Shrewsbury statue of Robert Clive must fall – inaction is simply 'delaying the inevitable'

'To repeat a piece of advice from petitioner David Parton: if you don’t tear down that statue of a man who, when he allegedly committed suicide in 1774, was perhaps the most hated in England according to his biographer, you will “simply be delaying the inevitable.”' Sheffield Green Party member Alan Story calls on Shropshire Council to remove the statue of Robert Clive, yet another symbol of the UK's racist colonial and imperial past. 

Robert Clive
Alan Story

Now about what Clive did in India: they were only “so-called crimes”.  

Assuming that Peter Nutting knows at least a bit about the life and exploits of Shropshire-born Robert Clive (1725 – 1774) – often called “Clive of India” – you really do wonder why the Tory leader of Shropshire Council last week chose that phrase to characterise the devastation that Clive and the East India Company brought down on India nearly three hundred years ago.  

It is rather like saying that Bristol’s Edward Colston was a “so-called slave trader.” Or that the world has been going through a “so-called pandemic” during the past six months. In other words, it’s positively Trumpian.        

Nutting was speaking at a 16 July debate about how his council should respond to two petitions totalling more than 20,000 names that demanded the tearing down of a large stone statue of Clive that “graces” the central square of Shrewsbury, Shropshire’s main market town.  

The petitions are but another spin-off from the toppling by the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement of Colston’s statue – and its subsequent dunking in Bristol harbour – which was itself a spin-off from the murder of African American George Floyd by a white Minneapolis USA police officer on 25 May.       

Image
A tiger head finial looted from the Indian state of Mysore and on display at Powis Castle.

A tiger head finial looted from the Indian state of Mysore and on display at Powis Castle. Credit: The National Trust

More than one political commentator has argued this summer that British history cannot move forward until it confronts its racist colonial and imperialist past. Cleo Lake, a leading Green from Bristol, has made the case for the UK to pay reparations for its key role in the transatlantic slave trade. Historian David Olusoga called the toppling of Colston “an act of civic purification”, while admitting there are thousands of Bristol residents who do not share his “euphoria”. And author George Monbiot has explained that “Everything you know about the British Empire is a lie.” 

So a lot more is at stake than statues, however important as symbols.  These petitions about Clive – and there is a third one that calls for removing another Clive statue in London – come at a time when a prominent art expert has said that most colonial art in British museums is similar to art “looted by the Nazis” and needs to be returned to its rightful owners located in the former British Empire and elsewhere.  

Clive “had form” on this particular cultural front as well. “The Clive Museum” at a National Trust-operated castle in Wales contains rooms that are filled with Indian treasures Clive personally looted while working for the East India Company (EIC) and as the first British Governor of the Bengal Presidency.  

The charge sheet against Clive and EIC 

Indeed, Clive’s own record of infamy rivals that of Colston. Here is a mere bullet point version of the charge sheet against him.   

  • As has just been noted, Clive was employed for most of his working life by the East India Company which was established in 1600 and over time, came to control over one half of the world’s trade. EIC has been called the world’s original global asset stripper. Clive reached its highest corporate rung.    
  • Military upstart Clive fit right in. EIC’s founding charter authorised it “to wage war.” The EIC had its own private army that operated beyond any government oversight. Numbering 260,000 men at its peak and twice the size of the British army, this EIC invasion force overthrew existing Indian regimes and gained control of large parts of the Indian subcontinent (and beyond) by terror, torture and treachery. Millions became minions under the dictates of London-based EIC or its local puppet rulers. Clive was one of EIC’s “great generals”, the National Trust informs us.   
  • EIC policies were in large part responsible for food shortages in Bengal over four years in the 1770s that resulted in the death, by one estimate, of as many as 10 million people. Bengal’s population was reduced by one third due to the famine.     
  • Tax collection across India was subcontracted to the EIC. Vast local treasuries on the subcontinent were looted and simply loaded onto British-bound vessels. It was the same story with crate after crate of plundered cultural objects. An untold number of villages were simply ransacked.  
  • Chiefly through looting, corporate skulduggery, military muscle, and political intrigue, Clive returned from one of his three tours of duty in India as the richest so-called “self-made” man in Europe. That is, “self-made” as is Amazon’s Jeff Bezos in our era (who, as an aside, recently increased his fortune by an additional £10 billion in a single day.)    
  • Leading EIC officers, including Clive, used the Company’s own shares to bribe British MPs. At one point, almost 25% of these MPs held EIC shares. This was corporate lobbying par excellence.   
  • The name “Clive of India” is itself offensive. Clive hated both India and Indians and regularly characterised both with the most racist epithets imaginable. “Clive of 18th century England” is far more accurate. 
  • The EIC was heavily involved in slavery and the opium trade.

All of this wretched colonial record is thoroughly exposed and documented by well-respected historian William Dalrymple in his highly recommended 2019 book, “THE ANARCHY: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company,” that is more than 500 pages long.  

Simply delaying the inevitable: Clive will fall  

But at least for now in Shrewsbury at Shropshire Council, this charge sheet had no effect. At its recent July meeting, the Council decided to take no action on the two petitions. The vote to “do nothing” was 28 (all Tories) while 17 councillors (from Labour, the LibDems and the Greens) had various action proposals.     

The sole Green councillor, Julian Dean, wants the Clive statue taken down for “some of the same reasons we take down pornography: what that statue represents is offensive,” he told Green World.

But Dean has not given up and possible new tactics for the continuing campaign include leafletting shops and schools as well as discussing the erection of a new inscription plaque that truthfully explains Clive’s crimes in India. At present, there is nothing except large engraved letters C-L-I-V-E.    

