Ultimately, All Monuments are Ozymandias 254

The great philosopher John Stuart Mill probably did more than anyone to map out the proper boundaries of the individual and the state in the western model of political democracy. Furthermore, he talked not just of the state but of societal behaviour as it impacts on individuals. Through the power of thought his influence on the development of the modern world has been enormous, even if many have never heard of him. He was four generations ahead of his time; but that is in part true because his own writings helped shape the future. This from the New Yorker is a fine example of the received view of Mill among the modern liberal intelligentsia:

Mill believed in complete equality between the sexes, not just women’s colleges and, someday, female suffrage but absolute parity; he believed in equal process for all, the end of slavery, votes for the working classes, and the right to birth control (he was arrested at seventeen for helping poor people obtain contraception), and in the common intelligence of all the races of mankind. He led the fight for due process for detainees accused of terrorism; argued for teaching Arabic, in order not to alienate potential native radicals; and opposed adulterating Anglo-American liberalism with too much systematic French theory—all this along with an intelligent acceptance of the free market as an engine of prosperity and a desire to see its excesses and inequalities curbed. He was right about nearly everything, even when contemplating what was wrong: open-minded and magnanimous to a fault, he saw through Thomas Carlyle’s reactionary politics to his genius, and his essay on Coleridge, a leading conservative of the previous generation, is a model appreciation of a writer whose views are all wrong but whose writing is still wonderful. Mill was an enemy of religious bigotry and superstition, and a friend of toleration and free thought, without overdoing either. (No one has ever been more eloquent about the ethical virtues of Jesus of Nazareth.)

Yet for a living John Stuart Mill was Secretary to the Political Committee of the East India Company, and actively involved in the rapacious colonisation of India and the enforced opening of China to opium sales. How do we cope with this? Mill has possibly influenced my thinking more than any other political writer. I would start any political education with a reading of Mill’s On Liberty and J A Hobson’s Imperialism: A Study. But how do we process Mill’s involvement with the East India Company? Should Mill’s statue be ripped from Victoria Embankment Gardens and dumped in the Thames?

I do not ask that as a rhetorical question. It is a dilemma. Historians of thought have tended to deal with it by ignoring Mill’s day job. I have read three biographies of Mill and I have a fourth, by Timothy Larsen, waiting to be started. Richard Reeves comes closest of Mill’s biographers to addressing Mill’s work for the East India Company but tells us almost nothing on the subject that is not from Mill’s own Autobiography. In his Autobiography, what Mill mostly tells us about his work for the EIC is that it did not take up too much of his time.

If Mill were a dentist, for biographers to ignore his day job and concentrate on his philosophy would make sense. But Mill’s day job was governing a very significant proportion of the world’s population. He did not just work at the East India Company, he was perhaps, as Secretary of the Political Committee, the most important civil servant there. Mill wrote and signed off detailed instructions to Governors General. He issued advice – which was expected to be followed – on trade and military affairs, and on governance. It is fascinating to me that in his Autobiography Mill systematically downplays his role in the East India Office, both in terms of his commitment and his importance within the organisation.

There has been much more written about Mill and the East India Company by Indian researchers than by western researchers, because it is of course an excellent illustration of the hypocrisies of western liberalism, that its figurehead was so enmired in the colonial project. Unfortunately, many of these studies lack nuance and tend to accuse Mill of being things he definitely was not, such as a racist. East India Company policies are ascribed to Mill which Mill was demonstrably and actively against, such as the anglicising project of Trevelyan and Macaulay. Mill did not view British culture as superior, and he was horrified by initiatives like the ending of communal land ownership in Bengal and the British creation of a Bengali landlord class there. I broadly recommend this article by Mark Tunick, though like almost everything published on the subject it suffers from the drawback of discussing what Mill wrote about governing India rather than the much harder task of discussing what he wrote in governing India. The subject needs solid analysis of Mill’s thousands of minutes and despatches in the East India Company records.

