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Oxford Reconciles: The #RhodesMustFall movement

Dorchester Review (Canada), 7, 2 (2017)


Donal Lowry

Regent’s Park College, University of Oxford

(This article missed the July issue deadline, and we are indebted to Dr Lowry for allowing us to include it here)

Oriel College Oxford near the Land of the Twelve Churches
Cecil Rhodes on Oriel College near The Land of the Twelve Churches

   In 2015, two events suddenly brought the figure of Cecil Rhodes to international prominence. “Cecil the Lion” (whose brother was called “Leander”, after Rhodes’s sidekick, Jameson – of “the Raid”) was shot by an American hunter in Zimbabwe, leading to universal mourning among conservationists on social media. The leonine connection with Rhodes largely went unnoticed, but there was no mistaking the association in the #RhodesMustFall movement of the same year, which spread from the University of Cape Town, where Rhodes’s statue was pulled down as a result of student activism, to Oriel College, his Oxford alma mater, where it focused on his hitherto largely ignored statue on the front of a building on the High Street. This amplified similar calls for the removal of “imperialist” and “supremacist” statues in Britain, the United States and Australia.

   It is striking how far this worldwide iconoclasm has diverged from a long-standing if somewhat whiggish tradition of reconciling and incorporating opposing, even bloody, elements of history in a seemingly organic continuity. In much of the United States and the “Old Commonwealth”, there has been an absence of such a triumphalist “winner-takes-all” approach to statuary and symbols, at least relative to countries which have followed the example of French revolutionary nomenclature. Indeed, this latitudinarian and syncretic approach to memorials has been an essential element in ensuring for citizenry a sense that the public space is potentially inclusive, rather than politically exclusive and marginalising.

   Oriel College provides an essential if largely overlooked insight into some of the key issues involved in the proposal to remove the statue, for, in addition to the central position of Rhodes, there are several other figures of alumni on the Oriel Building, including several medieval churchmen. Most telling are the statues of Cardinal William Allen, the leader of English Catholic exiles during the Elizabethan persecution, and Cardinal Newman, the pre-eminent nineteenth-century Anglican convert to Catholicism, who was compelled to resign his college fellowship due to his religious opinions. Both Allen and, more recently, Newman, would have once being regarded by many as traitors. Yet, when the building was erected in 1912 in still pre-ecumenical times, it was thought that the college could – and should - commemorate such dissident alumni. Oriel’s Rhodes Building thus graphically illustrates a central truth about historical commemoration in Oxford University, Britain and parts of the Commonwealth. Oxford hosts not only Allen and Newman, but, much more prominently, the Martyrs Memorial on St Giles, which commemorates the burning for heresy of the Protestant bishops, Thomas Cranmer, Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley, and emphasises that they died “bearing witness to the sacred truths which they had affirmed and maintained against the errors of the Church of Rome”. In 2008, somewhat belatedly but unobtrusively, a plaque was erected in Holywell Street to commemorate four Catholic martyrs executed in the city in 1589. Oxford continues to have chairs of dons professing the Christian religion, reflecting the University’s medieval Catholic origins long embodied in its motto, Dominus illuminatio mea – The Lord is my Light.

   Yet, at the same time, in 1995, it established the Simonyi Professorship for the Public Understanding of Science, held for the first decade by perhaps the world’s best-known apologist for atheism, Richard Dawkins. Similarly, in London, we can find a statue of the regicide republican and gory conqueror of Ireland, Oliver Cromwell, paid for and unveiled by Lord Rosebery, the former Liberal prime minister, in 1899. It faces a bust of his royal victim, Charles I, “the Martyr”, on the doorway of St Margaret’s Church where, at the time of the Restoration, the leading regicides were reburied in an unmarked pit. A short distance away, in the centre of London, we have statues of Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and Field Marshal Jan Smuts, who fought against the British Empire before becoming a champion of the Commonwealth that succeeded it. Nearby, too, are statues of the deposed King James II and of the American revolutionary, George Washington. Surely no other former imperial capital incorporates such contradictions.

   These symbolic syntheses can be found elsewhere. The famous “Blues and Royals” of the Household Cavalry are a regimental amalgamation of once-warring Roundheads and Cavaliers. In 1869, a 220-foot high monument as erected to Sir William Wallace, the 13th century Scottish hero, and has become a local Valhalla. And of course, this phenomenon is centrally embodied in the established Church of England, which asserts itself as being both catholic and reformed and in continuity with the pre-Reformation church, thus seeming to relegate the Catholics who have retained the allegiance of their ancient predecessors to the position of a “foreign” congregation.