Although “disappointed by Shropshire Council’s tone-deaf decision to retain the statue of the mass-murderer Robert Clive,” David Parton, an organiser of one of the two petitions, said in a statement to Green World that “this vote was just the start of the movement to remove Clive’s statue. Like with Colston and Rhodes, Clive will fall. The 16 July decision has simply delayed the inevitable.”

Indian-born Satnam Deuchhakar, International officer (Asia) for the GPEW’s Greens of Colour, adds: “If something like a statue is causing constant pain, it is quite right to move it away. Slavery and colonial domination are not things we should support.”  

No doubt, however, some will welcome the Shropshire Council’s decision to do nothing. Even though there had been no moves by anyone to tear down the Clive statue – by people’s “independent action”, we might call it, and as occurred in Bristol – a small group of self-styled defenders of the Shrewsbury’s “heritage” did rally to protect it in mid-June.  

Clive’s defenders: football hooligans and Nick Griffin   

“There were about 30-35 football hooligans that I recognised who were there … and oh, Nick Griffin”, a Shrewsbury publican told me when I was vacationing recently in the town. Griffin, who lives just over the Welsh border, was leader of the far-right fascist British National Party from 1999 to 2014. 

As has often occurred elsewhere with allies of the BLM movement, the still informal movement to remove Shrewsbury’s Clive statue is predominantly a white person’s campaign. Unlike other urban areas in the West Midlands such as Birmingham, Coventry and Leamington Spa, Shrewsbury has quite a small South Asian community. It is also a campaign widely supported by those under the age of 30. I talked to more than ten younger people in the town centre on a Friday afternoon and did not find a single "Salopian" (as Shropshire residents are called) who was not ashamed by the Clive statue. 

Image
Statue of Robert Clive in London

Statue of Robert Clive in London

The growing involvement of whites in this global upsurge against racism set off by George Floyd’s murder is also evident in the Wall of Moms campaign in Portland, Oregon, the current epicentre of the BLM movement in the United States. Hundreds of moms are lining up every night in a peaceful protective wall between BLM protestors and US federal agents that Donald Trump has sent in, over the objections of Portland’s mayor, to arrest them. (To keep right up to date on developments in Portland’s here is the link to their live-streaming Facebook.

Meanwhile, support keeps growing for a petition to remove the Clive statue in London that is located in an especially prominent and symbolic location: directly in front of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in Whitehall. It was only erected in the year 1911 as a jingoistic morale booster for the British Empire. As of 22 July, this petition had attracted     a total of 85,500 names and will be debated by the cabinet of Westminster council.  

Clive’s racist stain at Powis Castle.  

But a third strand of Clive’s continuing racist stain on the UK – and one that has received little publicity – can be found in National Trust-operated Powis Caste in Welshpool, Wales and just over the border from Shrewsbury. (Nick Griffin lives in the same town. Who knows? Perhaps he fancies himself as a modern day Clive.) 

Image
Powis Castle

Powis Castle's courtyard

The main attraction at Powis Castle, once owned by Clive’s son Edward (the “notably unintelligent Governor of Madras”, Dalrymple has written) is “The Clive Museum.” Here is how Dalrymple describes its contents: “Powis is simply awash with loot from India, room after room of Imperial plunder, extracted by the East India Company (EIC) in the 18th century. There are more Mughal artefacts stacked in this house in the Welsh countryside than are on display in any one place in India – even the National Museum in Delhi.” 

Due to the Covid pandemic, the castle was closed last week when I visited it and so I did not get to view its many jewelled daggers and tiger’s heads set with sapphires. But a guidebook I purchased shows the National Trust simply does not “get it” about Clive. 

The guidebook repeatedly calls him the “great Lord Clive.” These treasures are said to have been “amassed.” In my dictionary, “amassed” means “gather together” as in: Sally amassed a collection of postage stamps by some non-blameworthy means. That’s not what happened to these Indian jewels and artefacts. Clive looted them. 

In a statement issued to Green World, the National Trust said that in mid-September it will publish a survey report on the connections between properties such as Powis Castle and slavery and colonialism. 

The National Trust has a lot of work ahead of it. In an interview published 22 July, the chief executive and artistic director of the charity Culture& likened the holdings at facilities such as Powis Castle to Nazi-looted works. 

Objects “that were taken illegally should be returned,” said Dr Errol Frances, noting that museums and other cultural institutions are often complicit in acts of colonial violence. He called for the decolonisation of their collections. 

In the case of Powis Castle, Robert Clive directly committed numerous the acts of colonial violence and himself did the looting while his relative, Edward, also known as Viscount Clive, inherited the castle in 1801.  So the connection between the Bengal famine of the 1770s and the current situation at Powis is hardly a remote one.    

Posting a book present to Nutting 

So I have decided what I will do tomorrow. 

I will spend 20 quid, buy a copy of Dalrymple’s “THE ANARCHY”, and post it to Green councillor Julian Dean who has agreed to give it as a present to Peter Nutting ( with instructions that Nutting donate it to the lovely Shrewsbury Library when he is done with it.)  

Optimistically, Nutting will then come to realise that Clive committed real crimes, not “so-called” ones, against the Indian people. 

Realistically, Shropshire’s Tory-led council may just come with a new excuse to do nothing. 

But to repeat a piece of advice from petitioner David Parton: if you don’t tear down that statue of man who, when he allegedly committed suicide in 1774, was perhaps the most hated in England according to his biographer, you will “simply be delaying the inevitable.”

Alan Story is a member of the Sheffield Green Party and a regular contributor to Green World.