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If post-colonial Sri Lanka is at peace with its Empire heritage, why isn’t Britain?


AS someone born and bred in post-colonial Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and for whom English is a second language, I find it incredible that some people in the UK are campaigning to destroy their own historical symbols. While it is likely that every powerful country has bad things from the past of which it may not be proud, might not the elimination of these symbols make it difficult to learn from the past? What would be the value of the Bible if all the bad things in the Old Testament were to be erased so that they do not offend our modern sensibilities which are based on the values of the New Testament? 

Can the desire to destroy statues and change road and institution names be based on the faulty assumption that there are perfect people? Everyone has good and bad in them to different degrees and the ratio between them will change depending on the direction one’s life is taking and how much one has progressed in that journey. One can change from being very bad to become very good like St Augustine, and vice versa, but there will not be either a perfectly good person or a completely evil person. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said that ‘the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being’. Hence, there is no reason to be surprised if and when a person commemorated for his or her good deeds is found to have had bad qualities. If what is considered evil now was not considered so in the past, then is it not better for us to be more charitable towards them? (Of course, the situation is different when a person has hidden his bad deeds that he knew to be wrong according to the mores of his time, such as Jimmy Savile.)

If the loud protests in the country result in civil and religious authorities taking down historical statues and making changes to names of roads and institutions, it would not be surprising if future generations have to travel to former British colonies to appreciate symbols of their past. For example, in Sri Lanka one can find a statue of Queen Victoria in the largest park in Colombo, the biggest city. There are public statues of colonial governors: Sir William Henry Gregory in front of the National Museum, Sir Edward Barnes near the entrance to the President’s House (formerly the King’s/Queen’s House) and Sir Henry Ward in Kandy (relocated). In Colombo, there are roads and places that still carry colonial governors’ names, such as the Torrington Avenue, Barnes Place, Ward Place, Gregory’s Road, Maitland Place, Guildford Crescent, Anderson Road, Clifford Place, Gordon Gardens, Campbell Park and the Manning Market. There still are Prince of Wales’ College, Princess of Wales’ College and the Queen’s Hotel in the country. There is the Victoria Falls and the large Victoria Dam built in the 1980s while some places in the tea country, such as Horton Plains, Hatton and Norton Bridge, do not sound Sri Lankan at all. (However, some place names have been changed in the past to accommodate local heroes, eg the Victoria Park, Brownrigg Road and McCallum Road.) The foremost children’s hospital of the country is Lady Ridgeway Children’s Hospital, named after its founder, the wife of Governor Sir Joseph West Ridgeway. This list can go on and on. (There are also pre-British Dutch era colonial place names.) Thus, when a former colony that gained independence in 1948, and which has its own very long history and rich culture, is at peace with old British names and statues, is it not puzzling when some in this country want to erase their own great history which no other country could match, just because of some bad episodes? 

Owing to the above, I believe the following can give food for thought to those who wish to destroy historical statues and monuments anywhere in the world. In 2006 a friend from my university days in Sri Lanka, who was then the irrigation engineer in charge of a large remote region of the country, took me on a tour of some schemes for which he was responsible. One structure located in a difficult to reach jungle area was used to control the flow of water. It was constructed in the 19th century by the colonial government. One of the photographs below shows this structure and the other shows the plaque that commemorates its opening by the Governor, Sir William Henry Gregory, on February 16, 1876.

As the tiny letters on the bottom left of the plaque show, it was repainted on October 30, 2002.

My friend was not only an honest engineer but also a dedicated member of a communist movement that carried out an unsuccessful violent armed rebellion in the late 20th century. Although we had diametrically opposite views on politics, we remained friends from the time we knew each other as undergraduates. Despite his political views he valued things historical, even when they were of colonial origin. He told me with much pride that they looked after artefacts such as the plaque because they are part of the country’s history; a history that cannot be changed, should not be forgotten and which they were duty bound to preserve for the benefit of future generations. This true and principled revolutionary did not wish to destroy the past but desired only to change the future (according to his beliefs) for the betterment of others.   

Editor’s Note: As with all articles on this site as well as newspapers, the headlines are written by the sub-editor, not the writer of the article.

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Thantirimudalige Canisius
Thantirimudalige Canisius
Dr T D Gerard Canisius is a chartered structural engineer who works mainly on fire safety engineering, especially of tunnels.

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