Mill worked with Burnes to try to avoid the First Afghan War, but like Burnes he did not resign over it, nor over the appalling war crimes committed by the British in its prosecution. Mill had been the guiding hand behind the long Governor Generalship of Lord Bentinck and its policy of avoiding war and expansion; but Mill was still there administering when that ended, through the annexations of Sindh and Nepal and Baluchistan and the most aggressive period of Imperial expansionism. Mill was there for the opium wars.

So how do we come to terms with our past? If slavery is the touchstone of good and bad, Mill is fine. He was a dedicated an effective lifetime opponent of slavery, including in EIC territories, and was highly influential in assuring the UK did not recognise the Confederacy in the US civil war. But if you look at the atrocious crimes of British imperialism, the financial and economic rape of whole continents, the killing, torture, terror and physical rape, why would slavery be the only criterion to judge people?

I have chosen Mill because he was a demonstrably good man, and yet I perfectly understand why a person of Indian or Chinese heritage might want to dump him in the Thames. There are others Imperialists, like Napier, Gordon or Wolseley, with statues all over the country, whose deeds are not admirable to a modern eye, particularly as our society is now a great deal less homogenous and contains descendants of those whose cities were pillaged and people raped and slaughtered by these military prodigies.

I don’t have all the answers. My life of Alexander Burnes tried to find a way to treat a remarkable man who lived by the mores of times not our own. The answer lies not in glorifying nor in destroying our past.

Monuments do not stand still. They are, ultimately, all of them Ozymandias. Destruction of historical artifacts is a bad thing; they are valuable tools for understanding the past, and of artistic and cultural value in themselves. But it is perfectly natural that in public spaces we wish to have public objects that reflect the mores of our own times. The important thing is to understand that the mores of the times do change; our great grandchildren will undoubtedly think we were quaint and had weird beliefs.

A thought on Edward Colston. His involvement in slavery was as a director of the Royal African Company. The Royal in that title is not meaningless; the company was set up specifically to make the monarch rich. A far more practical way to honour the memory of the slaves would be to abolish the monarchy. That would be a meaningful action.

A further thought. Living here in Edinburgh I find it absolutely infuriating that we have a major street named after the genocidal sadist the Duke of Cumberland. (Yes, Cumberland Street is specifically named after him). Respecting the past does not mean our society cannot move on. Street names and statues are signs of honour. There are plenty that should be removed from the street and placed in museums, where they can be explained and contextualised.

When Horatio Nelson helped to “free” the Kingdom of the Sicilies from Napoleon and restore its appalling autocratic monarchy, Neapolitan writers and intellectuals were shot and hung on Nelson’s flagship, anchored off Naples so the mob could not intervene to save them. Nelson watched some of the executions between bouts of shagging Lady Hamilton. I do not recommend toppling Nelson’s column; but I do advocate some real information about him in an education centre under the square.

UPDATE: I see that Liverpool University have just agreed to rename Gladstone Hall because Gladstone’s father was a slave owner. That is, I think, an appalling act of stupidity from what is supposed to be an institute of learning.

Very many thanks to the 700 people who have applied to follow virtually the criminal proceedings against me which start tomorrow. It is just a procedural court hearing tomorrow and I am worried that nothing much may happen. I do hope you will not get bored and give up on the rest of the case when it comes. In Julian Assange’s case, the behaviour of the judge has been outrageous even in the procedural hearings, but we should not take for granted that the same will happen here.

The court has been informing people they are not allowed to record, or to publish while the court is in session. That is true; but you can take notes, and you are allowed to publish factual accounts of what happened once the court closes.


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254 thoughts on “Ultimately, All Monuments are Ozymandias

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  • Lou Nisbet

    I also (born in Edinburgh) am infuriated daily by MSPs and Journos refusing to name our parliament properly. The clue is in history and the spelling. It is Holy Rood NOT Hollyrood – and interestingly the spell checker just coughed at Hollyrood. I wish our representatives would do the same.

    • N_

      @Lou – Should people make the sign of the true cross when they say the words “holy rood”, for tradition’s sake?

    • E Powell

      They are going to have to delete all movies who have a part of a black servant, gardener, driver etc. then.

