Must Rhodes fall?

If we were looking for an historical figure with whom a contemporary university would want to be associated, Cecil Rhodes probably would not be on the shortlist. He is strongly associated with the colonisation of Africa (often conducted very aggressively), and from time to time expressed views that we would have to regard as racist – though he also stated that it was unacceptable ‘to disqualify a human being on account of his colour’.

Last year a movement began to have a statue of Rhodes located on the campus of the University of Cape Town taken down. Of course this movement had a hashtag, #RhodesMustFall. The university took down the statue and is re-locating it elsewhere. Shortly afterwards a similar movement, initiated by South African Rhodes scholar Ntokozo Qwabe, demanded that Oriel College Oxford remove its statue of Rhodes (who was one of the College’s major benefactors). Mr Qwabe may have slightly muddied the waters of his campaign by including in its objectives the banning of the French tricolour national flag.

But how should one see such campaigns? There have been vocal contributions to the debate, both for and against the removal of the Oxford statue. But how should one treat the issue? Is it good enough to say that historical artefacts must be retained because they are of their time and may help us to illustrate our contemporary evaluation of history? Would anyone suggest, for example, that if we found a statue somewhere of Hitler it should stay put? And not just Hitler, though actually there are still statues of Stalin, who was responsible for a good deal more aggression, violence, oppression and death than one could ever associate with Rhodes.

In the end, the key in all of this maybe does not lie in what we do with statues or other symbols, but how we ensure that our words, our vision and our actions reflect an ethos and values that are in keeping with the spirit of higher education. Oxford may, as some have argued, have a racism problem – but this has little enough to do with whose likeness is on the outside wall of Oriel College. The university may need to take action to correct this; but thinking that the main objective is about what it does with statues is a distraction.

For myself, I would leave statues where they are, but would want to be reminded from time to time that the values of learning, integrity, tolerance and equality need to be stated and restated in every generation; and that the symbols we erect today should be beacons of those values.

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9 Comments on “Must Rhodes fall?”

  1. paulmartin42 Says:

    Interestingly the notorious Misogenist, John Knox, has a small statue on a back street in Aberdeen. I am not sure if this was more prominently located in the past but no one notices it or indeed cares as it slowly deteriorates. Clearly his values were acceptable back then so I am unsure that ¨restating¨ is the solution, After all it is not so long ago that the TUC were dead set against the concept of the mother receiving the ¨Family Allowance¨, they advocated that it ought go to the man of the house.

    In this particular case I would reference the Aberdeen University solution. A new conference centre received a donation from a certain Robert Maxwell, a plaque was erected but when his misdemeanours came to light students allegedly stole it and such was not replaced.

  2. Jarlath Says:

    Some of the people that want the statue of Rhodes removed at Oxford are recipients of his scholarship fund. A large slice of cake for me thanks, and I might as well eat it now I’m here.

    There have been many peoples persecuted throughout history, for different reasons and in different ways. If we were to begin removing reminders of a somewhat violent and colonial past, I feel it removes a chance we may have for reflection and personal growth on topics that make us feel uncomfortable. We can become blinded by our emotions on such topics. I remember seeing a sign in the US that was still displayed as a reminder of the past, where it stated that two particular races of people and dogs were not allowed entry to the premises. I remember seething with anger at the time, but after sometime and reflection it spurred me on to do better, and work even harder.

    Mayo for Sam

  3. anna notaro Says:

    The way I look at the Rhodes’ case is in the context of the contemporary revival of iconoclasm, a term which emerged in the VIII century, when Eastern Church leaders objected to images on sacred icons. In England, in the 16th century, monasteries were destroyed together with numerous art works. The French Revolution aimed its iconoclasm at the ancien regime and in the 20th century, iconoclasm accompanied slaughter in the Soviet Union, Maoist China and Cambodia. During the Nazi occupation of France thousands of statues were destroyed, the surrealist photographer Pierre Jahan clandestinely captured many of the noble sculptures in their final moments before being melted down. His remarkable photographs were later published in a book La Mort et les Statues (Death and the Statues) combined with John Cocteau’s commentary. (

    Political iconoclasm surfaced again after the Soviet collapse and in the more recent fall of Baghdad to coalition forces, while religious and political iconoclasm are behind the destruction of the Afghan Buddhas and of the Temples of Palmyra by Taliban and IS fighters respectively.

    I have often wondered what is that makes any work of art, inscription, a picture, a statue the focus of so much passion to the point that destroying them, erasing them, defacing them, has been taken as the ultimate touchstone to prove the validity of one’s faith, of one’s science, of one’s ideology. Today’s urge to erase all monuments of ‘politically objectionable’ eras due to contingent political conditions poses similar questions.
    The destruction of monuments has always been a form of vengeance perpetrated in the name of justice. However, the concerted erasure of symbolism is nothing but a form of intolerance, an enforced cultural amnesia that diminishes the richness of a society’s own cultural life. As Alexander Adams rightly argues: “Even if one is opposed to an ideology, one must understand it to oppose it effectively and argue from a position of knowledge. The fear of encountering anything contradictory to one’s worldview is another aspect of the desire to have ‘freedom from speech’, which Greg Lukianoff identified in his latest book about censorship on American university campuses. In the case of the destruction of monuments, this censorious desire is even more extreme. It represents a desire for ‘freedom from history’ – from the speech of dead people and vanished authorities.”
    It is exactly the confidence in our values of tolerance, learning, integrity and equality – as mentioned in the post – which should make the coexistence with the problematic symbols of the past possible. It is not by resorting to the archaic practice of statues smashing that we should foster dialogue in the digital age!

  4. Vince Says:

    I demur.
    Had a German used the population of Alsace-Lorraine like Rhodes did the peoples of Southern Africa and then established a educational fund, if not actively designed to block its use by the people of A-L, the very lack of higher education nevermind higher degrees did so.
    On my reading of the will I found a reference to Race. This to my mind was pointedly referencing Rhodes friends and business partners the Biet’s, Oppenheimer and Barney Barnato, along with the majority of the other Randlords who were Jewish.
    It wasn’t until 1871 that Fellows at Oxoniensis could be Jewish.

  5. I just wanted to leave this here as an FYI for anyone following the Rhodes debate.

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