Tearing Down History

Cecil Rhodes was racist but his life needs to be historically contextualised, not simply attacked

This past summer, many have been captivated by the sorry fate of Cecil the lion, shot by an American hunter in Zimbabwe. Others have been kept up at night by the memory of Cecil’s namesake: Cecil Rhodes, depicted by G.M. Young as a person in whom “all the imperialisms of the age seem to exist in a confused, inextricable embodiment”.

There has been pressure to tear down statues of Rhodes, with the “Rhodes Must Fall” campaign spreading from South Africa to Oxford, Rhodes’s alma mater, the target being Rhodes’s statue in Oriel College, where he studied in 1873. Today’s students attack Rhodes for his overt racism and colonial ventures. These arguments have some merit but we should be wary of attempts to rewrite history. It is certainly true that Rhodes’s conquest of gold-rich Matabeleland (in what is now Zimbabwe) was built on economic exploitation and massacres. At the battle of the Shangani river in 1893, more than 1,500 Matabele tribesmen were gunned down by his private mercenaries. As prime minister of Cape Colony, Rhodes introduced the Glen Grey Act of 1894, which adversely affected land held by blacks. He also disenfranchised thousands of blacks by increasing property qualifications. His language was peppered with the racist prejudices of his day.

However, it is historically inaccurate to portray Rhodes’s policies as a blueprint for apartheid, as some campaigners have done. Explicitly segregationist policies only came into existence in the decades after he died. Rhodes opposed the more extreme policies of the Boer Republic in the Transvaal; his will forbade applicants for his scholarships to Oxford being discriminated against on the basis of race or religion. As always, the truth is complex.

Current opportunities are more important than historic injustices. The Rhodes Trust’s generosity has allowed thousands of foreign students to attain an Oxford education through Rhodes scholarships. He left 2 per cent of his vast estate to Oriel. For better or worse, Rhodes’s funds have been used for progressive ends (Bill Clinton was one beneficiary). Not just at Oxford, but all over Britain, the foundations of many historical institutions were built on injustice. By the protesters’ logic, all of these buildings would need to be stripped o f their wealth or their decorative features.

We cannot simply undo the past; we can only hope to build a more compassionate society. Rhodes’s life needs to be historically contextualised. With the possible addition of an explanatory plaque, the statue at Oriel College should continue to stand precisely because it provokes these important debates. After all, is it not the ultimate justice that talented students from all over the world can now walk past his statue knowing that he is funding their higher education?

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