   Oxford, in microcosm, mirrors this tradition of accommodating conflicting legacies of history, a principle Mandela accepted when he agreed to lend his name to a new Mandela-Rhodes Scholarship scheme to provide for African postgraduates, and donned a Springbok rugby jersey at the 1994 World Cup, in order to detoxify the brand, and championed the new national anthem that amalgamated “Nkosi Sikelelel’ iAfrika” with the previous anthem, “Die Stem”. In 1998, the Town Clerk of Bulawayo, himself an ex-guerrilla, echoed this conciliatory approach in his opposition to a proposed disinterment of Rhodes’s body from the nearby Matobo Hills, stating that “only the Taliban destroys history – I am not the Taliban”.



Dr Donal Lowry FRHistS

Senior Member

Regent's Park College

University of Oxford

Pusey Street

Oxford OX1 2LB

Submission by Richard Martin to the Commission set up by Oriel College to consider the future of the memorial to Cecil Rhodes.

   Dear Miss Souter


   Cecil Rhodes Memorial


   I write to suggest that removing the Rhodes memorial from Oriel College would be architecturally damaging to a façade of which the memorial is an integral part. I doubt, for instance that anyone would countenance the removal of the clock faces from the Elizabeth Tower.

   It is also far too impulsive a step for an institution like the University of Oxford to react to a movement for change about which there is no settled view. There is no real consensus about whether there is or is not institutional racism in the UK, about whether colonialism was always and everywhere a bad thing, about whether Cecil Rhodes was on balance so bad a man that his memory should be effaced in this way.

   Removing the Rhodes memorial before these matters have been properly discussed and evaluated is bound to lead to unintended consequences likely to be more damaging than the continued presence of the Cecil Rhodes memorial.

   It is also genuinely puzzling that the University of Oxford should even contemplate such solipsism as to judge the past as the present. It is one thing for a victorious army to pull down the statue of an enemy at the moment of victory, it is another altogether for a university, of all institutions, not to understand that all things must be measured in their context.

   Most Englishmen born before 1600 thought witches were real and should be rooted out and killed. Are we now to judge all such men as villains? Must we remove the likenesses of all such men from our walls, and their works from our bookshelves? If so, and all such men and their works must be dead to us, then yesterday becomes at best a mirror in which we look only for ourselves. What thinking person could take such a preening view of the glorious march of humankind?

   Further, if we are right to judge those long dead because they are not like us, presumably (unless we think we are the best that our kind can ever be !) we accept that in time to come, our descendants will similarly judge us and find us wanting. Since we cannot possibly know what our descendants will dislike about us, either there is no real point in us making judgments at all since such judgments will be overturned, or the concept of judging the past in terms of the present is inherently unviable.

   Sir Thomas More probably thought that the best thing he did was burn heretics, and that is precisely the thing for which we judge him most harshly. So who is to say that in the future, and maybe quite soon for all we know, it is the things we hold most dear, like notions of equality or the rightness of democracy, that are the things which will be judged most harshly by our descendants?

Are we not better, therefore, to judge those in the past according to the pattern of their time, exactly as we would hope to be judged by those in the future?

   But these judgments are fallible not just because what we think about big things has changed. The small, practical details that affect life so profoundly have changed too. Jan Huizinga sets the scene for his ‘The Waning of the Middle Ages’ with this:

   “To the world when it was half a thousand years younger, the outline of all things seemed more clearly marked than to us. The contrast between suffering and joy, between adversity and happiness, appeared more striking.

   The cold and darkness of winter were more real evils. Honours and riches were relished with greater avidity and contrasted more vividly with surrounding misery.

We, at the present day, can hardly understand the keenness with which a fur coat, a good fire on the hearth, a soft bed, a glass of wine, were formerly enjoyed.”

   Precisely so! How can we sit in our comfort and so glibly demonise those in the past whose necessary hardiness we cannot comprehend?

   Cecil Rhodes was for sure a man of his time, and with good parts and bad as with most of us. His good parts were judged good enough to justify his memorial. Let that judgment of Rhodes’ time stand as it must, and let Rhodes stay. And in our turn, let us behave as we see fit, and celebrate in like manner today’s heroes on the buildings in our time.

   Please, leave Cecil Rhodes alone.

Best regards

Richard Martin

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