Oxford colonial clash

Curzon portrait removed

By Amit Roy in London
  • Published 29.12.17
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The portrait of Curzon

London: A portrait of Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India from 1899 to 1905, has been removed from the main hall at Balliol College, Oxford, under pressure from students who say he was a "colonialist".

They allege that Curzon (1859-1925) failed to do enough to combat the 1899-1900 Indian famine that killed a million people, and set Muslims against Hindus with his partition of Bengal in 1905.

But a senior Indian businessman, Kartar Lalvani, has defended Curzon's reputation in a book he published last year, The Making of India: The Untold Story of British Enterprise, where he provides details of how Britain built India's infrastructure.

Kartar, 86, the multi-millionaire founder-chairman of Vitabiotics, "Britain's No. 1" vitamins company, castigated the students in an article in the Daily Mail on Wednesday.

"If the self-righteous and ignorant Balliol undergraduates understood any real history, they would have known that Lord Curzon devoted much of his energy as Viceroy to remedying the neglect of many of India's historic monuments - he more than anyone helped save the Taj Mahal," he wrote. "In fact, without the British, it is unlikely that India, as a nation, would exist at all."

Curzon did indeed order the construction of the Victoria Memorial and Government House, while his wife urged him to establish the Kaziranga National Park.

As an undergraduate at Balliol, Curzon had inspired the doggerel: "My name is George Nathaniel Curzon/ I am a most superior person/ My cheeks are pink, my hair is sleek/ I dine at Blenheim once a week."

After returning from India, Curzon became foreign secretary and was elected chancellor of Oxford in 1907, holding the post till 1925.

Curzon's portrait at Balliol, done in 1913, was taken down last year for repairs and returned not to the grand hall but to a much less prominent position in the office of the history professor, Martin Conway.

The development comes amid a raging controversy among Oxford's professors over an attempted reappraisal of colonialism by one of them, Nigel Biggar from Christ Church, who is Regius professor of theology.

Biggar, an expert on the ethics of the British Empire, who has come under fire for saying it was not all bad, said: "If Curzon disappears into some back office, I would strongly suspect that political correctness and a too-uncritical deference to anti-colonialist ideology would be the reason."

Biggar, who is leading a five-year project called "Ethics and Empire", has advocated a balanced appraisal of Britain's "morally mixed" colonial past, pointing to pride in the Royal Navy's suppression of the Atlantic slave trade alongside shame at the Jallianwala Bagh massacre of 1919.

Nearly 60 Oxford academics, mostly historians, have argued in an open letter that the project "asks the wrong questions" and claimed the professor's approach was too polemical and simplistic to be taken seriously.

Now, Alexander Morrison, a professor from the faculty of history where the mass letter originated, has accused the signatories of encouraging "online mobbing, public shaming and political polarisation".

In a letter to The Times on Thursday, Morrison, a fellow and tutor in history at New College, praised Biggar as a scholar of distinction and integrity whose research deserved a scholarly engagement which he found absent from the open letter.

"They are dismissing out of hand and seeking to sabotage a research project in a discipline which is not their own before it has even begun," Morrison wrote.

"Hostile open letters of this kind are not the way to deal with academic disagreement: they are deeply corrosive of normal academic exchange, and simply encourage more of the online mobbing, public shaming and political polarisation which have sadly characterised this debate from the outset."

Morrison, who specialises in the history of the Russian empire in central Asia, wrote personally to Biggar to disassociate himself from the open letter and make it clear that it was not the view of everyone in the faculty.

The open letter was organised by James McDougall, a tutor at Trinity College. At least one of the signatories was involved in the Rhodes Must Fall campaign, which failed to persuade Oriel College to remove a statue of Cecil Rhodes, the British imperialist who founded Rhodesia.

Priyamvada Gopal of the faculty of English at Cambridge University has accused Biggar, 62, of being a racist and a dishonest apologist for the Empire.

The Oxford University Africa Society suggested he was a genocide denier who was attempting "colonial apologism, yearning and re-justification through the pursuit of dishonest scholarship".

Oxford has supported Biggar's right to consider the historical context of the British Empire and said he was entirely suitable to lead the project.

Jo Johnson, the universities minister, said this week that "universities should be places that open minds, not close them, where ideas can be freely challenged".

Additional reporting by The Times, London