By Iftikhar Salahuddin
Oriel College in Oxford University is home to the statue of its favourite son Cecil Rhodes — the avowed imperialist who single-handedly carved out the country Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). Rhodes is fittingly recognised for the colossal expanse of land he gifted to the country named after him, but is equally reviled for the legacy of the racist laws he bequeathed to the people.
The controversy surrounding him reached his alma mater Oriel College.
For over a decade, students at Oxford have been remonstrating that the statue of Rhodes evokes painful memories of racism among black students from Africa, and that eulogising Rhodes tarnishes the prestige of the college. The battle cry of this campaign was “Rhodes Must Fall”. The protest against his statue intensified with the anti-racism marches across the world following the death of George Floyd in the US, in May this year. In June, the Governors of the Oxford University College finally voted to take down the statue. Underlying this dissent is the story of Rhodes who fanned the flames of racism in South Africa.
It all began in the garden city of Cape Town.
In the shadow of the Table Mountain are the sprawling Dutch East India Company Gardens. Near the entrance is the infamous Slave Lodge — now a museum — where, in the 17th century, slaves were lodged before they were sold to traders. In the centre of the historic park grounds is a life-sized statue of Rhodes, which, despite the anti-Afrikaans sentiments in the country, remains intact. A group of black South African students posing for photographs with the statue told us “You know, the campaign ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ began in 2015 at Cape Town University that was built by Rhodes. His bronze statue there was removed during the protest. This statue too is likely to fall soon, so we want to preserve it in our pictures.” They suggested we visit the famous monument to him outside the city. A long drive through the rolling hills to Devil’s Peak took us to the shrine.
Removing statues does not redress the wrongs of the past, but deprives posterity of valuable allusions to historical narratives, however unpalatable
Rhodes is indeed immortalised in the majestic Rhodes Monument, which overlooks the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, spread over miles of verdant land, undulating up to the horizon. Rhodes owned the entire property and gifted it to the nation before his death in 1902. We climb up the imposing steps that lead to the once beautifully crafted marble sculpture. The wall behind the statue is singed from the fire set by protesters who also defaced it. In July this year, the head was removed by vandals.
The story of South Africa is inextricably intertwined with the life and times of Rhodes. Up to the mid-19th century, Africa was still a ‘mysterious continent’ into whose heartland few western explorers had ever ventured; it was the vast and empty res nullius, a no-man’s land.
In 1866, an event occurred, after which South Africa would never remain the same. On the banks of the Orange River near Cape Colony, a farmer’s son was innocently playing with stones. One strangely configured stone caught the eye of a discerning neighbour, who approached the boy’s family and negotiated the stone in exchange for 500 sheep, 10 oxen and a robust horse. This ‘stone’ turned out to be an 83-carat diamond, which was subsequently purchased in London for 25,000 British pounds. This particular stone had lain on the surface, but the real riches were the ‘diamond pipes’ extending down into the earth. The owner of a small farm, whose name would become synonymous with diamonds, was Johannes de Beer. Word went around about unfathomable riches in the Northern Cape province and, as prospectors invaded the farms in Kimberly, the area began to sprawl with tents, wagons and mud piles. The Diamond Rush had begun.
Four thousand miles from Kimberly, Cecil Rhodes, a son of a vicar in Bishop’s Stortford in England, was still in school. The family, anxious about his poor health, sent the 17-year-old to live with his brother in South Africa. Many young men then, were heading to Kimberly in search of diamonds. The Rhodes brothers entered into partnership with a mining company, which quite accidentally uncovered a diamond that became known as ‘The Star of Africa’. With his share of profits from the sale of this diamond, Rhodes bought off De Beer’s farm. Around this time, the Rothschilds — the famous London bankers — were exploring investments in Africa. They agreed to a partnership with Rhodes to acquire several mining companies, which eventually merged into one giant conglomerate — De Beers. The 21-year-old Rhodes became rich beyond imagination.
In 1873, he left South Africa to study law in Oriel College, but soon became disenchanted with his studies. He came under the spell of liberal politicians, who convinced him that British imperialism was a godsend for its colonies and their natives. Rhodes went to Oxford as a wealthy entrepreneur and returned to South Africa as an ardent imperialist.
