As students campaign for the removal of the statue of Cecil Rhodes from Oriel College Oxford, we need to ask ourselves: how are we to deal with our colonial past? I have written before on this blog about the historical amnesia around Britain’s colonial history. There has been too ready a desire to forget colonial violence. And, for me, this has to be the big question that the debates raise.

Personally, I don’t think removing Rhodes statue from Oxford’s Oriel College is the answer. Partly because I don’t want our recognition of a violent colonial past to be reduced to this one figurehead.

The Rhodes Must Fall debate began in March 2015 as a collective campaign of staff and students started in one of South Africa’s most prestigious universities, the University of Cape Town, to remove the imposing statue of Rhodes that stood at its foot. The campaign was, in many ways, successful. It attracted the attention of the global media, the statue was removed from campus, and it inspired follow-up campaigns in universities across South Africa.

Now in Britain too, students are calling for Rhodes to fall, as a new campaign, focussing around the statue of Rhodes where he studied at Oriel College has started to gain momentum and widespread media coverage. This debate brings up powerful questions about what we are to do with the violent colonial pasts upon which so much of British society was founded.

There is no doubt that Cecil Rhodes was a ruthless colonial expansionist, an Anglo-Saxon supremacist and a virulent racist, even by the terms of the time. Born in 1853, Rhodes went to the Cape as an adolescent due to ill health, founded the de Beers diamond company and, as a diamond magnate, became one of the world’s richest men.

He went in to politics, was largely responsible for massacring and subjugating the Ndebele of what then became termed Rhodesia, and was partially discredited by his role in the Jameson Raid before dying at the age of 49 in 1902. He was fervently committed to British Imperialism, candidly writing:

“I contend that we are the first race in the world, and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race. Just fancy those parts that are at present inhabited by the most despicable specimen of human being, what an alteration there would be in them if they were brought under Anglo-Saxon influence…if there be a God, I think that what he would like me to do is paint as much of the map of Africa British Red as possible…” 1

Given this, there is much to support the argument that his statue is deeply problematic, signifying Rhodes’s continued respect, if not overt celebration. The statue is seen to symbolise white supremacy. As Ntokozo Qwabe, one of the most prominent of the Oxford-based Rhodes Must Fall campaigners, has put it, the statue represents a form of ‘structural violence’.

Whilst few have defended Rhodes himself, those arguing against the Rhodes Must Fall campaigners have done so from a wide range of perspectives. Some have argued that Rhodes scholars, including Qwabe, are ‘hypocritical’ for accepting the money of the Rhodes scholarships whilst attacking their founder and have claimed that students are increasingly ‘coddled’ for demanding protection from offence. Niall Ferguson has compared the ‘iconoclasm’ of Rhodes Must Fall to that of ISIS. And others have simply belittled the protestors, dismissing their aims as ‘childish’.

But surely the debate, taps into some bigger and more important questions and indeed, the Rhodes campaign has become about much more than the statue. Tuition fees, the under-representation of students and staff of colour at elite universities, and Eurocentric curricula have all been called into question by Rhodes Must Fall campaigners, and it is partly this which has made the debate around it so inflammatory.

Will the removal of a statue right these wrongs? I don’t think so. Focussing too much on Rhodes reinforces the long tradition of ascribing the worst excesses of violence in the British imperial past to a couple of ‘bad apples’, whilst presenting the British Empire as an habitually benign form of conquest.

Rhodes was not a ‘lone wolf’ who uniquely sums up colonial violence and imperialism. Instead, the British Empire was founded on enslavement, wars of conquest, economic violence, the punitive suppression of rebellions, racial prejudice and cultural imperialism. And this violence seeps through the institutions, spaces and contexts within which we now teach, live and work.

As an alternative solution, I rather like David Olusoga’s suggestion of putting up an additional plaque explaining Rhodes’s history, rather than knocking it down. It matters that people know who Rhodes was. We need a proper contextualisation of all the statues, memorials, street names, country houses that are steeped in this colonial history. So the questions the campaigners raise about syllabi and representation are crucial – they deal with the forgetting. Removing a statue is the easy bit. Far more difficult is a sustained interrogation of our colonial past.

Esme Cleall is Lecturer in the History of the British Empire at the University of Sheffield. If you’d like to read more of Esme’s work you can read her book, Missionary Discourses of Difference: negotiating otherness in the British Empire (2012), or her article ‘”In Defiance of the Highest Principles of Justice, Principles of Righteousness”: The Indenturing of the Bechuana Rebels and the Ideals of Empire, 1897–1900’, Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 40.4 (2012) [log-in needed].

Image: Goodbye Cecil John Rhodes, 9th April 2015, Tony Carr [Wikicommons].

Tags : British EmpireCecil Rhodesimperial historyOxford UniversityRhodes must fall
Esme Cleall

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