Persistent Coloniality: Toronto’s Equestrian Statue of Edward VII

 
 The Equestrian Statue of Edward VII in Toronto, Canada. At the time this photo was taken, renovations were underway to enlarge the plaza that encircles the statue. (Photo by author.)

The Equestrian Statue of Edward VII in Toronto, Canada. At the time this photo was taken, renovations were underway to enlarge the plaza that encircles the statue. (Photo by author.)

 

It was a picture-perfect day as I sat down on a public bench in the center of Queen’s Park in Toronto. There were children playing about me, people casually strolling, and sunshine breaking unevenly through the canopy of oak and maple trees. I was early for my presentation at the nearby University of Toronto so I sat and took in a scene from Toronto’s most symbolically important park.[1] What I saw before me called up not just memories of previous park experiences but countless design renders from city planning to landscape architectural presentations.

Directly in front of me was a large equestrian statue cast in bronze. I did not think much about it until I noticed a plaque jutting awkwardly up from the ground in front. Suddenly, I was compelled to know more about this work. It turns out that the statue depicts Edward VII, who was the king of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland from 1901 until his death in 1910.[2] Dressed in military regalia, he is represented sitting with ease on his prancing mount. One hand pulls back the reins while the other holds onto a plumed helmet.

The aforementioned plaque is the largest of three in front of the statue.[3] Shaped like a shield and adorned with a bas-relief of the British Crown, laurels, and ribbons, it proclaims:

This tablet was placed in position by his majesty King George V, Emperor of India, on the occasion of his visit to Delhi for the coronation. Durbar 15th December, 1911.

George V was the second son of Edward VII. He was anointed King of the United Kingdom and the British Dominions as well as the Emperor of India after his father died. India was considered to be the “the brightest jewel in the Imperial diadem” of the British Empire by the British. Royal Academy sculptor Thomas Brock was commissioned to create the statue of Edward VII specifically for the Durbar of 1911. Four years later, in 1919, it was relocated to the King Edward VII Park in Delhi.[4]

The Durbar of 1911 was staged to mark the succession of the Emperor of India with the passing away of Edward VII and the ascent of George V. The event took the form of an extravagantly staged public reception with maharajahs from across India arriving to take their turns swearing loyalty to the new Emperor of India George V and his wife, Mary, the Queen Consort of the United Kingdom and the British Dominions and Empress of India.[5]

The second plaque in front of the statue bears a modest stamp of the crest of the province of Ontario and declares:

Queen’s Park. This park was opened September 11th, 1860 by the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII and named in honour of his mother Queen Victoria. Erected by the Toronto Historical Board.

1860 is an auspicious year in Chinese history. It was the year of the Convention of Beijing and the end of the Opium War, an ignominious conflict between China and the British Empire over the right of the British to exchange opium for silks, teas, porcelain and other desired Chinese goods. With the end of the Opium War, Kowloon and Hong Kong were ceded in perpetuity to the British and, in 1898, a ninety-nine-year-lease was accorded to the British in terms of an additional part of the Kowloon peninsula known as the New Territories. When that lease expired in 1997, Britain had little choice but to “return” what would have been an economically isolated Hong Kong. In advance of the repatriation of Hong Kong to China in 1997, thousands of Hong Kong Chinese applied for Canadian passports with the hope of settling in mostly Vancouver and Toronto.

The third plaque reads:

Equestrian Statue of King Edward VII. Originally standing in Edward Park, Delhi, India, this statue was erected on the present site through the generous subscriptions of the citizens of this area. This gift to the City of Toronto was made possible by the Government of India and the former Canadian High Commissioner to India. His Excellency The Right Honorable Roland Michener, C.C., C.D. Governor General of Canada, and brought to the City through the personal generosity of Henry R. Jackman, Esq. Q.C.

May 24, 1969.

William Dennison, Mayor.

As a Canadian of Cantonese-Chinese descent this statement is a clear reminder of Canada’s persistent coloniality even during the period of major world-wide political upheaval as the world decolonized from various European yokes after the Second World War and through to the end of 1960s. The statue of King Edward VII was removed from India as part of a “process of getting rid of reminders of the days of British rule.” And yet in 1969 Canada wanted this statue as its own. This was at the end of a decade of rising Canadian consciousness and sensitivity about Canada’s place in the world under Pierre Trudeau’s premiership and his Third Option politics of greater national autonomy especially from American economic and cultural influence on Canada. There was also desire on the part of Trudeau and an increasingly multi-cultural Canada to lessen British cultural influence. The British North American Act that had served as Canada’s de facto constitution since the confederation year of 1867 would soon be amended.

