The Rhodes Art’s Complex in Bishop’s Stortford receives many visitors each year but how many I wonder are aware of the worldwide controversy surrounding Cecil Rhodes after whom it is named?
Students at Oxford University are campaigning to remove images and statuary that are seen by many to be enduring symbols of oppression, social injustice and colonisation. Inspired by the #RhodesMustFall protest movement that started in the University of Capetown in March 2015, the objective of the Oxford students is to ‘decolonise’ the curriculum and campus and remove the statue honouring Cecil John Rhodes at Oriel College. For decades students have passed the statue without a thought to what it stood for, until recently when the now campaigners, many of whom are history scholars, attention was drawn to the details of Rhodes and his legacy.
Rhodes, born in Bishop’s Stortford, was a successful business man and landowner who held a great position of power in Africa during the 19th century. After spending his childhood in the town, he was sent to South Africa after sickness, in the hope that the climate would improve his health. He built his business and wealth in the South African diamond trade establishing in 1888 the still world renowned company De Beers. Also being a significant political figure he entered the Cape Town Parliament in 1880 eventually becoming Prime Minister of the area a decade later. Rhodes also studied at Oxford University and consequently when he died he left money to enable a scholarship to be set up in his name. The scholarship was intended to aid the brightest international students take up a place at the University.
However, many today find the basis on which Rhodes Empire was founded morally unacceptable. Through deliberate mis-translations of a concession he secured the rights to a large area of land in what became Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe and Zambia). The Concession gave Rhodes permission to take ‘whatever action considered necessary’ to exploit the mineral wealth of King Lobengula’s Kingdom.
Furthermore as Prime Minister of Cape Colony his racial segregation policies led many to describe him as the architect of apartheid. The native people were “a source of great assistance” to the supreme white race according to Rhodes and when discussing voting he stated that though the natives are in a sense citizens ultimately “they are still children” and therefore this privileged was not granted to them.
By 1895 Rhodes was the unquestionable master of South Africa ruling over the destiny of the Cape and its white and African subjects. He controlled nearly all of the world’s diamonds and much of its gold and effectively ruled over three colonial dependencies in the heart of Africa.
Does this evidence justify the students’ decision to begin ‘Rhodes Must Fall Campaign’ and does this have implications for our very own Arts Centre?
On 28th January 2016, Oriel College Oxford released a statement saying the statue would remain in its place as would the plaque honouring Rhodes. Nevertheless the campaign has continued and it is reported that over one third of students and half of its black and minority ethnic students have continued to support it as many state that racism is still an issue at Oxford. A 2014 Student Union survey found that 81% of black and minority students felt race and ethnicity were not adequately discussed at the university and 51% had experienced a racial incident they felt was unacceptable and alienating, explaining why the campaign has such significance.
Likewise questions surrounding whether the scholarship should be continued have arisen as protestors conclude that praising his “generosity” with no mention of how the money to fund it was accumulated, was an anti-intellectual, ahistorical and inappropriate way to memorialise his brutality.
Yet, Professor Mary Beard argues a narrower historical point. When talking to the Independent she said, “History can’t be unwritten or hidden away, or erased when we change our minds”. In effect we must learn from the past and do better than it. Regarding the Rhodes scholarship she stated “if he was bad, then we have certainly turned his cash to the better” and to give him the benefit of the doubt “if he had been born a hundred years later even he would have thought differently”.
However Julius Malema, a South African politician compared Oriel College Oxford’s decision not to remove Cecil Rhodes' statue as akin to forcing an abused wife to keep up a photograph of her husband. Others say that, “Cecil Rhodes is the Hitler of Southern Africa. Would anyone countenance a statue to Hitler?” Removing the statue therefore may have potentially worked towards achieving racial equality and would stop the “celebration” of the white British imperialist.
So therefore is it right that we continue to have our Arts Centre named after a man who disowned this town and is certainly a deeply problematic historical figure?
Ultimately Cecil Rhodes was responsible for real violence and destruction and his legacy continues to oppress and disenfranchise people today. But were his actions simply “of the time”, and any attempt to remove his statues and name from buildings and attempt to white wash history? Take our Network poll and let us know what you think.