Sunday, March 20, 2011

From The Graveyard Of The British Empire

The durbar for King Edward VII, 1903

We'll get to Toronto by the end of this story, I promise, but we start in India, at a place called Coronation Park. It's a grand, wide-open space on the edge of Delhi, the dusty capital of what will soon be the most populous nation in the history of the world, a city teeming with more than 12 million people. It was right here, in this park, that the British threw their biggest parties to celebrate their rule over the "crown jewel" of their empire. The first one was in 1876, to honour the day Queen Victoria was crowned as the Empress of India. There was an immense, lavish procession, with the country's most important British officials riding in on elephants and 70,000 people in the crowd.

When Queen Victoria died and the crown was passed down to her son, King Edward VII, they did it all over again. This time, the durbar (which is what they called these things) was even bigger. The celebrations went on for two weeks. More than 100,000 people showed up. There were fireworks. Parades. Even polo matches. An entire city of tents rose up on the grounds, supplied with their own electricity, running water and rail lines. There were commemorative stamps printed. Maharajas, Viceroys and Governors came from all over India. The King's own brother even made the trip from England.

And that was nothing. A few years later, King Edward was dead. And the new one, King George V (who you probably know as Colin Firth's dad in that movie), decided he wanted to attend his durbar in person. He and his Queen sat on golden thrones under golden umbrellas as 80,000 Indian troops paraded through the park before them. There were vast seas of horses and camels and cannons. King George even seized the moment to declare that Delhi would be the new capital of India.

Of course, the whole thing was a giant pile of horseshit; a pretty facade to help mask the vile things they were doing. At the Jallianwala Bagh massacre they ordered fifty British Indian Army troops to fire on a trapped crowd of unarmed men, women and children for ten to fifteen minutes until their ammunition ran out. By the end there were more than a thousand bodies on the ground. At the  Qissa Khawani Bazaar massacre, they drove armoured cars through crowds of non-violent demonstrators, used machine guns on the ones who refused to leave the injured behind and then hunted the rest through the streets for hours. The members of a regiment who refused to fire on the crowd were all arrested. Some got life in prison.

But the Indian demonstrators, led by heroic figures like Mahatma Ghandi, would eventually win. India declared independence soon after the Second World War. And Coronation Park became nothing more than a reminder of a terrible time. So it was left to decay; the grounds mostly untended, overgrown with trees and shrubs. And it wasn't the only symbol of colonial rule left in Delhi. All over the city, the British had erected monuments to their kings and queens and aristocrats. And all over the city, people didn't want them anymore. So they were pulled down off their pedestals, rounded up, and shipped to Coronation Park, where they were tucked away in an obscure corner and forgotten.

Coronation Park
Most of those statues are still standing there now, rows of monuments to men and women who once ruled half the world, rotting quietly away in this overgrown patch of land at the edge of a park no one remembers. The BBC recently called it "the final graveyard of the British Empire."

We're interested in one statue in particular. It's of Kind Edward VII, who ruled in the early years of the 1900s. His statue was designed by a big deal royal sculptor guy, the same one who built the giant memorial to Queen Victoria that towers outside Buckingham Palace. His bronze Edward sat astride his horse in Delhi's Edward Park, just across the street from the medieval Red Fort which had served as the Mughal capital in India for centuries before the British drove them out. And the statue even got a bonus plaque when King George swung by during his durbar to pay tribute to the tribute to his father. But after the fall of the empire, the Indian government renamed Edward Park after one of the heroes of the independence movement, put up a statue of him instead, and had King Eddie join the other relics.

King Edward VII in Queen's Park
He wouldn't stay there long.

Twelve thousand kilometers away, there was another former colony with a very different attitude toward the British. We kinda mostly think they're cool. And in Toronto in 1969, there was a super-rich conservative businessman/philanthropist/politician by the name of Hal Jackman. He's the guy who got the statue of Winston Churchill put out front of Nathan Philips Square. And he thought Queen's Park was in need of a good statue of a guy on a horse. Super-rich conservative businessman/philanthropist/politician strings were pulled. King Edward and his horse were cut into three pieces and shipped almost literally halfway around the world. Today, the same statue that once stood outside the medieval Mughal Red Fort and among the forgotten monarchs of Coronation Park sits with the other monuments outside our legislature, where King Edward himself came to open the park back in his days as a Prince.

And where they say once a year, like clockwork, mischievous U of T students polish the horse's balls till they shine like gold.


There's actually footage of the durbars in Delhi. You can watch a YouTube video of King Edward's 1903 durbar here. And of King George's 1911 durbar here and here. There some quick of what some of what Coronation Park looks like today, here. You can read about the BBC visiting those forgotten monuments here. And about how India is now planning on restoring them here. A whole lot of the information I got comes from a post by a blogger understandibly peeved that the statue's plaque doesn't acknowledge it as a gift directly from the Indian people. You can read that post here.


  1. Since the statue is bronze, I think it's a matter of polishing, not painting.

  2. Thanks for pointing that out; I've updated the sentence.

  3. Remember playing around this statue when at Delhi. It was a beautiful, well kept garden and remained so till early 1960s.