Cecil Rhodes: Erase history or contextualise it?
Last week Oriel College at the University of Oxford released a statement asserting that the statue of politician, colonialist and benefactor Cecil Rhodes will remain on the building’s high street frontage. The decision has come after what the College has termed “careful consideration”, whereby opinions from “students and academics, alumni, heritage bodies, national student polls and a further petition” were attentively reviewed.
The decision to allow the statue to remain standing speaks to confirm the college will not concede to the crimes of colonisation, and that money plays a trump card. As one student put it, “You can’t have democracy without your opinionated benefactors after all.”
The calls for the removal of the statue were spearheaded by the group #RhodesMustFall, who were in part inspired by the success last year of their South African counterparts, who secured the removal of their Rhodes statue, and thus brought a necessary dialogue to the forefront.
Naturally, many articles have termed those who called for the removal of the statue at Oxford “outspoken”. Here is where much of the admonishment is felt; it is not even the argument itself that is so reprehensible – it is that students have spoken out where they ought not.
Students of colour have spoken out where they ought not. They have criticised what they ought not. Only privileged, white academics and aesthetes may comment on what is, and what is not suitable to have professed from the front of a school in 2015.
Oriel College, in late December, ensured the students and public that a 6-month grace period would be held, where people’s voices would be adequately and equally heard. This period was cut short after just over a month, showing who can speak to whom about what is indeed limited.
Those who are offended by and opposed to the statue are often dismissed as somewhat over-emotional, worked up: “It’s just a statue” is something I have heard and read several times. Other than the problematic entitlement of telling someone that their response is invalid because it does not resemble one’s own, this argument does not actually make sense.
If those who believe the statue should remain really felt that it was “just” a statue, and not a leering symbol, then there would be hardly as much reprehension to the removal of it. People are clearly aware that it is a symbol – whereas to many POC and minority groups it is a symbol of violence, hatred and inequality, to others (namely white, namely privileged) it is a symbol of British prosperity, power and, apparently, benevolence.
Let us not pretend that this is a conversation about semantics, though – the statue is clearly a symbol, and every response to said symbol is valid.
Others have claimed that it is unfair to hold someone who lived 100 years ago up to our “modern” standards. This idea seems to suggest that the “standards” we have in place today are completely arbitrary. The only particular thing about them is that they are “modern”. They aren’t anything to do with super basic human decency and compassion, built on complex understandings like “don’t enslave another racial group”, or “don’t profit off resources of those you oppress”.
The other argument banded about is that removing the statue of Rhodes will perform some sort of historical erasure. This is a ludicrous argument for many reasons, but two in particular seem more obvious. Firstly, just as a statue itself does not constitute history, the removal of it does not constitute its erasure.
I don’t need to remind you of the famous villains from the past that we remember without need of a statue. Secondly, it could be argued that the statue does itself perform something of a historical erasure. By portraying Cecil Rhodes as a philanthropic benefactor (which his humble, hat-in-hand figure watching over each entering student invariably does), his identity as a man who believed “the more of the world [whites] inhabit the better it is for the human race” and who spearheaded the disenfranchisement of black South-Africans (among many other atrocities) is somewhat erased.
Further, it erases the pain suffered by black South-Africans, as well as POC from other lands viciously colonized by the British, and those who, in England today, experience the racism imperialism left in its wake. The scars of Colonisation are still visible; this statue’s presence, among other things, proves it. And it is only those still benefiting from such severe exploitation that are calling for such things to be left in the past.
Yes, Oriel College have claimed they will ‘contextualise it’, that they will ‘draw attention to this history’. Which history is this? Oxford is constructing a history where the voices of POC do not matter as much as those donating money to the University. A history that does not recognise the privilege to be able to separate a man from his identity as a criminal because he set up a scholarship fund.
The figure of Cecil Rhodes is not colonialism itself; but it is a symbolic portrayal of one who believed vehemently in the supremacy of whites. Its remaining perpetuates an attitude toward POC, and otherness in general, that is very real indeed.
