Since Spring 2015, students at Oxford University have been campaigning for the removal of the statue of Cecil Rhodes which proudly stands in front of the entrance to Oriel College. This anti-colonial protest is becoming common place in an era of anti-colonial debate. The idea of removing statues of Britain’s historic figures is very much aligned to, and follows on from, the idea of repatriating material culture which was unethically acquired during the colonial period.
But what will the statue’s removal accomplish? According to BBC Trending, 24 year old South African campaigner Ntokozo Qwabe felt that seeing the statue was a particularly uncomfortable reminder of the past. Qwabe says “I feel the same way that I would feel if I saw a statue of Hitler in Germany.”
Of course, statues erected in the 19th and early 20th centuries did much to celebrate the work of many high status figures in the British Empire. In an age of scientific racism these statues did not represent the great work of Black people in this country or within the boundaries of the vast empire. For example, one missed opportunity was the medical work of Jamaican woman ‘Mother’ Mary Seacole. Our history chooses instead to remember Florence Nightingale as the heroine nurse of the Crimean War. Ironically at the time, and because she had proven herself, it took Crimean commanders to organise a benefit for her upon her return to England. In her autobiography WH Russell wrote “I trust that England will not forget one who nursed her sick, who sought out her wounded to aid and succour them, and who performed the last offices for some of her illustrious dead.” For one who was awarded a Crimean medal, and with a stone bust of her produced by Prince Victor of Hohenlohe-Langenburg, sculptor and nephew of Queen Victoria, she died is obscurity in 1881. Where, I ask, is her statue in the streets of London? Only now is this happening, sadly this is done retrospectively.
The statues that were erected in the Victorian period, and that line our main streets of towns and cities, are largely concerned with white wealthy men who contributed to the success of Empire. Cecil Rhodes is just one example. These one-time heroes sincerely believed, with the political and scientific-racist thinking of the day, that they were simply illuminating a world that was considered dark and godless. The British even thought themselves superior to their white colonial counterparts in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.
We know today that this belief is unfounded but we have to view their efforts with their belief in mind which was prevalent throughout the Western world. They were convinced that it was through God’s creation and design that they were meant to go out and make the world a better place. Well their version of making the world a better place is something very different to how we would view it today. In fact, many of the world tensions and conflicts are due to their ‘work’. Their attempts to conquer, civilise and convert indigenous peoples have led to what many consider acts of genocide simply for land and resource acquisition. For many other indigenous peoples they have had to survive colonialism and adapt. The forced change many subjects of Empire experienced has meant that they retained as many traditions and languages as possible, fragments of identity that have almost disappeared.
Empire-building, by means of military force or by economic markets, is not a good thing and there will always be an unequal relationship between those with power and those without. Cecil Rhodes serves to illustrate this point and this is the reason why his statue, like many others, should remain in situ. For to remove them will simply be a quick and assured way of allowing modern people to forget, not just our history but also the role they played in it.
We cannot rely on history books and television documentaries to educate future generations in history for even these are flawed with opinion, perspective, agendas and bias. However, the physical-cold stone statues of historical figures serve as useful reminders of our dim and dark past. They echo the shared values of the time. They make comment on the perspective of Imperial greatness. To take them down is the wrong thing to do.
If looking at a colonial statue makes an observer feel uncomfortable then this can only be a good thing as it serves to remind us of a dark piece of our history. A history that needs to be forever remembered and perhaps one of the few ways these figures of history can do penance is by allowing us in the modern world to talk about them. In this way we try to right wrongs. Don’t forget that many of our museums hold statues from the Classical world, fragments or whole statues that have survived being destroyed by conquerors. We use them today to not only talk about the development of art but what they tell us about past peoples. Statues are visually rich cultural symbols, they are educational icons and they must stay because they act as historical talking points.
There’s also one tiny point about Rhodes that protesting students fail to mention and that is the benefit of those students who have received the Rhodes Scholarship based at Oxford University and funded by the money Cecil Rhodes left behind. A survey of those students (who are now successful professionals) will show that much of their work continues to involve, for example, fighting poverty, commitment to social justice even tackling issues of racism.
So instead of forcibly removing a statue there is an alternative action one should consider, it may not be the ideal solution. In true British form one can always show one’s protest, distaste and even prick the ego of the pompous and that is with the simple application of a traffic cone, a tutu and a football scarf.