      • Jack

        I wonder how they will do with the books, I think we will see a removal there too.

    • Ian

      It hasn’t been banned, just removed from streaming services who care about the society they live in. You are still free to watch it, as they are free to take it off their service. That’s freedom for you. What a pathetic wailing and gnashing of teeth, as if you are threatened by a decision which won’t affect you in the slightest.

      • Jack


        You have became radicalized beyond reason now by supporting censorship of movies. There’s no talking to you.

      • Steph

        ‘streaming services who care about the society they live in’

        I find that concept quite novel. It reminds me of that line in Frasier ‘We care so you don’t have to’. It is so good to know streaming services care about my society and will select which films are acceptable on my behalf.

      • B Norman

        Gone With The Wind is the highest grossing film of all time. Just sayin’….. 😉

    • Spencer Eagle

      “Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.” ~ George Orwell, 1984

    • N_

      How about “The Birth of a Nation” (1915) and “The Black Stork” (1917)?

      The far right is very serious about causing race war to move society to how they want it, not just in the US but throughout what they see as “white lands”, i.e. all of North America and Europe. I don’t mean to sound like Archbishop Vigano but various conflicting sides with doubtless many sincere followers actually are being influenced centrally. Pretty clear in Seattle.

    • Charlton Heston

      And when are the politically correct, ‘woke’ Channel 4 going to stop showing ‘Planet of the Apes’. Toppling statues of humans and replacing them with statues of apes?! Jeez! C’mon. “God damn you! God damn you all to Hell!!”

  • eddie

    Even Isaac Newton, who’s statue you’ll find outside the british library, could only have done his pioneering, revolutionary work in physics given the leisure time and wealth afforded him by the sweat of peasant labourers, little better than slaves. Tear himm down!

    • N_

      @Eddie – You think slavery was progressive, don’t you? Why not say so without sarcasm? Can’t your notion be supported any other way?

      “Hypocrisy is the ransom that vice pays to virtue”.

      I’ll say one thing for Newton: at least he didn’t come up with the theory of gravity while working at the satanic mill that is Trinity College in Cambridge University. He did it while he was back in Lincolnshire.

  • N_

    (Colston’s) involvement in slavery was as a director of the Royal African Company. The Royal in that title is not meaningless; the company was set up specifically to make the monarch rich. A far more practical way to honour the memory of the slaves would be to abolish the monarchy.

    Yes indeed. The royalist-slavery connection is something the lickspittles and scribes don’t want to look at too closely at all. It’s probably also why Andrew “Lord” Adonis has put Cromwell into the news. They’re associating a republican leader with “bad” not because they care about the memory of Irish slaves but so as to discourage people from looking at the royal family.

    The Stuart family set up the Royal African Company within months of getting the throne back in 1660. I doubt the current British regime, known as the “UK” (the “Kingdom” bit in “United Kingdom” isn’t “meaningless” either), could cope with a lot of light being thrown on the said Company.

    Four years later the slaver Stuarts renamed New Amsterdam “New York” after their man the “Duke of York” who became James II. A leading figure in thr Company, he owned thousands of slaves, whom he had branded “DY” for “Duke of York” with hot iron both before and after he became “king”. Interestingly some “Jacobite” leaders (“Jacobite” indicating loyalty to “James III”, a later member of the same family) became slave owners in the West Indies in the following century too.

    The current monarch is a descendant of slaver James.

    Symbols are important. And they are useful points to attack.

    1. Abolish the monarchy.
    2. Rename New York and Washington so as not to honour slavers.

    Never mind Nelson’s column for the time being. (We can topple that later.) Right now, there are two other statues in Trafalgar square that need some “attention”:

    * the equestrian statue of Charles I that looks down Whitehall (he established the Royal African Company), and

    * the statue of James II (“DY”) outside the National Gallery.

