemetery is Gordon Gardens, commemorating a distinguished governor, to which has recently been transferred from another site a Jubilee statue of Queen Victoria enthroned,...” This transfer has taken place around that time, but I am yet unable to find any reference to the exact date.However it could be as a result of erecting a new Custom House at the Passenger Jetty, which was completed around 1929.

However, at this time Gordon Gardens was not a part of the Governor’s residence. It was a public park since its inception and according to our friend and former ambassador Bandu de Silva, the park was closed and used to park vehicles of the Ministry of Defence and External Affairs in 1970s. Later it became a part of the premises of President’s House around 1980.

The statue moved from Gordon Gardens to Viharamahadevi Park (which in fact the Victoria Park during colonial times) and then to the Colombo Museum site in 2006. Certain newspaper reports reported that this was done due to the instructions given by ‘astrologers’ to the president. But it is the Victorian curse and the colonial mentality, which is above all, still haunting our society.

What’s the best place?

Those who are familiar with the history know what happened under Queen Victoria’s regime. To recall some events, the Matale Rebellion and its suppression took place in 1848 and the implementation of the Wastelands Ordinance was also during her reign. Expansion of the plantations which devastated the ecosystems, biodiversity as well as traditional village life took place during this era. Modes of transport such as railways, harbours etc, that are described as a benefit to the country, were developed to facilitate this economic exploitation.

There is no necessity to worry about moving a statue of our former colonial ruler. Since we cannot change what happened in history,such statutes and other similar memorials are a part of history. History cannot be erased by dumping or scrapping these memorials. These statues are masterpieces of art even are the works of European artists. For instance, G.E. Wade was known for his sculpture.Hence, the best option available is to place it in a suitable site – a museum. Queen Victoria’s statue is now in an appropriate place.
Instead of debating on this statue, it is the time to look deep into the negative impact of the British administration of Sri Lanka, which some seems to have forgotten.It will reveal details of the real ‘curse’ on the nation.- See more at: http://www.nation.lk/edition/feature-issues/item/22518-re-dressing-queen-victoria.html#sthash.kuhVvzyJ.dpuf

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