Let’s not lose our heads over Rhodes
Can a man loyal to his Oxford college really be all bad?
Cecil Rhodes’s head was severed from his bust. No one knows when it happened. Like a post-modern re-enactment of an ancient sacrifice, it happened on a mountain, between the columns of a monument, on top of Table Mountain, in the Rhodes Memorial that overlook Devil’s Peak. A final condemnation was left on the wall: ‘Racist, thief, murderer.’ The decapitation of Rhodes’s bronze bust is eerily reminiscent of the Roman damnatio memoriae — the erasing of a man’s memory once political tables turn against him. All that remains from the bust is the pensive attitude of crossed arms, one hand tilted up, now uplifted towards a wounded emptiness. In 2015, the bust had already been defaced, its chopped-off nose was restored less than two years ago.
History has irrevocably damned Rhodes. This is happening while a Commission is about to decide wether or not Rhodes’s statue should be removed from its niche above Oxford’s High Street. Dare Oxford, home of history, dare to remember Rhodes, or this too frightening – too blasphemous – a prospect?
I was in Morocco when the Taliban smashed the Bamyan Buddhas beyond reconstruction in 2001. Morocco is a country with no statues — all the artefacts reminding North Africa of its complex palimpsest of Punic, Roman, Jewish and Christian past have been wiped out by the Arabic colonisation. Statue destroyers believe they are purging the world from idols of a past Age of Darkness. Once, not so long ago, I would have written ‘believed,’ and even then, only of somewhere else.
The Victorian and Edwardian eras are our new Age of Darkness, oppressing us with their unforgivable absence of light. To judge Rhodes implies scratching off the memory and gratitude of an entire age. The memorial on Table Mountain was an initiative as spontaneous as the gathering of the Matabele tribe chanting, while Rhodes’s body was laid in earth on the 10th of April 1902, ‘My Father is dead’. In 1998, writes Donal Lowry, the Town Clerk of Bulawayo ‘[opposed] the disinterment of Rhodes’s body from the nearby Matobo Hills’, saying “only the Taliban destroys history – I am not the Taliban”.’ The current generation seems unable to address this problematic thankfulness towards Rhodes. People with far less need to forgive are far less forgiving than those who were wronged.
Rhodes never asked for a statue on Oxford’s High Street. It was the acknowledgement given by Oriel College to its former student and benefactor; just as the statue of Cardinal Newman, neighbouring Rhodes on the same facade, stands as a tribute to Oriel’s former chaplain.
In October 2019, the canonisation of John Henry Newman shed a glorious light on Oriel and on Great Britain. It was the best of times. Buoyant youths, though not Catholics, took Oriel’s Crest so that it would be blessed by Pope Francis. Newman was the first non-martyr Englishman to be canonized since the Reformation. He witnessed Christ by the offering of his life for the sake of truthseeking. Prince Charles visited the Vatican for the occasion and wrote: ‘[Newman] is a figure who stood for his convictions despite the disadvantages of belonging to a religion whose adherents were denied full participation in public life.’ Newman’s idea of University was that education ‘aims at raising the intellectual tone of society’ by infusing society with truth and intellectual honesty.
Many knew nothing of Newman before the canonisation, just as many knew nothing of Rhodes before George Floyd’s death rekindled the Rhodes Must Fall movement.
In 2016, the Rhodes Must Fall campaign launched a petition allegedly quoting Rhodes: ‘I prefer land to n*****s … the natives are like children. They are just emerging from barbarism … one should kill as many ns as possible [asterisks in RMF leaflet]’, Rhodes said. When? Never. In January 2016, Madeline Briggs’s article in The Poor Print, Oriel’s student journal, disclosed that this sentence came from former Rhodes scholar Adekeye Adebajo’s review of Paul Maylam’s The Cult of Rhodes (2006). ‘The single sentence quoted by Rhodes Must Fall,’ Briggs states, ‘does not exist in Maylam’s book.’
In February 2016, Nigel Biggar commented on the quotation in Standpoint: ‘[It] is, in fact, made up from three different quotations drawn from three different sources. The first has been lifted from an 1897 novel by Olive Schreiner: it’s fiction. The second has been misleadingly torn from its proper context. And the third … is a mixture of distortion and fabrication.’
The quotation has been removed from the RMF 2.0 manifesto. However, it has appeared so often on social media that one wonders what strength Rhodes Must Fall 2.0 campaign would have had, had the forgery been disclosed through the ‘education and information’ students asked Oriel to provide on Rhodes. To some of my students, Rhodes is a genocidal madman.
