Rhodes to nowhere

With students at Oxford campaigning for the removal of a statue of Cecil Rhodes, discusses the risks of whitewashing our past

cecil rhodes

Image: Monceau

In the same week that Amsterdam’s Rijskmuseum was famed for remedying a series of racist terms in the titles of its paintings, Oxford’s Oriel College found itself at the epicentre of a furore over its life sized tribute to Cecil Rhodes.  The two scenarios may seem similar: the former is eradicating an archaic form of discourse, the latter is seeking to eradicate, well, an inherent portion of its past.  Titles are not intertwined with artwork.  Irksome or not, Rhodes however is undeniably bound up in the University’s past.

After the self-proclaimed Rhodes Must Fall movement succeeded in toppling a statue of the white supremacist at the University of Cape Town in April 2015, attentions were turned to “decolonis[ing] the space, the curriculum and the institutional memory” at Oxford.

Attending Oriel College in the 1870s, Rhodes returned to South Africa, emerging as the godfather of the diamond emporium De Beers.  Coined ‘The Hitler of Southern Africa’, Rhodes is more readily remembered today as an unrelenting enforcer of racial segregation, once articulating his beliefs as “equal rights for every white man south of the Zambezi”.

Although Oriel College has been coaxed into removing a plaque dedicated to Rhodes and conceded a six-month consultation period concerning the removal of Rhodes’ statue from February, the discussion does not end there.  Oxford’s chancellor Chris Patten commented this week: “Our history is not a blank page on which we can write our own version of what it should have been according to our contemporary views and prejudices.”  Should we similarly shun the progressive reign of Queen Victoria and tear down her memorial on The Mall as a figurehead of British domain who delighted in the title “Empress of India”?  The activist group, Rhodes Must Fall,  argues that Britain’s reluctance to remove the statue demonstrates its “imperial blind spot.”  But, isn’t a blind spot an implicit refusal to recognise one’s past – free from the partisan attitudes that pervaded the day – rather than an insistence on annihilating such a past?  A willingness to rip Rhodes down in fact exposes our reluctance to confront, let alone contemplate and atone for Britain’s colonial past.

Writing for The Guardian, David Olusoga is astute to highlight that statues are not the primary means by which we consume history: literature, TV documentaries and heritage sites perform that function.  Instead, their role is largely commemorative – or, at the very least, they acknowledge the existence of pivotal figures in our past, irrespective of their heinous or wholly integral contributions to history.  Life-sized sculptures might not always whet our historical appetites, but if in the case of Rhodes they were permanently contextualised, then perhaps passers-by would acquire a sense of why such a savage imperialist is at the forefront of a seemingly liberal and inclusive institution.

Maybe the public would learn of how the £6 million that Rhodes bequeathed to Oriel was used to fund a scholarship programme, facilitating the fellowships of over 8,000 international scholars at Oxford.  Maybe students and tourists alike would realise how these acts of atonement by the Rhodes Trust continue to go against the grain of his inequitable viewpoints.  Scholarly groups such as Redress Rhodes aim to present an impartial and critical picture of the imperialist, while the Mandela Rhodes Foundation crafted a partnership  in 2003 that “closed the circle of history”.  Subsidising postgraduate study in South African universities and providing further leadership development opportunities for their scholars, former Rhodes graduates have conversely helped to fund the foundation.  Maybe we should share in Mandela’s “generosity of spirit”, as Lord Patten suggests, and commemorate these reparative actions that ultimately subvert the legacy of such a controversial supremacist by funding myriad scholarships for multicultural students.

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