Within a few years, Rhodes’ corporation controlled the diamond trade of the entire Europe, and the wealthy idealist was ready to make a mark on South Africa. He entered politics and, after serving as a member of parliament, was elected prime minister of the Cape Colony for several terms. He set about acquiring land in the name of the Queen of England. His racist streak surfaced when he passed the notorious Glen-Grey Act that expelled non-whites from their land, to make room for European investors. Next, he approved the Natives Land Act, which demarcated areas in the country where black Africans could settle only on 10 percent of the land, thus disenfranchising and denying them their homes. His inaugural address set the direction for his government: “I contend that we are the first race in the world, and that the more of the world we inhabit, the better it is for the human race.”
Rhodes unashamedly resolved to spend his vast personal fortune buying or extorting land from helpless natives in the name of the British. His view of the world order was to bestow more power to the imperialists. “We must find new land… for raw material and cheap labour of the natives of the colonies,” he said. “What we hold surplus can be dumped in their lands... we must adopt a system of despotism, such as works in India, in our relations with the barbarians of South Africa.”
In 1889, Rhodes made an extraordinary request to Queen Victoria, for a Royal Charter to form the British South African Company (BSAC) under his personal authority. It was promptly granted. The BSAC was empowered to acquire through treaties or “understanding” all the land and its minerals across South and Central Africa. It was even permitted to raise a police force. Just like the East India Company in Calcutta, BSAC would be a government within a government.
By the end of 1894, BSAC had extorted concessions and treaties with natives who owned large areas of land between the Limpopo River and Lake Tanganyika. What he could not extract by negotiations, his police would forcibly ensure through swift compliance of the helpless locals. In May 1895, Rhodes allowed this vast territory to be named Rhodesia — the first instance in the world of a country to be named after an individual.
Rhodes’ already poor health worsened after he fell off his horse and he remained unconscious for a day. In 1899, realising that he may not have long to live, he wrote his will, allocating a sizeable endowment for scholarships to Oriel College with certain stipulations.
Only men would be eligible. “I am against scholarship merely to people who swot over books… learning Greek and Latin; scholastic achievements stand for four-tenths; ‘brutality’ which stands for two-tenths; ‘unctuous rectitude’ two-tenths. That makes up the whole. You see how it works.”
Scholars had to be from colonies of the British Empire or from the United States but, after meeting Kaiser Wilhelm, he included Germany among the eligible countries.
Rhodes died in 1902 at the age of 48. He had wished to be buried in Rhodesia. A funeral train carried his body from the Cape to bury him in his favourite hills of Matobo, outside Bulawayo, but his burial became contentious. The locals called his grave an insult to their African ancestry and they were convinced that it would bring bad weather and misfortunes. They demanded his body be removed from the country but surprisingly, President Mugabe, himself a diehard anti-white nationalist, decreed that Rhodes’ grave would stay.
The government of Nelson Mandela wisely authorised that all monuments from the pre-apartheid era were national heritages which are part of South Africa’s history — albeit a bitter one for the blacks. The statue of Afrikaans President Paul Kruger in the capital city Pretoria is detested in the country, yet securely fenced to safeguard against vandals.
Several conquerors in history are heroes to some but tyrants to others. Alexander was ‘Great’ for the west but the Persians reviled him as the devil incarnate. Taimur, who called himself ‘The Sword of Islam’ executed millions of people, including Muslims when he invaded Delhi. His colossal statue in Samarkand is a national monument.
On the canvas of history, statues are visual references, physical props that illustrate both the glorious and the shameful past. Removing them will not redress the wrongs, but will deprive posterity of valuable allusions to historical narratives, however unpalatable they may be.
One statue in Pretoria that the South Africans have erected is that of its saviour Mandela, who will always be revered. Literally and figuratively, the larger-than-life image dwarfs all who come to honour Mandela’s greatness. It conveys a message of truth, reconciliation, forgiveness and hope. The world celebrates him as mankind’s hero and the universal plea is “Mandela must never fall.”