    • Frank Frink

      N_, you are spot on here. And so are many of the other comments. We all seem to know instinctively, that destruction of cultural heritage is the precursor to ethnic cleansing and genocide – in peace time as well as war time. As usual, the actual Law confirms that our instincts are correct.
      “As much as we value art and heritage, our heartstrings are pulled toward the judicial protection of life and dignity, if we are forced to choose. For the perpetrator, however, there are different considerations. Those who intend to do civilians harm have two goals: to eliminate that population and to remove any material evidence of that people’s existence. Mass killing and cultural destruction are simply two different stages in the same violent process of ethnic cleansing and genocide. If we consider the intent of violence against civilians, then the division collapses between crimes against human life and crimes against culture. Present-day oppressors and terrorists do not see this distinction in their actions. Neither should we.”

      I have used this from Apollo Magazine because it is brief and easy to understand – but it is exactly what the Law says. In fact this truly superb article goes on to say –
      “The systematic violations of the Geneva Conventions and international humanitarian law in Bosnia-Herzegovina – including the destruction of cultural and religious property – led in 1993 to the establishment of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) by the United Nations. Like the Rome Statute of the ICC, the ICTY Statute gave direct protection to cultural property. ……. Mark Ellis, chief executive of the International Bar Association and a war crimes expert, observed: ‘Destruction of cultural heritage is not a second-rate crime. It’s part of an atrocity to erase a people.’ ”
      (In fact Serbia could have made the same complaint, but it would have been historic and to do with the Ottomans – it is best to get your complaints in straight after the event, not let it fester for decades.)
      I should just add that the Apollo article is about destruction of cultural heritage in wartime – but the Law does not distinguish between War and Peace when considering this crime against humanity, because it is frequently the case that States allow groups within that State to commit such crimes against a section of its own people, and there is no War. It is the State doing it, directly or indirectly, to a section of its own people – whether that section is indigenous or not, a minority or not.

    • Bayard

      Interesting that slavery should have started with the Stuarts, kings of Scotland. I wonder if it had anything to do with that peculiarly Scottish form of slavery, “the ceremony of arles”.

  • N_

    There’s nothing like choosing a place and a time. Trump will have his first campaign rally for this year’s US presidential election in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on 19 June (if he’s still running by then). Tulsa was the site of a racist massacre of hundreds of people in 1921; 19 June is “Juneteenth”, the day that many in the US celebrate the end of slavery.

    Those interested in mental illness and its relationship to stupidity will realise that what the white racist part of the electorate in the US is being geed up to “think” is as follows: “Don’t any of you damned n*****s who want to take over this country with the help of your communist anarchist vegan liberal snowflake friends tell people like us that WE are the ‘racists’. Hell, we’re not the racists, it’s you n*****s who are the racists.” This point can easily be missed in long intellectualising articles about the function of statues, but this is how tens of millions of stupendously moronic white racists in the US actually “think”. This is the Trump base.

    And they’re heavily armed.

    • Jack

      The fringe left seems to see racism everywhere – and they believe people care being called slurs in 2020 – how did that work for Brexit? For Trump election?
      Meanwhile it is projection because the fringe left have no problem beating up white people in streets past couple of weeks as countless videos have exposed, looted and destroyed stores that belong to minority groups, called the whole white race out, blaming them for everything, have instigated hate against white policemen and others and forcefully call upon whites to knee because they are somehow guilty for crime shundreds of years ago commited by white people. Something which is of course called racism any other day by the fringe left. When they do it themselves? Suddenly ok.
      Adding to the the flirt with the violence by Antifa, often on racial grounds. That is called violence any other day, but not when the fringe left do it. Then its ok somehow.

      Chomsky: Antifa is a ‘major gift to the right’

      Whats funny is that the the black protesters do not want anything to with these fringe left violent groups. So stop this virtue signaling its so ridiculous.

      • portside

        Jack, Chomsky would identify you immediately as a Nazi. You are not kidding anybody except yourself.

        • Jack

          That is lazy, I just said people do not care about slurs anymore.
          Anyone that supports censorship of movies, justify violence and destroy statues through mobs can not ever call anyone else a nazi.
          Whats next? The libraries?

          Destroy EVERYTHING! Will culture police keen to purge historical racism turn to museums, galleries and libraries next?

