Cui Bono

Imperial College’s Operation Historyhide is a go-go

Artillery Row

Have you thought about going to College? No, I don’t mean any old university. I mean the historic, world-leading institution that finds itself embarrassed by its name. Imperial College, you see, has noted with alarm that its name makes more than a passing nod to Britain’s imperial past. You can see the problem: those truly committed to rebranding their institutional past should set about finding a canny way to drop the “Imperial”. As it happens, however, the first step in Operation Historyhide is a rather a curious one: to suppress its Latin motto.

That motto has been visible in London and around the world for more than a century: scientia imperii decus et tutamen. Most naturally this advertises “knowledge” as “the glory and defence of the Empire,” simultaneously suggesting in its first two words the English “Science” and “Imperial”. We can have little doubt that the men who proposed this motto in 1908 had their minds primarily on the British Empire: the chairman of the Governing Body was Robert Crewe-Milnes, Secretary of State for the Colonies, while the acting Rector was Lieut.-Gen. Sir Alfred Henry Keogh, previously Director-General Army Medical Services and subsequently an acronymivorous GCB GCVO CH FRCP.

Both men were committed to the belief that Imperial could help propagate all manner of scientific knowledge, which would in turn bolster the reputation and stability of nation and empire. The very raison d’ être of Imperial lay (as Keogh put it) “in providing and in training men for scientific service overseas”. Latin, as the language of power and heraldry, was not far to seek: Edward VII, who issued the Royal Warrant, doubtless knew that his mother had been celebrated as “imperii decus et columna” (“the glory and support of the empire”), just as Wellington had been, after Horace’s Maecenas, “imperii decus et praesidium” (“the glory and guardian of the empire”). This was the unquestioning language of the age.

As part of their response to the tragic murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Imperial have decided to act. Their page on the college arms has been rapidly tweaked, closing with a bizarre, stream-of-consciousness coda:

“We are aware that the Latin motto is ambiguous can be translated in a number of different ways, however given the historical context this common translation is how the motto has come to be understood in English across Imperial’s community and beyond.”

Right. The motto was indeed devised so as to be rich in ambiguity and association. It could just as well mean “knowledge of power” – which can include “knowledge of a/the empire – is a virtue and a defence”. Such a motto about human over-reach could have enjoyed a long lease of life, entirely independent of last-gasp imperial ideals. The last three words – decus et tutamen – are also loaded. Taken from Virgil’s Aeneid, they refer to golden armour awarded as a prize to his senior general, runner-up in the boat race that enlivens an otherwise dreary funeral. The owner, Mnestheus, does indeed go on to help secure the Trojans victory and thus to found the new race of Rome.

Unquestionably bellicose stuff. But the words have long had currency in Britain: Queen Elizabeth was decus et tutamen regni (“the glory and defence of the kingdom”), and Charles II minted crowns with this three-word phrase around the edge. Until just yesterday the pound coin preserved this motto, first suggested (by John Evelyn, no less) as an explicit safeguard against the unconscionable crime of coin-clipping. It is an intense irony that, despite its use for 112 years, these same words cannot prevent an institution called Imperial from history-clipping.

Well, the authorities have spoken, and the motto is no longer acceptable. Instead, we are left with the royal arms (on the assumption that the monarchy has never flirted with empire?), and an open book declaring Scientia (to distinguish it from those institutions that are less enthused by knowledge?) – to say nothing of the institution’s name. I leave it for others to decide whether this is a principled step forward, or tokenism and historical vandalism of the worst kind.

Meanwhile, for those still curious, the old motto remains to be seen in three feet of not-so-subtle stone – atop Beit Hall (funded by the multi-millionaire, gold-mining business associate of Cecil Rhodes), on Prince Consort Road in the midst of Albertopolis, as the beating  heart of Imperial College, which boasts the Lord President of Council as its Visitor (one Jacob Rees-Mogg). Is there work to be done?

I may append a closing worry: can the likes of Oxford and Cambridge look on this episode unashamedly, while continuing to propagate their own problematic pasts? Of unelected autocrats (King’s, Queen’s and Queens’), imperialistic apologists (Selwyn, Churchill), religious firebrands (Christ’s, Emmanuel, Jesus, St John’s, Wycliffe Hall), bribers of the electorate (Downing, Fitzwilliam), feudalistic overlords (Balliol, Clare, Merton, Pembroke), rac(ial)ists (Darwin), and – if I understand the Latin aright – bodyshaming (Corpus Christi)? The world waits with bated breath.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover