Why Rhodes doesn’t need to fall any more than the Soviet flag in King’s
RMF is on a Rhode to ruin.
I attended Oriel College’s Commemoration Ball last year in Oxford. (The ball was a disappointment, for the record).
But as someone from a former British colony in Africa I must confess that I didn’t feel personally victimised by the present of Cecil Rhodes’s statue in the college – now the subject of an international campaign to tear it down.
I regarded the statue in the same way that I, as a Catholic, regard the statue of Henry VIII in Trinity: with indifference.
The debate over Rhodes Must Fall (RMF) has been full of hyperbole. Some opponents of the campaign have compared them to ISIS and said that statues should never be removed. That latter claim is obviously false.
Almost all of us support the de-Nazification in Germany, or the removal of Soviet statues and symbols in former USSR countries, or liberated dictatorships taking down the statues of those dictators.
Statues can sometimes be taken down, though obviously they shouldn’t be taken down because of mere disapproval with a long gone historical figure. (If that were the case, as has been pointed out ad nauseam, we wouldn’t have any statues left.)
But this is where the response of RMF also goes into hyperbole. For them Rhodes (and the French flag) was (nearly) as bad as Hitler. That claim is quite clearly false. None of Rhodes’s biographers has accused him of genocide, or of enslaving local population. Whilst the manner in which he obtained mining concessions was problematic, it didn’t amount to an armed invasion. Rhodes was a bad person – though he was no King Leopold II. Nevertheless, it is still inappropriate to glorify a bad person.
RMF claims they want Rhodes’s glorification to stop. But what glorification? Vilification of Rhodes did not begin with RMF. The scholarship about him since the mid 20th century has been exceptionally critical. In popular culture, the BBC did a highly critical mini-series about him in 1998. Similarly, whilst people have defended Rhodes against accusations that he was as bad as Hitler, no one has sought to argue that, in his life, he did more good than harm. The debate has largely been about what adjectives one should use to describe Rhodes’s badness. The truth is there has been no glorification of Rhodes for a long time.
Symbols in themselves are neutral. They only represent what we consider that they represent and for some people they represent something good and for others something bad. Take the ever-recurring debate about the Hammer and Sickle at King’s. Those who want it taken down think it represents the Soviet ideology that lead to the deaths of millions.
One Cambridge student defended keeping it by appealing to the fact it had a different meaning at King’s than it did in Eastern Europe. He is right – at King’s the flag is seen as a quirky tradition of the college and not a celebration of the USSR.
Similarly, it would be a mistake to see the statue as honouring Rhodes. Rather, it is an acknowledgement of his benefaction. A benefaction can be acknowledged without honouring the benefactor. In that sense, Rhodes’s statue is different from the Hammer and Sickle. The latter has to represent something, the former does not.
The leader of RMF Oxford has been accused of hypocrisy for being a Rhodes Scholar. This is a nonsensical ad hominem from the right wing press. Even if he were a hypocrite this doesn’t affect the merit of his arguments. As it is, his defence against that charge gives the clue for why Rhodes’s statue must remain. He claimed that the money from the scholarship came from resources plundered from Southern Africa and so it was never Rhodes’s money to give.
He is right. That Rhodes was no Hitler or Leopold does not mean he was a good guy. Rhodes was a bad person. He obtained mining concessions from local rulers using fraud. Property rights matter and Rhodes had very little respect for them. A substantial part of his wealth is ill-gotten. What then should be done? If one were to be completely logical in advocating restitution then it should go to the descendants of the Kings Lobengula and Lewanika. But I don’t think anyone is advocating that. So, instead, what can be done?
Rhodes giving up his wealth for good causes should be seen as atonement for the harm he caused. I’m not claiming that Rhodes created the trust out of a sense of remorse; only that we should understand it as such. RMF has a point; the narrative about the Rhodes’s benefactions should not be “look how generous he was” – it should be “this is Rhodes’s atonement”.
But atonement is personal. It requires that the link between the good works and the person atoning be maintained. Renaming the Rhodes Trust or Rhodes University (as RMF wants to) will remove that link. Similarly, the statue at Oriel acknowledges Rhodes’s gift to the College. It is that link which is the atonement.
Rhodes did a lot of bad things during his life. He still has a lot to atone for. He must finish his atonement and so the statue must stay.