At the Rhodes Scholarship interview, candidates are often asked how they intend to ‘fight the world’s fight’, a phrase inherited from the scholarship’s founder, Cecil Rhodes. The exceeding ambition that has always been demanded of Rhodes scholars takes its cue from Rhodes’s own imperial fantasies: ‘Why should we not form a secret society with but one object, the furtherance of the British Empire and the bringing of the whole uncivilised world under British rule … What a dream, but yet it is probable; it is possible.’
Rhodes’s dream was never realised, but not for want of effort on his part. A year before he took office as prime minister of the British Cape Colony in 1890, in which capacity he stripped much of the black population of its property and voting rights, he founded the British South Africa Company, the vehicle of British hopes in the colonial ‘scramble for Africa’. (In 1870, only 10 per cent of the continent was under European control; by 1914 only Ethiopia and Liberia remained unconquered.) The BSAC was licensed by the crown to rule over and make new treaties in the territories between the Limpopo River and Lake Tanganyika, and Rhodes used it to further his mining interests; he had begun buying up mines at the age of 18 with the backing of Rothschild, and founded De Beers in 1888. When the territories rebelled, Rhodes used the BSAC’s own police force to crush the rebels. (The company was charged in the House of Commons with deliberately provoking the conflict in order to seize the territory, but was cleared.) In 1895 Rhodes consolidated the land and named it Rhodesia. He died in 1902, aged 48, of a long-term heart condition, one of the richest men in the world.
Rhodes recognised the material advantages of colonial subjugation, but he also believed in its ethical necessity. ‘I contend that we are the finest race in the world,’ he wrote in the will that established the Rhodes Scholarship, ‘and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race. Just fancy those parts that are at present inhabited by the most despicable specimens of human beings what an alteration there would be if they were brought under Anglo-Saxon influence.’
Last year student protests at the University of Cape Town brought down a bronze statue of Rhodes on the campus. The Oxford chapter of Rhodes Must Fall took aim at a statue of Rhodes that stands on the façade of Oriel College, of which Rhodes was an alumnus and benefactor. Critics have been quick to register their disapproval. Some historians have compared RMF to Islamic State. Mary Beard warned that to remove the statue would be to erase history. One of the RMF organisers, the South African Rhodes scholar Ntokozo Qwabe, has been attacked in the press for the ‘hypocrisy’ of criticising Rhodes while being a beneficiary of his will. Qwabe has explained that he sees himself not as a recipient of Rhodes’s largesse, but of reparations on behalf of his ancestors who were exploited in the amassing of the Rhodes fortune. Oxford’s chancellor, Chris Patten, is unpersuaded; he recently told the student protesters they should ‘think about being educated elsewhere’.
RMF Oxford has in a way been a victim of its own success. Neither the Cape Town nor the Oxford campaign has ever been just about statues. RMF Oxford says its ultimate goal is to ‘decolonise’ the university, a broad campaign – of which changing public symbols is only one part – to address what it sees as Oxford’s deep racism. Its first action was to protest against the Oxford Union’s ‘Colonial Comeback’-themed cocktail, served on the night of a debate about reparations and advertised with a poster of shackled black hands. This wasn’t an isolated incident. Two years ago a group of students at St Hugh’s put on blackface to illustrate Jay-Z and Kanye West’s ‘Niggas in Paris’ as part of a ‘song titles’-themed bop. Only 3.9 per cent of Oxford’s professors have a Black and Minority Ethnic background; even at Cambridge the figure is 6.4 per cent. Undergraduates can still complete a history degree without studying the non-European world. In a recent survey, 59.3 per cent of BME students reported feeling unwelcome at Oxford because of their race. But complaints of structural racism and calls for curriculum reform don’t draw public attention like the toppling of a statue, and the RMF leaders know this. Peter Scott in the Guardian called the removal of the statue the ‘easy option’ and a ‘displacement activity’ that distracts from the real issues. But it’s hard to imagine that anyone would be talking about Oxford’s colonial past, or racist present, if the statue’s future weren’t hanging in the balance.
Should it stay or should it go? The suggestion that removing the statue would be an IS-level act of barbarism is odd. If all changes in public symbolism were equivalent to the destruction of Palmyra, what would that mean for those who demanded the removal of the Confederate flag from the South Carolina State House after the murder of nine black churchgoers in Charleston; or the prohibition of Nazi iconography in postwar Germany? Tacit in the claim that the statue must stay is the assumption that Rhodes wasn’t really that bad, that his colonial projects don’t place him beyond the moral pale. That this is largely taken for granted, not supported with argument, is hardly surprising. Even those white Americans who want black people to ‘get over’ slavery are for the most part prepared to admit that slavery was a bad thing. Britons by comparison are much more nostalgic for their racist past. In a recent YouGov poll, 59 per cent of respondents said that the British Empire was something of which to be more proud than ashamed. Defenders of British colonialism often point out that it was less brutal than the Spanish or French versions, or claim that it left the colonised better off than they would otherwise have been. Both responses are, ethically speaking, non sequiturs. Presumably the violent subjugation and exploitation of people isn’t OK, even if you do leave behind some railroads, or aren’t as bad as the other guys. Though perhaps we can’t even agree on that: in the same YouGov poll, 34 per cent of participants said they would like it if Britain had an empire today.
The hand-wringing about historical erasure is puzzling too. No one at Oxford, or anywhere else in the UK, talked much about Cecil Rhodes before the current protests began. Portraits and statues of dead white men are like air in Oxford, ubiquitous and generally unremarked. My only recollection of talking about Rhodes is toasting him (‘To the founder!’) at Rhodes House dinners. Other scholars would sometimes refer to him as ‘Uncle Cecil’. Mary Beard insists that in his racist beliefs Rhodes was no worse than other Victorians – the idea that he was a ‘particularly dreadful lone racist wolf in the late 19th century is completely barking’ – and that to condemn him betrays a perverse ahistoricism. But one might think she’s getting it backwards. The historical outlook is surely that however typical or untypical Rhodes’s worldview, it was Rhodes who masterminded the economic and political domination of southern Africa by Britain and, in so doing, laid the foundations for apartheid. The historical outlook is also one that does, or at least should, draw a distinction between what historical persons might be blamed for, given their circumstances, and what historical actions we ought to condemn, given ours.
In December, it looked as if RMF might be on the verge of victory. Oriel announced it would seek permission from Oxford City Council to remove a portrait bust from a college building on King Edward Street – the inscription reads ‘in recognition of the great services rendered by Cecil Rhodes to his country’ – and begin a six-month long ‘listening exercise’ to decide what to do about the statue. But in January the college reversed its position, announcing that both the portrait bust and statue would stay. The Telegraph got hold of a letter from Oriel’s development director to the college’s governing body warning that Oriel’s response to RMF was ‘potentially extremely damaging’; one major donation of £500,000 had already been lost, while a second donor, who had pledged £750,000 to the college, wasn’t responding to the development director’s messages. ‘I have also heard from independent sources,’ the report continued, ‘that another major donor is furious with the college … whose legacy to the college could be in excess of £100 million.’
In 1899 Oxford proposed to award Rhodes a doctorate of civil law. There was opposition among academics, who thought that his leadership of the Jameson Raid – a failed land-grab that precipitated the Second Boer War – was both illegal and immoral. They were overruled.