14 Dec Victoria, The Empress, and Our Troubling Celebration of Colonialism

I sat at the Q-Bar. Inside the Empress Hotel. Located in British Columbia’s capital city, Victoria. There are various oversized paintings of Queen Victoria and references to the British Crown throughout the hotel.


I overheard someone at a neighbouring table expounding upon the evils of Nazi Germany.


I wondered about an alternate Universe. One in which I sat gazing at dozens of floor-to-ceiling murals of Hitler. At the N-Bar. Inside the Führer Hotel. Located in the capital city of Hitler, New Germania.


In this alternative reality, I saddled up to a local with a penchant for spontaneous history lectures. He began by explaining that if we fail to understand and learn from history, we are bound to repeat it.


Observing my obvious Indian heritage, this stranger informed me that at the beginning of the 18th Century and prior to British rule, India accounted for nearly 25% of global GDP – more than all of Europe combined. India was a leading exporter of spices, fine cloth, steel and ships, to name just a few products.


He noted, however, that over the next 200 years of British rule, India’s GDP was systematically and ruthlessly “deconstructed” by the British to serve imperial interests; British industrialization was financed by the deindustrialization of India. After two centuries of economic plunder, India accounted for less than 3% of global GDP. The ruthlessness of British colonial policy during this period led to famines that killed approximately 35 million people. This enormous loss of human life was not, to be clear, the result of natural disasters or catastrophes. It was a direct result of official state policy. Winston Churchill, for example, diverted Indian crops to stockpiles in Europe. Conscious-stricken British diplomats begged Churchill to leave the crops in India in order to prevent widespread death. Churchill dismissed such concerns and retorted mockingly by asking, “If food is so scarce, why hasn’t Gandhi died yet?” The Great Bengal Famine of 1943 claimed nearly 3 million lives as a direct result of Churchill’s policy.


Queen Victoria, the stranger continued, reigned as the self-proclaimed “Empress of India” during the period of time that claimed the majority of deaths due to famine. He said it was noteworthy that not a single widespread famine on such a scale occurred in India before or after British rule. The reason for this is simple. In the absence of British policy dictating otherwise, India’s resources and crops were naturally first used to meet the needs of domestic consumption.


The stranger repeated: If we fail to understand and learn from history, we are bound to repeat it. He said nothing about Hitler whose imagery surrounded us.


I returned to our Universe, and gazed up on the countless larger-than-life murals of the Empress of India, Queen Victoria, adorning the walls of the Q-Bar within the Empress Hotel. I sat aghast at the fact that such a setting continues to exist in 2021. I can only imagine how much more aghast I would be if I were of Indigenous heritage. While the events described above were occurring in India, ethnic cleansing and genocide on a massive scale were occurring right here on the unceded territories of the Lək̓ʷəŋən peoples.


It is unacceptable that the Empress Hotel, with its Q-Bar and royal memorabilia, continues to stand as an icon of our city.


Indeed, I question why our city continues to bear the name of Queen Victoria. Adding insult to injury, I note that the British Empress was named after the Latin word for “conquest” or “victory”, personified in the ancient Roman goddess Victoria. Multiple temples to Victoria were built in Rome. For centuries, Victoria was publicly worshipped by triumphant Roman generals and emperors returning from wars of foreign conquest over “barbarians”. Slaves and plundered booty were paraded through the streets of Rome. This history is not so ancient after all.


Our city’s very name constitutes a perpetual celebration of disturbing and violent colonial conquests that cost millions of innocent lives. This dark legacy continues to have tragic and unacceptable consequences for colonized peoples and their descendants – both locally and globally. How is it that we continue to celebrate colonialism’s victory? It is high time that we begin to dismantle it.


I vowed never to return to the Q-Bar or to the Empress Hotel. No longer will I worship in this modern temple to colonialism. May I live to see the day when our city is renamed to reflect a true commitment to decolonization and reconciliation.