 
 Plaque from Mayor Denninson announcing the move of the Equestrian Statue of King Edward VII from Dehli, India to Toronto, Canada in 1969. (Source:  Notes From the Floating World )

Plaque from Mayor Denninson announcing the move of the Equestrian Statue of King Edward VII from Dehli, India to Toronto, Canada in 1969. (Source: Notes From the Floating World)

 

My childhood took place in Vancouver during the 1960s and I recall experiencing the oppressive divide between Canadians of British descent and pretty much everyone else. Skin colour constituted a further major divide between white and non-white. British expat scholars dominated Canadian universities at the cost of academic diversity and this dominance continued for many years until many of them retired decades later. The historical collections of art museums across Canada were full of British painters and especially those known for landscape-as-arcadia painting.[7]

The story of Edward VII’s statue is also a story of the divides within the British Empire itself, which later became known, after post-colonization, as the Commonwealth of Nations. The first divide is between those countries that were colonized and experienced the traumas of colonization, such as India, African and Caribbean countries  and those countries referred to as dominions, such as Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Originally, there were three other dominions including the Irish Free State, South Africa and Newfoundland. For me, the second divide would be experienced from within Canada and that would be between the ruling Anglophiles and the many subjugated and disenfranchised peoples within Canada who did not identify as Anglophile.  

The move of the Edward VII equestrian statue from Delhi to Toronto was financed by Harry Jackman, who was the CEO of the aptly named Empire Life Insurance. The statue arrived in Toronto in late 1968 but its presence was not publicly acknowledged until early 1969 when the Mayor of Toronto William Dennison formally accepted the statue as a donation on behalf of the Parks and Recreation Committee. This was all done without any public discussion. The Mayor even agreed to Jackman’s suggestion of its placement at its present site directly front and centre of the oval grounds south of the Ontario Legislature Building in Queen’s Park. Such a move without democratic process would likely not have been controversial for the then dominant British ex-patriate population of Toronto. As for the voices of other Torontonians, I suspect that they surely knew their places.

This was how I remember my childhood in Vancouver. At school “God Save The Queen” was sung regularly each morning after “O Canada.” The Lord’s Prayer would then follow to open the school day. I remember several of my teachers referencing the government of South Africa as heroic in their struggle to bring “civilization” to the apartheid country. The schools I attended, including Admiral Seymour Elementary School, Lord Selkirk Elementary School, and Gladstone Secondary School, were all named after Britons who had built their careers committing repressive acts against many colonized peoples. Admiral Seymour Elementary School was located in the eastern edge of Strathcona, a neighborhood of predominantly working class Cantonese-Chinese that bordered Vancouver Chinatown. As an adult I learned that Admiral Seymour was commander in chief of China Station, which comprised all naval interactions along the entirety of China’s coastline and waterways. Seymour destroyed numerous Chinese war-junks in the Battle of Canton leading to the final Chinese defeat in the Opium Wars.

In 1914, three years after the inauguration of the Edward VII statue in Delhi, almost four hundred passengers from the province of Punjab in British India sailed the Japanese registered steamship Komagata Maru from Hong Kong to Vancouver. As citizens of the British Empire, their passports afforded them the privileges to travel and emigrate to any other part of the Empire—or so they thought. Racist policy prevented the tired passengers from being able to disembark in Vancouver. A fully armed Canadian naval ship was mobilized to meet the Komagata Maru. The ship was anchored in Vancouver harbour from May 23, 1914 to July 23. All but twenty returning passengers were permitted ashore.[8] The ship was forced to return to India by way of Kolkata and within hours of disembarking, twenty of the Komagata Maru passengers would be killed by British Indian police gunfire.

Edward VII’s equestrian statue tramples the ground on which it stands in the center of Queen’s Park. This ground is the very ground on which First Nations history is sited. And yet this history is literally and figuratively overshadowed by a figure that embodies a certain kind of imperial and colonial power and its forceful privileging of that which is male and white. While the statue may seem to represent a benign part of a picture-perfect scene in Toronto’s most important historical park, it is vital to look in the shadows of this statue and think about all that lies beneath.


Ken Lum is the Chief Curatorial Advisor and Co-Founder of Monument Lab. He is the Chair of the Graduate Fine Arts Department and a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Design.


[1] The park is home to the Ontario Legislative Building and its name is often used metonymically for the Government of Ontario.
[2] Edward VII was born in 1841 and the second child of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.
[3] Together the three plaques form chapters that tell the history of this statue.
[4] The park was renamed after Indian Nationalist Netaji Subhash Bose following Indian independence in 1947.
[5] A giant tent city was erected in Delhi just to house the many maharajahs and their families who had come from all across India for the event.
[6] I am thinking especially of those paintings of Richard Wilson.
[7] There were already a small population of South Asians in Vancouver at the time.

Ken Lum