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Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Past Imperfect: Why Rhodes Should Stay

‘The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.
George Orwell, 1984 

We reiterate that universities are no places for genocidal colonialists, or any other such toxic figures. We will continue with our call that all violent symbolism be immediately expunged from educational spaces.’
Oxford Student Union petition calling for the removal of Cecil Rhodes’ statue from Oriel College.


No longer welcome? Statue of Cecil Rhodes outside Oriel College.

In autocratic systems, in which one tyranny is replaced by another, the statues fall frequently. There is no space permitted for symbols of the past which might seek to vindicate a system or individual now consigned to the dustbin of history. They must be ‘immediately expunged’ – obliterated not only from sight, but also from memory, so that a visitor might conclude that they never existed at all. This was the goal of George Orwell’s fictional state in 1984: history, having ceased to be an academic discipline at all, would become a means by which the status quo could be endlessly justified and promoted. In Nazi Germany, statues, books and works of art that challenged Hitler’s monolithic view of German history were publicly destroyed or ridiculed. More recently, Islamic State purged the architectural treasures of Palmyra because they highlighted an aspect of History that did not fit in with the idea that only a Caliphate could restore the dignity of the Middle East.

By contrast, one of the great achievements of the western world has been to maintain a critical and detached approach to the past, ensuring not only a plurality of interpretations, but also allowing historians to subject these interpretations to serious scrutiny. In this context, history can be probed, tested and argued over, competing ideas can sit alongside one other, and new conclusions proposed and explored. The fact that so many UK students now express a fervent desire to remove statues, ban speakers and create ‘safe spaces’ is therefore shocking. It is a denial of the key purpose of a university education: to expose students to ideas that challenge them, make them uncomfortable and generate debate.

Briefly then, what about Cecil Rhodes, whose worn-down statue currently adorns one of the quadrangles of Oriel College, overlooking the High Street? For many (although by no means all) of his British contemporaries, Rhodes represented all that was great about the British Empire. As its reputation has declined, so has his, and today his name is equated with exploitation, slavery and even genocide. There should be no doubt at all that the values he promoted have no place in modern, multicultural Britain. Rhodes may have once proclaimed that ‘I could never accept the position that we should disqualify a human being on account of his colour’, but he also argued that Britain’s African colonies, and their inhabitants, should be harnessed in the service of the Empire, an outlook that made him extremely rich, and also contributed to a racially divided South Africa. This is a ‘toxic’ legacy indeed.

Campaigners in South Africa and Oxford have used the hashtag #RhodesMustFall.
But the attacks on Rhodes conceal more than they reveal. From the British view, there is a temptation to disassociate ourselves from the legacy of the empire by simply placing the burden of guilt on men such as Rhodes, and then allowing them to disappear in a cloud of righteous moral outrage. This would be to ignore the reality that, in an increasingly democratic age, pioneers and colonialists such as Rhodes drew strength from enthusiastic and widespread public support. Industrial cities were often effusive in their support for empire, since the colonies could provide both a steady stream of raw materials as well as markets for manufactured goods. We need to remember the prominence that Rhodes once enjoyed in order to comprehend the British Empire at the end of the nineteenth century. Airbrushing him may make us feel better, but if we want to continue to talk seriously about the uncomfortable parts of our history, and not simply descend into simplistic caricature, then #RhodesMustStay.


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