Walking Through the Empire

For centuries the British Empire was regarded as one of the most powerful and significant leaders of the world. It’s long history is full of both defeat and triumph, but more importantly, the British Empire is still today one of the most well-remembered times as shown through the various monuments spread throughout London. My walk was derived from seeing and evaluating some of the most iconic imperialism sites in London. In continuation of my first walk from the Tate Modern to the British Museum, I began at the British Museum and ended at the Tate Britain in Millbank.

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The British Museum is an iconic and historic symbol of the empire. Different empires ranging from the British empire to the Roman empire are all represented through the museum’s impressive and extensive collection of artifacts. Not only are the contents inside the museum obvious momentums of the empire, but the building itself is representative of the magnitude and presence of the empire because of its size and design.

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After admiring the British museum’s stature, I began walking towards Trafalgar Square, the next stop on my British imperialism tour. Along the way I passed by the Shaftesbury Theatre, Covent Garden and a sliver of Leicester square. After approximately 25 minutes, I arrived at Trafalgar Square. While looking at the church, fountain, lions and National Gallery, I was in awe at how historically significant this location is to the British and especially to the British Empire. The name Trafalgar commemorates the sea-battle fought by Nelson at Cabo de Trafalgar in 1805. Although Nelson was killed in battle, he is still regarded as one of the most significant people in the transformation of Britain’s empire (Mace, 2005). In the 1840’s the actual monuments within the square were erected, each one symbolizing something different and representative of the empire (Mace, 2005).

img_4683img_4684I walked around the entire perimeter of the square, trying to examine as carefully as I could the different monuments. The lions, fountain and statue of a man riding a horse towards the front end are hard to miss and are what I was most fascinated by. The large column in the center of the lions is Nelson’s column; the fountains were a later addition without any historical significance; and the statue is King George IV (Mace, 2005). Within one square, there are so many historical representations that it is overwhelming. Trafalgar Square and Nelson are key parts to understanding the British Empire and its legacy that is still very present in London today.

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I proceeded to walk down White Hall towards the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey and Big Ben. Just passed the Westminster Palace are the Victoria Tower Gardens. I walked through the park towards a structure that is another memory for the British empire: slavery. The Buxton Fountain memorial stands towards the edge of the gardens facing the Thames. It’s colorful stained glass is stunning and it’s tall spire would make any passerby interested in what the structure was all about. There is a short, yet informative description in front of the memorial. According to the plaque, the memorial is in remembrance of the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833. Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton’s son, Charles, donated the memorial in his honor for his contribution to fighting for the emancipation of slaves during the British empire (Buxton Memorial Plaque Pictured Below).

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At this point in my walk, I have walked from a metaphorical representation of the British empire (British museum) to an actual rendition of the empire’s triumph (Trafalgar Square) and now to an area that represents the British empire in a more dire, morbid way. Slavery was an important part of the empire that contributed to the economy through the slave trade. The slave trade was abolished in 1807 by parliament, but that did not mean that slaves were free. It was not until 1833 when slavery itself was abolished, as represented by the Buxton Fountain Memorial discussed above.

After a brief visit to the Buxton memorial, I continued on my path towards the Tate Britain. On my way I passed by what looked like some corporate buildings, including the Burberry headquarters. The architecture was modern, yet uninteresting historically speaking. The closer I got to the Tate Britain, the more residential the area became. Beautiful red-brick apartment and brownstone buildings were all that surrounded me for several blocks.

Finally, the road maps and signs were pointing towards the Tate Britain, however, I approached the museum from the back, which slightly disoriented my perspective. I walked around the perimeter until I reached the front where large, white columns framed the entrance. Unlike the Tate Modern, the Tate Britain is authentic-looking and more representative of what historical London might have looked like. Not only is the building aesthetically intriguing, but the history of Henry Tate and the Tate Britain is also interesting in terms of its contribution to the British empire. In the early to mid 1800’s, Henry Tate was a young entrepreneur who developed multiple successful business in the grocery and sugar industries. His sugar refinery business was made up of “poorly paid labour forces in Liverpool and the West Indies,” or, slaves (Taylor, 1999: 102). Most visitors remember Henry Tate for his contribution to the Tate Modern, however, Tate made most of his wealth and success off of the sugar refinery, which relied on the slaves he used in his factories. As was mentioned, slavery was a significant part of what made up the British empire and thus Henry Tate contributed to that industry and the empire.

My walk took me on a historical journey through some of the most important sights that represent the British empire. It is obvious that Britain takes some pride in what the empire meant for the country and shows that pride by erecting large monuments. Walking through these sights in a linear and strategic way made me contemplate the long, honorable and difficult history a city like London has endured over the last several centuries. Unlike America, London has a rich historical influence on the world that is represented throughout the entire city.   

References not hyperlinked:

Brandon Taylor, Art for the Nation: Exhibitions and the London Public, 1747-2001 (Manchester: MUP, 1999), chap. 4, ‘A national gallery of British art: the Millbank Tate’.

Rodney Mace, Trafalgar Square: emblem of empire (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 2005)

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