          • Robocop

            Not only the libraries the art galleries and museums will be stormed and trashed. @portside, do you really want to witness violent criminals toppling the likes of Robert Peel being toppled whilst Police Scotland ‘take the knee’. And another thing if it does happen it will be because Police Scotland have been given the order to stand down. Having witnessed how Police Scotland operate if anyone tried to topple statues they would expect one helluva fight – massive police, presence, horses, dogs, helicopter, you name it. If they are standing around dancing the macarena like pure fannies and making a complete fools of themselves it will be because they have been told too. It also has the knock on effect of other people thinking, well, why should I bother obeying the law? Police Scotland are already loosing any semblance of respect, their officer already have the crap beaten out of them in our housing ‘estates’. If Peel and Co. are allowed to ‘fall’ they may as well hand in their ‘POLICE’ lanyards.

          • Robocop

            What is ironic is that Peel founded the modern unarmed police service because up until that point we we ruled by vigilante ‘justice’ and mob rule. And even more ironic is that if the ‘A**B’ numbskulls, rioters themselves were violated or attacked or, heaven forbid, had their smartphone stolen they would be the first to go screaming to the police!!!

        • Barry Guillain

          portside, why should anyone be interested in what Chomsky has to say?
          I noticed yesterday on this thread an implicit threat to out a comenter as an Nazi if they continued give the iimpression they weren’t woke. You are pisssing in the wind.

  • Mary

    Thought I would look out the Shelley poem.

    Percy Bysshe Shelley

    I met a traveller from an antique land,
    Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
    Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
    Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
    And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
    Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
    Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
    The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
    And on the pedestal, these words appear:
    My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
    Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
    Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
    Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
    The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

      • Mary

        I agree. The current Poet Laureate who replaced Carol Ann Duffy, is Simon Armitage. He produced this in March:

        And I couldn’t escape the waking dream
        of infected fleas
        in the warp and weft of soggy cloth
        by the tailor’s hearth
        in ye olde Eyam.
        Then couldn’t un-see
        the Boundary Stone,
        that cock-eyed dice with its six dark holes,
        thimbles brimming with vinegar wine
        purging the plagued coins.
        Which brought to mind the sorry story
        of Emmott Syddall and Rowland Torre,
        star-crossed lovers on either side
        of the quarantine line
        whose wordless courtship spanned the river
        till she came no longer.
        But slept again,
        and dreamt this time
        of the exiled yaksha sending word
        to his lost wife on a passing cloud,
        a cloud that followed an earthly map
        of camel trails and cattle tracks,
        streams like necklaces,
        fan-tailed peacocks, painted elephants,
        embroidered bedspreads
        of meadows and hedges,
        bamboo forests and snow-hatted peaks,
        waterfalls, creeks,
        the hieroglyphs of wide-winged cranes
        and the glistening lotus flower after rain,
        the air
        hypnotically see-through, rare,
        the journey a ponderous one at times, long and slow
        but necessarily so.’

        To save space, I have removed the spacing. It is printed as a series of couplets.

        Eyam is the village in Derbyshire where the villagers quarantined themselves with the plague in 1665.
        Sadness here, I’m afraid to say – http://smhccg.org/folklore-legends/lost-love-of-rowland-torre-and-emmott-sydall/ but what beautiful names.

        Simon Armitage is from Yorkshire. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Simon_Armitage

  • Michael+Bond

    On Gladstone : To vilify Britain’s most progressive 19th century Prime Minister, a vehement anti-imperialist who proposed home rule for Ireland, laid the basis of the welfare state, and vastly extended voting rights, amongst many other important reforms, is beyond ignorant.
    Sadly, these ‘woke’ students and academics fall a long way short too – not least in their capacity for joined-up critical thought and historical perspective.

  • Giyane

    This flash of Western Imperialism by Craig, heart heart heart East India Company I love you, like a flash of Kenny Everritt’s knickers , all in the best of tastes, reminds me of a throw-away line by some daft comedian I forget who.
    He said he’ taken his wife out to her favourite restaurant and he’d rubbed himself sll over with tuna fish oil , so they smelt the same …

    Craig goes to court, dripping with the stale waft of sweaty jodhpurs from fighting colonisl wars to have a polite cup of tea with his Better Together superiors and they are ineluctibly attracted to eachother by the aroma of their politics – the disgusting liberal politics of zjohn Stuart Mill. Brother Assange, the things they do for you.

