“Just a Guy on a Horse in the Garden”

India’s troubled relationship with colonial-era statues

A statue of Henry Hardinge, the governor-general of India from 1844 to 1848, which once occupied pride of place in Kolkata’s Government House, now sits in the backyard of a rural home in Cambridgeshire. Gilman collection / cynthia hazen polsky / courtesy the metropolitan museum of art
30 June, 2020

With symbols of power, context is everything. Imposing statues that serve to convey authority and set glorious legacies in stone are often placed in front of parliamentary buildings and in grand public squares. So how did a monumental statue of Henry Hardinge, the most powerful man in India from 1844 to 1848, end up in the garden of a home in rural Cambridgeshire?

The statue in question is a colossal and striking bronze figure of the former governor general of India on horseback. It was created in the tumultuous year of 1857 to stand on the maidan in front of Government House in Calcutta—then the capital of British India. The British had used Calcutta as their primary trading post from the arrival of the East India Company in 1600, but the mid-nineteenth century saw its intensive development. “The Empire needed a city that would represent its majesty,” the historian Ranjit Sen writes, and the 1800s witnessed Calcutta’s “high watermark for urbanization.” This development was, of course, built on the back of the rapacious and brutal extraction of resources that was channelled out of Bengal by the British.

Scattered throughout the newly created parks, main roads, municipal buildings and squares, were dozens of statues of the colonial rulers—among them, Hardinge. In an extraordinary account from 1866—a textbook example of Orientalist fantasy—WC Aitken claimed: “Around it, in the square of Calcutta, where it stands, the Arab horse-dealers gather at sundown, and comparing the steed with their own desert-born barbs, pronounce it no work of human hands, but those of the wonder-working genii, while the natives gazing up in reverence, whisper of the doing of the ‘Great Sahib.’”

Colonial statuary and other monuments were created to assert strength, hierarchy, the right to rule and even civilisational superiority. They are often part of new civic spaces that are symbolic of the state’s power, developmental prowess and the ruling elite’s control over the built environment.

Edward Anderson is a lecturer in history at Northumbria University. Previously he was a Smuts Research Fellow at the Centre of South Asian Studies, University of Cambridge, and a visiting fellow at LSE’s South Asia Centre.