Since the Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford (RMFO) movement burst onto the national stage last year, the British establishment mud-slingers have plumbed new nadirs to discredit the campaign. The onslaught has ranged from racist rants to ad hominem attacks. The nominally independent Chancellor of Oxford and last Governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, has joined a range of unsavoury critics – from Tony Abbott to F.W. de Klerk – in condemning RMFO.
Inspired by its namesake campaign in South Africa, one of the group’s demands – and the one that’s engendered such virulent opposition – is for the removal of a memorial to late 19th century British imperialist Cecil Rhodes at Oriel College. In response to a 2500-strong petition calling for the statue’s removal, Oriel agreed to initiate a six month “listening exercise” – and the media circus commenced. As of yesterday, leaked documents seen by The Telegraph show Oriel has decided to keep the statue due to threats from donors to withdraw over £100m from the college.
Death threats, racial slurs, imperial apologism – if nothing else, the campaign has done a stunning job of stirring up the UK’s latent bigotry. Here are four reasons why Rhodes must still fall – everywhere:
1. Rhodes was a tyrant.
Cecil Rhodes was an extreme racist and arch-imperialist. He stated “the natives are children,” and thought “the great object of present humanity should be to take as much of the world as it possibly [can]”.
But the problem with Rhodes isn’t merely his views. He actively imposed a structure of tyrannical injustice upon half a continent, and was recognised to have done so by many critics at the time.
He passed bills which significantly limited African voting rights, and instituted the early formations of the apartheid system. He was instrumental to the Jameson Raid, considered to be a major spark for the Second Boer War (or South African War). He ran a brutal paramilitary force, the British South Africa Company Police, which helped form the building blocks of Ian Smith’s white minority regime in Rhodesia in the 20th century. His primary aim was the massive exploitation of material wealth in southern Africa – the operations of his British South Africa Company are described by Encyclopaedia Britannica as “blatant acts of military conquest.”
As with roads and parks named after Confederate generals in the American South, our public life shouldn’t be marked by the elevation of some of the most vicious and cynical men in our history.
2. Symbols matter.
The choice to immortalise a select elite among the millions of dead Britons is not a neutral decision, but usually involves a value judgement – it reflects who we think of as important and heroic, deserving of a lasting imprint in public memory. Conversely, the process of iconographic removal has often developed in tandem with a collective reconciling with the past – just last year, for instance, Madrid began changing street names which had tribute to the fascist Franco regime.
To remove a statue is not to ‘cleanse history’, but to question the dominant interpretation of the past and ask whether the people who adorn our finest buildings should be the murderous powerful, or the marginalised dissidents. In fact, the systematic elevation of those who hoarded wealth and fame off the back of thousands – and the lack of public acknowledgement of their victims – is the destruction of history at its most heinous.
The British ruling class has long been able to decide who we publicly venerate and who we consign to the memory hole. Rhodes Must Fall is an attempt to reshape collective iconography from the bottom up.
3. Oxford – and higher education in general – is institutionally racist.
Oxford was long at the heart of the British colonial project, and the legacy of white dominance is ingrained even within the university’s architecture.
The aims of RMFO are much wider than a mere reconfiguration of Oxford’s monuments. The monuments matter insofar as they represent deeper problems of Eurocentrism and racism, problems deeply entrenched in the University of Oxford. A survey by Oxford Student Union’s Campaign for Racial Awareness and Equality (CRAE) found “BME students experience prejudice and feelings of ‘otherness’ in an environment that has normalized racial prejudice and racism.”
The insights of the Why is My Curriculum White? campaign demonstrate this is a UK-wide issue – BME academics are less likely to be selected, readings lists are dominated by white European viewpoints, and people of colour across the higher education sector often feel marginalised and discriminated against. The struggle for a decolonised curriculum is vital not only for BME students but for basic principles of academic inquiry; Eurocentrism, after all, implies an irrational bias towards the worldview and practice of white Europeans over a holistic pedagogy. RMFO aims to tackle all these injustices.
4. Britain hasn’t come to terms with its colonial past.
Across Europe, selective memory acts to suppress the crimes of the past, whilst simultaneously eulogising the perpetrators. Adam Hochschild, who has written of ‘the great forgetting’ in Belgium regarding the late 19th century slave state of King Leopold II in Congo, writes: “in Paris and Lisbon [there are] no visible reminders of the rubber terror that slashed in half the populations of parts of French and Portuguese Africa… the world we live in… is shaped far less by what we celebrate and mythologize than by the painful events we try to forget.”
And so it is in Britain. Across the nation we commemorate our ‘fallen heroes’ and ‘great leaders’. Nowhere is there a commemoration of the tens of millions of Indian peasants who died in the ‘late Victorian holocausts‘ manufactured by the British Raj. Nowhere is there recognition of the role the British government played in the slaughter of hundreds of thousands in Indonesia in the mid-1960s. Nowhere is there a reminder of the centuries of slave and dependency colonies we ran in the Caribbean.
This effacement of history serves very specific interests. As George Monbiot has written: “There is nothing random about the pattern of silence that surrounds our lives. Silences occur where powerful interests are at risk of exposure.” The superstructure which maintains the rule of the British establishment is carefully maintained, and requires the congealed blood of millions to be washed away from the historical record.
Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford’s most important task is to intervene in this culture of historical amnesia. To do so is to do no less than attempt to uproot the discourse which sustains a centre of imperial power – and this explains the seemingly disproportionate ire the campaign has provoked. The growing decolonial movement in the UK is generating an appraisal of our nation’s crimes far beyond the capacities of our elite commentators. In the US, it’s even taking on previously untouchable liberal icons like Woodrow Wilson, and in South Africa it’s sparked a national clamour to retackle the legacy of white dominance, garnering the support of the Economic Freedom Fighters, a rapidly growing offshoot of the African National Congress. It’s going to need a structure able to disseminate a counter-narrative and deflect the coming attack – and to fracture the domination of our national discourse by elite interests.
Photos: TES; Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford/Facebook
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