  • Jack

    BBC now crack down on ‘Fawlty towers’ show, I guess John Cleese would want to say a thing or two about that.

    • Kempe

      He has. I seem to recall that Monty Python engaged in ‘blackface’ on a couple of occasions so I suppose they’ll be next and I wonder how much longer Dad’s Army will survive with it’s constant anti-German references and Cpl Jones sticking it up the ‘fu**y-wu**ies’ in the Sudan.

  • Fwl

    JSM started off at the The East India Company (EIC) when he was only 17.

    The EIC produced the opium and facilitated the trade, but did not itself export the opium to China and strictly prohibited its transportation on its own ships. Of course it knew where it was going, It was an abhorrent trade, but it was tightly controlled.

    The EIC who sold to the freelancers and provided them with loans to purchase ensured that the freelancers were prevented from moving further into China. As anticipated the 1832 Great Reform Act and the enfranchisement of the merchant and business classes led to the forced opening up of China, the massive increase in supply of opium into China rather than just a more limited supply to the Chinese intermediary at Guangzhou. This led to the collapse of the EIC and thereafter parties such as the Sassoons took the place of the EIC. Soon all the western powers were interfering in China and Imperial China collapsed.

    Strangely enough it was the extremely wealthy Chinese middle man who partly funded the expansion of America across what is now the USA because he invested heavily in the US railroads via his most trusted business associate, who was American not British. Anyway life is a funny and complicated story. At one of the stick the Gt Reform Act looked like a triumph of democracy but at the other it resulted in opium flooding China. It is always worth remembering this sort of thing when getting excited about revolution, Scottish independence or whatever might be the latest campaign or protest. One uses idealistic principles to raise spirits and to justify breaking a monopoly, an aristocracy, an oligopoly or any status quo from which one is excluded but then in power one forgets the lip gloss of those ideals and pursues the same greedy aims and the consequences are usually worse because the established elite (if it remains intelligent) can at least exercise an (annoying but) paternal and fair tolerance of everything that does not undermine its foundation i.e. it can provide independent and efficient justice. However the newly empowered find themselves in disorderly competition with their rivals. Take the Mexican drug trade. When the state was run by a monopolistic elite it was corrupt but the corruption was institutionalised and prevented new gangs from entering. Therefore it was not violent. When the elite fell everything was up for grabs and there were was gang warfare.

    In relation to the opium trade there would have been less suffering had the EIC retained their monopoly.

    In the C20 after the world recognised how bad the the opium trade it more or less ended but it was then replaced with the synthetic opium of the morphine trade purportedly for medical purposes about which very little has been written.

    I vaguely and hopefully wrongly suspect that once we have emerged through this bizarre period of Corona, Brexit, BLM, further economic melt down and disorder we may find that we have a C21 new version of the EIC in control. And in the C22 when historians look back they may think that the west experienced considerable freedoms in the late C20 but they wasted and lost them.

  • Nick

    Just out of interest as the world descends into more madness
    Is there a civilisation ever built in the world that wasn’t done so off the labour of slaves?
    How far back to we go?
    Let’s tear down mosques built on the back of the Arabian slave trade predating the west by about a millennia.
    Tear down the pyramids…the brutality those slaves were met with.
    Bin your iPhones made on the back of slave labour in China
    RIP off your primark clothes protesters…made by kiddies in Vietnam and Bangladesh getting paid a dollar a day.
    Tear down the new football stadiums in Qatar…built with cruelty inflicted on its chinese slave labour who are interred in camps with their passports removed.
    Seem like madness? How far are we going to go?

  • Jack

    Nasty scenes from London today with the violence, the blame is just like in the US, with the police that has been passive all week dealing with the mobs that use violence, vandalizing and so on. Of course the criminals do not fear the police if they are just going to stand by watching without any reaction.

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