Why Trafalgar? #20

Posted: March 23, 2011 in Uncategorized

Owen Holland is a student at Cambridge University

Trafalgar Square is a space consecrated to the celebration of imperialism. As Rodney Mace eloquently put it in his short cultural history Trafalgar Square: Emblem of Empire (1976), “the Square in its design is an impenitent and rather vulgar commemorative edifice to both men and events which had, by force of arms, extended the hegemony of British capital over large areas of the globe.”[1] British imperialism is not quite as hegemonic nowadays as it was in the nineteenth century, being more of an adjunct to the US-led, contemporary imperial formation known as NATO. The bas-reliefs at the foot of the Nelson Memorial, which commemorate Nelson’s victories at St. Vincent (1797), the Nile (1798), Copenhagen (1801) and Trafalgar (1805), depict images of an outmoded and superseded form of imperial warfare. As NATO continues to bomb Libya, in an attempt to rehabilitate the concept of humanitarian intervention, Nelson’s victory over the French navy at Aboukir seems like a distant memory at a time when the British and French governments – along with their NATO allies – are united in launching devastating attacks further west along the North African coastline.

In his utopian romance, News from Nowhere, written in 1890 and serialised in Commonweal, the newspaper of the Socialist League, William Morris offers a speculative re-visualisation of Trafalgar Square. The space is re-imagined as a “large open space” lined with “tall old pear-trees” and “apricot trees, in the midst of which was a pretty gay little structure of wood, painted and gilded, that looked like a refreshment stall”.[2] The telos of capital accumulation which is concretised at the apogee of the vertical, phallic column is effaced in Morris’s utopian imagination in order to make way for an orchard – a use of space which is inextricably bound up with seasonal patterns of change and renewal as well as, in this instance, generous provision guaranteed by fruitful abundance.

Morris’s desire to transform Trafalgar Square was, in part, a result of his architectural distaste for the “tall ugly houses”, the “ugly church”, the “nondescript ugly cupolaed building” and the “good many singularly ugly bronze images (one on top of a tall column)” (CW: 16, 41) which still fill up the spot to this day. St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields, the National Gallery and the Nelson Memorial are the particular targets which Morris had in mind. But Morris’s utopian transfiguration of Trafalgar Square as an orchard is also an anti-imperialist gesture which radically challenges the symbolic and ideological use of public space to which the Square is currently given over.

The Riots in London on Sunday, Nov. 13, Defence of Trafalgar Square, Illustrated London News (London, England), Saturday, November 19, 1887, pg. 605, Issue 2535.jpeg

It is a space which has been a site of ideological contestation for some time. On November 13th 1887, for example, Trafalgar Square played host to a scene of violent confrontation between police and Free Speech demonstrators who were protesting against Irish Coercion laws and the imprisonment of William O’Brien. John Burns and the socialist MP for N.W. Lanark, R.B. Cunninghame Graham were both arrested and beaten, as were many other demonstrators. The day, which came to be known as Bloody Sunday, brought together groups including the Metropolitan Radical Association, the Law and Liberty League, Irish nationalists and socialist organisations such as the Social Democratic Federation and the Socialist League. In advance of the demonstration, Sir Charles Warren, the Chief Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, issued a proclamation banning the right to assembly in an attempt to prohibit the march from taking place. When the demonstrators refused to cancel the event, Warren resorted to tactics of forcible repression, calling in the Life Guards and signing up hundreds of volunteer ‘special constables’ – young, ‘respectable’, bourgeois men who relished the chance to meet out some violent treatment to workers with legal sanction. The mainstream Illustrated London News produced images of the ‘riot’, diffusing the political content of the event to make it available as a spectacle for bourgeois consumption (see image 1, attached).[3]

The memory of the Paris communards’ demolition of the Vendôme Column – another monument to imperial hubris, albeit in a different national context – haunted the bourgeois cultural imaginary in this period. In 1871, the very same Illustrated London News had supplied arresting images of the pulling down of the Column (see image 2, attached).[4] After the suppression of the Commune, the column was re-installed between 1873 and 1875: “[t]he old Roman Bonaparte was restored on the top of the column where he may still be seen today.”[5] Anti-imperialists have never quite achieved the same symbolic victory in Trafalgar Square as did the communards in Paris, although it is well worth listening to a song by the Irish folk band, the Dubliners, entitled ‘Dublin/Nelson’s Farewell’ which celebrates the skilful removal by a group of Republicans of the statue of Nelson from the top of Nelson’s Pillar in Dublin in 1966 – on the fiftieth anniversary of the Easter Rising. There’s also a decent rendition commemorating the event entitled ‘Up Went Nelson’, set to the tune of ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic’, a.k.a ‘John Brown’s Body’, a.ka. ‘Solidarity Forever’.


[1] Rodney Mace, Trafalgar Square: Emblem of Empire (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1976), p.7.

[2] The Collected Works of William Morris, 24 vols (London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1914)  vol. 16, p. 41.

[3] ‘The Riots in London on Sunday, Nov. 13, Defence of Trafalgar Square’, Illustrated London News Saturday, November 19, 1887.

[4] ‘The Place Vendome Column’, Illustrated London News, Saturday, May 27, 1871.

[5] Albert Boime, Hollow Icons: The Politics of Sculpture in Nineteenth-Century France (London, 1987), p.9.

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