History is not fixed. The point is, it can be re-judged for its faults.
This assertion, and others like it, have been utilised by a group of University of Oxford students known as the Rhodes Must Fall movement, a campaign to depose the statue of Cecil Rhodes from the front of a building at Oriel College. Cecil Rhodes, the Victorian business magnate, imperialist and undoubted racist, has fallen out of favour.
The statue is not the whole issue, but it has become, as statues tend to do, the emblem of it. The real nub of the movement is the aim to “decolonise” the institution by adopting a broader-based curriculum and a more representative staff force in-keeping with the rising numbers of black, minority and ethnic students at the university. Such issues are pertinent at Oxford since this is an institution which is closely related to white-skinned privilege. Oriel College itself owes its land and inception to Rhodes, who bequeathed 2% of his considerable fortune to the college, and also founded the Rhodes Scholarship, an international postgraduate award for selected non-British students to study at the University of Oxford.
Unfortunately, Rhodes’ staunch imperialistic convictions, which were underpinned by an explicit belief in the superiority of the Anglo Saxon race over every other people on earth, render his paternalistic status at Oriel problematic. The statue has galvanised the discussion, because it “celebrates and sanctifies the continuing inequality, racism and global injustice that he did so much to contribute to.” (See here).
A campaign earlier in 2015 at the University of Cape Town (UCT), South Africa, to remove another Rhodes statue was successful and precipitated the Oxford movement.
That history is not a fixed entity but is open to revision by new perspectives and evidence is both a challenge and an opportunity in the discipline of history. Whatever happened in the past may only have happened once, but it is by revisiting it that the junctures and fissures of how the story has been told (and continues to be told) offer up new vantage points for the contemporary age. It is upon this basis that students at Oxford seek to reappraise the looming, benevolent statue of Cecil Rhodes that is pinned twenty-five feet high on Oxford High Street.
This is all well and good, but the contention I pose is this: can this type of anachronism not be tolerated? Certainly, judged by today’s standards Rhodes is an easy figure to revile. Yet to seek to cleanse the cultural narrative by censoring this stony depiction strikes me as hubris, since can we not at least see that the historical flux will continue to swirl and twitch? We can confidently assert the worth of the Rhodes Must Fall challenge, as we can appraise the character of Cecil Rhodes’ from these modern times. We cannot however deny the fact that we are all children of our era, not Hegelian-style puppets perhaps, but still emboldened and still bounded by the mores that flow through our present-day society. This is as much true for Cecil Rhodes as it is for us.
Given this, I would argue for a more nuanced response to the problem, not a brutish bulldozing that subtracts from the debate more than it adds. Moreover, the very erection of the Rhodes statue has historical significance – let the debate ring on about the wisdom of this endeavour, but let the debate not be silenced.
Instead, why not take inspiration from the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, an example of how such a grandee-type space can be reinvented to subvert and question the wisdom of accepting the historical narratives we wish to dispute. In this way, the cultural climate around historical glorification can bloom with new ideas, not succumb to angry censorship which in the end helps nobody.