Dear Lord Elgin,
At first I thought you were just one of many white men that had a street named after you for goodness knows what historically important reason that nobody can recall anymore. Then, I found out that you weren’t just any old, dead, white man.
As someone who identifies as Chinese, you are horrid person in my history books because you commanded British forces during the Second Opium War. You ordered the destruction and ravage of the Summer Palace, an extraordinary, fantastical sample of Western-Chinese hybrid architecture. Thanks to you, the expansive compound amounts to a pile of dirty, grubby rubble today.
Ever since I learned of the things you did, I saw you as an enemy.
It wrecked my heart to walk on the street that bears your name in Ottawa. It’s at the heart of my country’s capital, because apparently you were a decent Governor-General.
However, I know now that perhaps you aren’t the enemy. Hating you and your legacy will do me no good. You are a part of history and a ghost, but nothing that should ever strike fear or sorrow into my heart because I will make sure that no one ever does something like you did.
I will not aim to actively tarnish your name, but I will endeavour to tell people about the not so pretty things you did, in sum, rampaging around the Qing empire. I won’t advocate to change the name of Elgin Street in Ottawa, but I won’t forget that you were commander of British forces in the Second Opium War before being Governor-General of Canada.
For Lord Elgin, while you may not be my enemy, you certainly are not my friend.
This post was in response to the following writing prompt: write a letter in response to the first word that pops out on page 29 of the nearest book. For me, “Enemy” screamed out from a chapter title in Vanity Fair.
I’ve been thinking a lot about modern Chinese history as a result of a course I am taking. I’ve talked about some of my struggles with this part of history in an earlier post: Hurt.