Back in April 2015, I wrote a blog about the high profile politics surrounding the Cecil Rhodes statue in Cape Town University. After becoming a focus of protest, alongside a good deal of social media pressure, the Cape Town University authorities removed the statue. The high profile of the case, however, has since provoked some similar public debates within Oriel College, Oxford; Rhodes’s Alma Mata.
On the one hand, while Cecil Rhodes was a philanthropist for Oxford educationalists and international scholars, he was undeniably also a leading imperialist and racist – but would it be fair to cast judgement according to 21st century moral sensibilities? On the other hand, whatever we might think about Cecil Rhodes as a human being, would the removal of his statue actually achieve anything?
Many voices within the media have been uncomfortable about what they see as the anachronistic application of 21st century value judgements on historical figures. A reading of late 19th and early 20th century debates, however, would soon reveal how reviled Cecil Rhodes was by many sections of society at the time. Indeed, William Morris’s News from Nowehere (published in 1890) contains a blistering critique of late 19th century imperial expeditions by leading figures such as David Livingstone and Henry Morton Stanley. As usual in such debates, however, the application of critical heritage perspectives pertains less to historical anachronisms or otherwise, but rather to the contemporary politics of the past, and to the unfolding life history of the monument.
In some of my previous blogs, I quite liked the playful embellishment of the Wellington Monument in Glasgow, as well as the more overt critique of the General Buller statue in Exeter (November 2014 and July 2015) – the ‘victim’ of some ‘guerrilla memorialisation’ tactics. I was supportive of the removal of the Rhodes statue in Cape Town (April 2015 blog), viewed within the context of contemporary politics in South Africa, but what does this mean for Oriel College, Oxford?
Dena Latif, writing in the Guardian, has written persuasively that the removal of the Rhodes statue might act as a sort of problematic attempt to draw a veil over the past, making ourselves feel better now by pretending that the embarrassing Cecil Rhodes didn’t exist: “The statue should stay – and remind us that Oxford has much to do to redress its racial imbalances … Keep Rhodes up. And let’s admit that racial inequality lives on”.
This is a strong argument, and certainly one that we have seen elsewhere, such as with the case of the Jan-Peter Coen statue, in the Dutch town of Hoorn (reported in an excellent academic paper by Lisa Johnson). In Hoorn, the JP Coen statue was literally ‘put on trial’ in the town’s Museum, and a public vote led to the decision to keep the statue as a reminder of the highly problematic colonial past within the town. As Johnson notes, however, while the public debate and mock ‘trial’ stimulated a good deal of recognition and soul searching over the legacy of Holland’s slave trading past, it also arguably allowed other on-going post-colonial debates to be glossed over.
According to this line of thinking, the act of keeping the JP Coen statue as a reminder of colonial enterprises of the 17th century might act somehow to package up ‘colonial horror’ as a set of issues that had been dealt with. For Lisa Johnson, this meant that the public display of ‘contrition and regret’ during the ‘trial’ of JP Coen’s statue meant that more recent Dutch colonial wrong-doings in Indonesia (for instance), and the wider on-going legacy of Dutch imperial experiences and ambitions are somewhat side-lined. In other words, this most recent phase in the life history of the JP Coen memorial has seen it change from being a problematic monument to a past colonialist, in to being a celebratory monument to contemporary liberal anti-racist Dutch social attitudes. This is a potential by-product of ‘critical contextualisation’ practices, such as fixing an extra (critical) plaque onto an existing monument.
With respect to the Rhodes monument at Oriel College Oxford, therefore, we need to ask ourselves what a strategy of ‘critical contextualisation’ might actually do. In other words, if a plaque was added that outlined the more unsavoury colonial endeavours of Cecil Rhodes as a means to encourage some critical reflection, would this be OK? Within the confines of the overwhelmingly white spaces and privileged realms of Oxford University, I would worry that such a gesture might just act as a self-congratulatory epitaph of contemporary liberal idealism.
I think the debate has been a good thing. Rather than being about what we ought to do (or not do) with a memorial in an Oxford College, however, it ought to be prompting us to reflect more broadly about issues of race, inequality and marginalisation in present society, and spur us to call for a transformation in the future.