Recent events regarding the Cecil Rhodes statue towering over Oriel College led me to reflect on the conditions needed to guarantee Oxford University’s existence in its current form. Here are three: pounds determine morality; let those with history write history; and let those who struggle against imperialism and Western hegemony take their struggle elsewhere.
Oriel has called off the planned six months of consultation announced in December on the fate of the statue, ostensibly a consequence of the “enormous amount of input … from students and academics, alumni, heritage bodies”, amounting to an “overwhelming message … in support of the statue remaining in place”, according to a statement from the college on 28 January.
We are given to understand that the consultation is no longer necessary because the majority has already come down on the side of the statue. Surely an institution welcoming of mostly white, wealthy males didn’t expect their private donors (the alumni) to respond in any other way?
The university’s history can be rehearsed chronologically as three steps: pillage as much as is inhumanely possible; erect with the considerable bounty a world-class institution that is open to a select few; and, if there isn’t anything left to pillage, inform the wretched of the earth that they are now welcome to compete as equals for a place at the world-class institution.
Democracy and the will of the majority have their conveniences, especially as rhetorical claims to the moral and ethical high ground will be sold to the highest bidder. Scientific racism, militant internationalism and the plunder of resources and land became morally reprehensible when the developed world had sufficiently entrenched the inequality it so violently installed as the accepted order of things.
One must wonder how it occurred that Rhodes’s statue furnished Lord Patten, the chancellor of Oxford University, with an opportunity to castigate “those who presume they can rewrite history within the confines of their own notion of what is politically, culturally, and morally correct”.
The fate of this thing called history doesn’t depend on a single statue, a point with which, I’m sure, the chancellor will concur. Or perhaps not: “Many of the university’s ‘great buildings’” were constructed using the “proceeds of activities that would be rightly condemned today”.
The underlying concern seems to be the fate of Oxford’s great buildings, which, in a country built by black slaves with resources pillaged from Africa and Asia on a stupendous scale, amounts to history. If Rhodes must go, what about the Codrington library, the Ashmolean, the British Library – Britain in its entirety?
Rhodes-style imperialism thriving
People use phrases such as “as it is now understood” or “rightly condemned today” in relation to Rhodes’s legacy. Such opinions (meant to guard against the ahistorical fallacy) bear testimony to the diplomatic malice of political and academic correctness: as if, before now, we all understood Rhodes’s legacy to represent something palatable.
“Any views that Cecil Rhodes had about the British Empire and about race were common at the time,” the chancellor says. But common among whom? Is he suggesting those Rhodes enslaved and murdered for the purposes of British values, staggering greed, and the honourable prospect of even black folk being educated at Oxford? Is he suggesting they did condone Rhodes’s views as commonly accepted (and therefore also acceptable)?
If there are doubts about whether Rhodes had contemporary critics, it isn’t because there weren’t any. Rather, it is because history was written “within the confines of their own notion of what is politically, culturally, and morally correct”.
Today we are still reaping the consequences of this morality, of this culture and politics. No, not we, but the millions of poverty-stricken men, women and children – the product of imperialism’s greatest export alongside “British values”.
Ironically, when a black student points out the devastation in whose creation Rhodes and the British Empire played no small part, he is branded a privileged hypocrite; the logic being that privileged black people cannot speak on behalf of poor black people, whose fates rest in the benevolent hands of white liberals. The unmasking of Rhodes’s legacy is neither the achievement of Western intellectuals, nor is it unique to the 20th or the 21st centuries.
My question is simple: How has this tiny island engaged its imperial past? Has there been a period of self-critique, mourning, reconciliation, compensation for centuries of systematic oppression and plunder? Why are we urged to remember and commemorate one holocaust and not another? What about the estimated 30-to-50 million deaths in India and China as a result of the administrative massacres perpetrated during the golden years of British Empire?
Nelson Mandela has become a convenient go-to saint at the disposal of white power because, as the chancellor points out, he pursued reconciliation to such an extent that, even when it meant associating with a dead white male such as Rhodes, he did so willingly.
But here’s the thing, Lord Patten: Have you followed the example of Mandela? Have you, for example, led a campaign to bring about reconciliation, reparations, asking for forgiveness? Or invited into your house those Kenyans who were castrated and raped by imperial armies? Have you sheltered refugees fleeing from wars directly or indirectly fuelled by the West? Have you worked to bring to light cover-ups of imperial crimes, such as the thousands of documents that disappeared from Hong Kong and Hanslope Park? Have you invited members of the #RhodesMustFall movement for tea and scones?
The movement has called for the migration of Rhodes from the High Street to a museum – hardly an act of rewriting history. Museums are places where what is at risk of disappearing is preserved, but Rhodes-style imperialism, regardless of the fate of his statue, is thriving.
Carina Venter is a junior research fellow in music at Merton College, Oxford.