This decision is not just disappointing; it’s racist. #RhodesMustFall campaigners at Oxford and elsewhere have assured the world that “this is not over”, that they “will be redoubling [their] efforts”. The RMF campaign is a dynamic and impressive one. They are committed to not just the removal of a statue – of a symbol – but to a coherent reworking of a structure that has become all too comfortable.
Just days after the decision was made public, RMF released a list of 7 “non-negotiable” demands. These included a commitment to the decolonisation of the curriculum as well as proper representation of people of colour at every level of the university. We must all continue to support movements like this one.
The campaign to remove the Cecil Rhodes statue from Oriel College is yet another example of the growing trend in student authoritarianism masquerading as social justice. Between banning magazines and blocking speakers whose views are in violations of “safe space” policies, the Rhodes Must Fall campaign makes itself a cosy home.
Those arguing for the removal of the statue will provide you with plenty of information on just how odious an individual Rhodes was. So it is in the interest of not boring you that I will not go into too much detail regarding his character, however it is important for the concession to be made.
Rhodes was a racist and a violent imperialist whose activities, if witnessed today, would deserve him a swift visit to the International Criminal Court – but this is not what is up for debate. Rather, what matters is whether or not the correct response to such a fact is to remove the statue altogether.
One of the foremost arguments provided by the Rhodes Must Fall campaign is that the removal of his statue provides a symbolic step in addressing issues of racism at Oxford University, and as an act of reconciliation in light of Britain’s colonial history. Let us consider the implications of this claim.
If this is a valid basis for the removal of a statue, as the campaigners uphold it to be, then I recommend that they next stop by the statue of Lord Curzon, former Viceroy of India, which can be found in ST. James’, London. Curzon was not only the administrator of British Colonial rule in India for six years, but also ordered the invasion of Tibet in 1903, leading to the deaths of thousands of Tibetans.
Not to mention the statues of John Lawrence, another Viceroy of India whose statue you can find in Waterloo Place, and Jan Smuts, former Prime Minister of the South African Union and famous supporter of racial segregation, whose statue can be found in Parliament Square. If the grounds for removing Cecil Rhodes was to express our dedication to repenting for our racist and colonial history, surely it follows that the existence of these statues are equal violations?
Of course, why stop at our gruesome history of racism and colonialism? Visit Trinity College at Cambridge University and you will find a statue of Henry VIII. Surely, by the same logic, the existence of a statue of this gluttonous creep is an insult to feminists and women in the knowledge that he murdered two of his wives?
Except the existence of Henry VIII’s statue at Cambridge is not a symbol of the oppression of women, nor a commendation of his beheading Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard – and no sensible interpreter would conclude it as such. Just as it is not an endorsement of John Milton’s and Aristotle’s sexism, or of John Stewart Mill’s racists remarks, or of Julius Caesar’s genocidal conquest of what we now call France. All of which have statues that can be found in London. The same applies for Cecil Rhodes.
It is always important to bear in mind the wider implications of a campaign such as Rhodes Must Fall, and the principles that are being endorsed at their core. In this case it is that historical emblems should be removed on the basis that the actions of the individuals they represent do not pass by modern standards. The extension of such a principle leads to what can only be described as a form of cultural cleansing. The opposition of which is therefore not only right, but also important.
So what should we do? Enter David Olusoga, whose article on this matter called for what he calls “contextualisation”. Rather than removing Rhodes, Olusoga calls for a plaque to be made at Oriel that explains what Cecil Rhodes did: both the good and the bad.
The individuals these statues represent, whether good or bad, each played a role in shaping Britain today. We should be advocates of understanding them, not erasing them, and, when necessary, branding them as the criminals that they are. As Olusoga wrote himself, “I’m after more history, not less, and not just for Rhodes”.
Image: Wikimedia Commons