Cecil John Rhodes, the imperialist, colonialist and professional racist, was, essentially, a massive bastard in almost all respects. A team of do-gooding student union types in Oxford recently have succeeded in having a statue of this despicable man taken down from Oriel College – but what does this actually achieve?
The sad truth is, removing Rhodes plays into the hands of modern nationalists – even if they themselves don’t notice it. Britain has a shameful past in the form of the Empire – and though the #RhodesMustFall brigade realise this, the way they deal with this is by simply whitewashing it out. Every symbol of the UK’s imperial past must be purged – all history eradicated. Does this help teach future generations about the horrors of colonialism? Does it change the culture of Oxford, making it a more inclusive environment? No. It merely denies Empire even ever happened. If anyone ever did take notice of that statue on Oriel (and I’d guess not anyway), did they stop to belt out I Vow to Thee my Country, salute, and dash off to colonise and oppress? No! Some symbols are inflammatory, some speech is dangerous, but a statue of Cecil Rhodes should be seen not as some secret propagator of fascism, pulling aside poor impressionable youths (which reminds me of another trait of these student union types – a patronising disregard for their fellow student) and telling them about the wonders of empire, but instead as a memorial to a shameful past that should be recognised and remembered. The Rhodes Must Fall lot aren’t aware of this – they seem to think by eradicating and ignoring history we can heal the wounds it causes. This is absurd – keep history intact, and recognise the part – whether bad or good – that Britain played in it.
The second issue is one of a slippery slope. Rhodes was no radical – repulsive white supremacy was common back then – so should we start purging every relic of every racist? Why stop there – we could remove all unpleasant elements from history. Bernard Shaw, a great inspiration of many a socialist, was a promoter of eugenics – so why not ban Pygmalion? Those treasured statues of Churchill? He was pretty horrendous, especially by our standards. Indeed, much of Churchill’s rhetoric was very much like Rhodes’, and in the 21st Century his memorials are more prominent and his recognition universal. If Rhodes must fall, Churchill, Shaw,
But let’s have a look at the arguments of #RhodesMustFall. “Decolonise education” is their chant, and it’s this that lies at the core of their argument – Rhodes was an architect of apartheid, and his remaining on the façade of Oriel’s Rhodes Building (he was an alumnus and a large donor to the college) is a symbol of the failure of the university to ensure proper representation of ethnic minorities – Oxford has shamefully low proportions of BAME students and staff alike, and its curriculum, it can be argued, is overly Eurocentric. One campaigner rightfully points to Oriel describing Rhodes in an official document as a “diplomat”, a “businessman” and a “benefactor” – this being vastly offensive, considering what this implies – Oriel therefore views “diplomacy [as] entail[ing] the raiding of an entire people’s land […], holding guns to be people’s heads [… and] the mass murder of people”. This is not just strong oratory but correct – to have Rhodes labelled as such is wrong and gives a one-sided, white supremacist history. However, this whitewashing of history from Oriel should not be met with more whitewashing from activists. There is no subtlety or nuance to this way of fighting, and the promise from the activist I linked to to essentially block out Oriel from the dialogue is symptomatic of this blunderbuss approach.
Oriel is taking down the statue – but will this help anything? It’s made a few students feel happier about themselves, but hasn’t helped the fact that it’s done nothing to change the university’s disproportional staff and students, and hasn’t helped heal the wounds left by the Empire. I would be totally behind a campaign for reparations or more effective aid from Britain – I would march with Black Lives Matter in the US or wave around a placard at a protest for more BAME representation. I’d sign every petition and donate every penny I could to build a more just world where the damage Britain has done could be healed. Intentionally or not, #RhodesMustFall is building an environment where it’s easier to ignore this legacy rather than fix it. We shouldn’t have to pathetically remove statues and pretend that’s some sort of victory, but instead make real practical victories.
There is nothing glorious about #RhodesMustFall in Oxford. It’s revisionist and ultimately sort of sad. We should be reminded by our wrongs and endeavour to fix them, rather than remove all traces of them and pretend that’s part of a process that’ll right them somehow. And that’s why I think #RhodesMustFall is, essentially, bullshit.