If one of the leaders of apartheid-era South Africa thinks you’re wrong then the chances are you’re probably on the right side of history. The opposition of FW de Klerk to the campaign for the removal of a statue of Cecil Rhodes from Oxford University’s Oriel College will be of no surprise to the students leading the British incarnation of the Rhodes Must Fall movement. For the past few weeks their campaign has been patronised, ridiculed and repeatedly misrepresented by politicians and commentators, both here and abroad.
Those opposed to the movement have been busy compiling and disseminating a dodgy dossier of Cecil Rhodes’s less disturbing quotations, which they hope demonstrates the “positive side” of his legacy. The supporters of Rhodes Must Fall, meanwhile, have been engaged in the far easier task of selecting, from a strong field, the worst of his many racist and white supremacist utterances.
However, the problem with this approach is that the issue with Rhodes is not his toxic words but his murderous actions. Rhodes was a man who launched wars of aggression: he unleashed a paramilitary police force that annexed territory, terrorised civilians, killed thousands of Africans, and stripped thousands more of their land and their rights. He drove Africans on to black reserves and was the historical midwife of the apartheid system, of which FW de Klerk was the undertaker.
Cecil Rhodes was not some armchair colonialist who knocked out a couple of racist pamphlets. Rhodes was a killer. If he were alive today he would be in a cell at The Hague awaiting trial, charged not with saying nasty things about black people but with war crimes; and none of his more humanitarian statements, nor his undoubted philanthropy, would be admissible in mitigation.
Beyond mining his letters for benign soundbites, the stock tactic of Rhodes Must Fall’s opponents has been to suggest that statements we today find uncomfortable were merely reflecting the views of their age. They say the morals of the 1890s, or indeed the 1980s, cannot be judged “by the standards of today” – which is of course entirely true. Except that Rhodes’s views were not universal at the time. He was reviled and condemned by sections of the late Victorian public and by parts of the British press, including the Guardian: some regarded his appalling actions as a stain on Britain’s reputation.
It was always inevitable that once the Rhodes Must Fall movement emerged in South Africa it would, sooner or later, land in Oxford University, where Rhodes studied and to which he left an enormous bequest from the vast fortune he had ripped from Africa. But the movement is best understood as part of a global trend in which statues and memorials to soldiers of empire, slave traders or defenders of slavery are being exposed and opposed by the descendants of their victims. We are perhaps better able and more willing to take a clear view of the underlying arguments and emotions when the history being recessed is not our own.
For example, few people in Britain would find it difficult to see why the flag of the pro-slavery Confederacy is an insensitive symbol to fly in a country that is home to 42 million black people. But it was only after the church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, last June that Carolinians – a third of whom are the descendants of slaves – and their legislators found it possible to hold a proper discussion over whether it is really right that the flag should fly above their statehouse, or if African Americans should be expected to live under the shadows of statues to slave-owning, Confederate commanders or the founders of the Ku Klux Klan – two groups that often overlap like a Venn diagram.
A less recent example concerns the fate of dozens of statues to various heroes of Prussian history that once lined the Tiergarten in Berlin. In 1947 the British occupying forces decided that those memorials, though not commissioned by the Nazis but by Kaiser Wilhelm II, were so contaminated by Prussian militarism that they had to be not just toppled but dynamited. They were in fact saved and secretly buried. Today they stand unceremoniously jumbled together in the grounds of the Spandau fortress. If the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, were to suddenly decide to reinstate the Tiergarten statues it is likely that there would be an outcry across Europe, not least in Britain. This is because we acknowledge that there are aspects of German history – and not just the history of the Third Reich – that should not be uncritically celebrated or memorialised. But we have long tended to exempt ourselves from the process of historical self-analysis we expect from other nations.
Should we tear down the statues of slavers such as Edward Colston?
The Rhodes Must Fall movement has been accused of being anti-history, of wanting to whitewash Rhodes and the British empire out of our history.
I suspect students who have committed three years of their lives to full-time study, putting themselves tens of thousands of pounds into debt for the privilege, tend not to be ideologically opposed to the acquisition of knowledge.
Lost in that analysis is the overarching aim of the movement. Their declared goal is to “decolonise” university campuses and curricula. By this they mean to increase representation of minority students and staff and to challenge the narrowness of courses that marginalise the experiences and histories of non-white non-Europeans. The statue of Rhodes is in some ways their chosen metaphor for the historical unwillingness of Britain and many of our institutions to address the darker chapters of our colonial past. At its most nuanced, Rhodes Must Fall is asking us not just to condemn Cecil Rhodes for being a 19th-century racist but to ask ourselves if we really want to be a society that uncritically memorialises a 19th-century racist.
However, in setting out that nuanced manifesto the campaign has played into the hands of its opponents. Those laudable aims have too often been concealed behind the opaque and unwieldy term “decolonise”, a phrase that is lost in translation between the worlds of academic debate and popular journalism. What’s worse, by building that manifesto around calls for the fall of statues, those ideas have often been distorted into a simple right-wrong, yes-no statue debate.
But even if the statue at Oxford were to be removed, and even if that were the only demand of the campaign, it would still not amount to the burying of history. That’s because statues and memorials are not the mechanism through which we learn or remember history: books, museums, memorial days, heritage attractions and television documentaries, among others, perform that task. Statues are how we memorialise and commemorate. They are how we lament tragedies, celebrate victories and lionise the exploits of men – and they almost always are men – whom we’ve decided were heroes. A tiny fraction of historical events and a tiny number of historical figures ever make it to bronze or marble. The question in 2016 therefore is not should Rhodes be remembered – he will be, no matter what happens at Oxford <http://www.theguardian.com/uk/oxford> – but should his achievements be celebrated with statues and plaques that ignore his crimes?
For what it’s worth, I’m opposed to the removal of statues, but passionately in favour of what heritage practitioners call contextualisation. I would like to see a new plaque erected at Oriel that outlines the facts of who Rhodes was and what he did: both sides of the ledger. I’m after more history, not less, and not just for Rhodes.
The plinth on which stands a statue of the prolific slave trader Edward Colston, slap bang in the middle of my home town of Bristol, cries out for a plaque to remind us that this “most virtuous and wise” son of the city was also a slave trader and a shareholder in the Royal Africa Company – the organisation that enslaved more Africans than any other in British history, and did so with the active involvement of the monarchy. Let’s not pull statues down, let’s brand them, as the Royal Africa Company branded enslaved Africans, with the truth about who these men really were.
In the longer term, however, I suspect it will not be the Rhodes Must Fall movement that inspires a wave of contextualisation, or a larger reassessment of British colonial history. The impetus for that process will come from abroad. It will arrive when our penchant for uncritical history clashes with our economic interests; and that process will be set in motion when India and China, the two rising powers to whom all our parties look for future markets, demand change.
How long before a Chinese leader or an Indian premier, perhaps challenged by a British prime minister on human rights or the treatment of minorities, counters with public statements on the opium wars or the Amritsar massacre? How long before, on a state visit to London perhaps, a Narendra Modi or a Xi Jinping condemns the memorialisation of figures such as General Napier or the 8th Earl of Elgin – Victorian figures whose worst crimes, like those of Rhodes, are largely forgotten in Britain but remembered in Delhi and Beijing – and with growing clarity? – The Guardian