Audacter caluminare, semper aliquid haeret
[Slander boldly, something always sticks]
Newman knew something about slander. In 1890, the year of his death, his statue on the High would have been the problematic thing in Protestant Oxford. Following his conversion to Catholicism, Newman had to resign his fellowship in 1832 and to leave the University. Charles Kingsley, his adversary in the Tractarian quarrel, accused Newman of being ‘either a knave or a fool’ for converting to Catholicism. Newman reached out to his former Tractarian companions of arms, Keble and Pusey, so that they would testify for the evolution of his ideas from Anglicanism to Catholicism. In spite of their religious divergences, Pusey and Keble did not throw Newman under the carriage.
Nine years after Newman’s death, in 1899. Cecil Rhodes, then in his mid-forties, was seated at the high table of Oriel. He gave a speech in which he asked the audience to judge his actions on the backdrop of a heated context, among men:
“Whose actions have partaken of the violence of their age, which are hard to justify in a more peaceful and law-abiding age. It is among those men that my own life and actions must be weighed and measured; and I trust to the justice of my countrymen, of which I thought I read some forecast in the kind reception and appreciation awarded to me here in my old college.”
On that very evening, the diamond tycoon heard of Oriel’s financial difficulties. ‘I am going to make my will in London during the next few days’, he replied. ‘Write and tell me what you want.’
Rhodes died less than three years after that dinner.
He wrote in his will that the Provost and Fellows of the College ‘lived secluded from the world and were like children in matters of finance.’ Yet he did not throw them under the carriage. Whether his generosity was prompted by his affection towards his alma mater or by a wish to make amends for the violence of his time, it stirred a gratefulness that cannot be ascribed solely to the delusions of imperialism.
That was the prevailing feeling in the 1910s, when the Table Mountain memorial and the Rhodes Building facade were built. In 1910, when The Daily Mail criticized Rhodes Scholars for not mingling with British students, Alain LeRoy Locke, the first black recipient of the Rhodes Scholarship, wrote: ‘The Rhodes idea, in its original and [deep] intention, was that the Rhodes Scholar should [seek] to confront national bias, eradicate national prejudice, and educate nations to mutual good will and understanding.’
Newman would have approved of the idea that truth-seeking ought to supersede any difference, and would have saluted Locke’s loyalty. Locke embraced the name of Rhodes as well as the money and the fame that came with it. Locke did not throw Rhodes under the carriage.
Removing Rhodes’s statue would be just like pocketing your grandmother’s wealth with one hand while burning her pictures with the other because she had the ideas of her time
Newman believed academic teaching was about sharing space and time. At that same table Rhodes sat at 120 years earlier, a fellow told me: ‘Oriel is not a restaurant. It is our home.’ Had the decision to remove the plaque and the statue commemorating Rhodes’s generosity not taken place in a zoom meeting but under the roof Rhodes saved, would the discussion have ended the same way?
Newman and Rhodes both belong to Oriel, to Oxford, to the complex history of the British imperial era— and so does everyone who benefits from the material and intellectual sustenance that draws students to the dreaming spires. The scapegoating Rhodes is subject to seems a sinister reflection of Newman’s rehabilitation. I, as an African, acknowledge my debt towards Newman, as well as towards Rhodes. Newman fed my soul; Rhodes saved my home, which I saw threatened of being ‘burned down’ on Instagram by a Rhodes Must Fall activist before the early June protest this year — the post has since been removed.
Dr Hojjat Ramzy, director of the Oxford Islamic Information Center, wrote tellingly in the Oxford Mail: ‘Where statues and monuments of prior civilisations could not be removed by subsequent generations and conquering forces, or where these new governments or powers wished to leave reminders of their predecessors as warnings and lessons to the populace, these figures and icons were instead defaced, usually through the removal of the nose.’ If a saw severs the limbs of Rhodes’s statue, it will operate in cold blood the same damnatio memoriae as the vandalism that took place on Table Mountain, prompted by the same yearning for a blank page purified in blood; and all the statues of Oxford, saints and sinners alike, will wonder: ‘who must fall next?’ What argument, after all, is there against them not falling? None of the lines drawn in the sand thus far, by the complacent and frightened alike, have held true.
One cannot cherry-pick in one’s patrimony. Removing Rhodes’s statue would be just like pocketing your grandmother’s wealth with one hand while burning her pictures with the other because she had the ideas of her time; and the shredding of a complicated past will not undo history. How could it? The idea is as absurd as the claim that a dusty statue was doing any harm to the countless generations who daily passed it without a further thought.
Rhodes is an ideal scapegoat for a generation that fantasies about a brave new world ruled by divisive identity politics and stigmatizing labels. If the past that binds us is dissolved under the pressure of protesters, we will betray the future by giving them nothing: no memories, no history, none of what we were given but childishly sought to throw away. It will be the worst of times: the commission presiding over the fate of Rhodes in Oxford must surely know better?
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