The writer is author of Jerusalem — A Journey Back in Time
Our world was shaped by empires. Its languages, cultures, infrastructures, maps and monuments mark the movements of power across its surface. It was said that the British Empire turned one quarter of the world pink, the colour that designated its colonial possessions in imperial atlases.
Parts of North America, Australia, New Zealand and Africa were named Jamestown, Victoria, Wellington and Livingstone. Nor was the British lion the only conquering beast to mark its territory. Alexander the Great named most of the cities he founded Alexandria. Several Roman towns were called Caesarea. Columbus named Caribbean islands La Isla Española and Juana. German imperialists created Caprivi and Schuckmannsburg in Namibia. The Belgian Congo had a Léopoldville, an Élisabethville and a Baudoinville. These places were littered with monuments to the greatness of their conquerors: names, public institutions, parks, places of worship and statues.
As the controversy over the statue of Cecil Rhodes at Oriel College, Oxford shows, imperial legacies may be contested many generations later. For all the talk now that Rhodes was a ‘man of his time’, he was profoundly controversial when he was alive: loathed by the peoples whose lands he colonised and by his rivals the Boers, disdained by many in Britain, who feared his amorality and megalomania.
He oversaw war, plunder, civil injustice and the deaths of thousands of Africans. He was also a generous and transformative benefactor to Oxford University. In recognition of this last fact, since 1911 a rather mousy statue of him has stood above Oriel’s main entrance. The students running the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ campaign have called for its removal to a museum, where they feel it might appear less like a relic for uncritical veneration.
Monuments to historical figures and regimes stand not by divine right but by the grace of those who live alongside them
There are options less polarising than keeping the statue as it is or taking it away; it could be imaginatively altered or given a new inscription. Oriel responded to ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ in December 2015 with an impeccably balanced statement pledging six months of discussion. Then, in January this year, the college suddenly announced that the statue would stay — reportedly in response to wealthy alumni threatening to withdraw bequests worth up to £100 million. There has been a backlash against ‘Rhodes Must Fall’, led by F.W. de Klerk, the last leader of apartheid South Africa; Tony Abbott, former prime minister of Australia; and Lord Patten, chancellor of Oxford University. The students have been accused of vandalism, political correctness and trying to obscure historical facts that they do not like.
Whatever the rights or wrongs of removing the statue, it is misleading to suggest the campaigners want to obscure the facts about Rhodes. Their objection is born of remembering those facts all too vividly.
Statues are not history in the sense of having significant pedagogical value. They are political symbols, which drift in or out of favour along with political and aesthetic tastes. The protesters who hauled down Saddam Hussein’s statue in Baghdad in 2003 did not deny or diminish the history of Iraq. They remembered Saddam’s legacy; for that reason, they rejected his glorification. Many in the West cheered when rebels in Hungary tore down Stalin’s statue in 1956 and when those in Ukraine knocked over several of Lenin in 2013-14. The history of the Soviet Union and its satellites may still be told and freely debated regardless of the loss of these monuments.
The continuing memorialisation of the Confederacy is controversial in the US. Nathan Bedford Forrest High School in Jacksonville, Florida was originally whites-only: its name honoured a slave-owning Confederate general who was the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. By 2014 its students were mostly African-American and its board elected to change the name to Westside High.
Whatever the rights or wrongs of removing the statue, it is misleading to suggest the campaigners want to obscure the facts about Rhodes. Their objection is born of remembering those facts all too vividly. Statues are not history in the sense of having significant pedagogical value.
New Orleans recently voted to remove four statues of Confederate generals. It could follow the example of Delhi, Moscow and Budapest, which have created ‘graveyards’ for the monuments of past regimes. The stone countenances of party apparatchiks and colonial bureaucrats slowly erode when exposed to the elements, or are swallowed up by tangles of overgrowing plants. The grand bronze of Queen Victoria, which once sat under a canopy in Charing Cross, Lahore presides over a collection of nicknacks under strip lighting in a back room of the Lahore Museum. Schoolchildren sprawl across the Great White Queen’s lap to take selfies.
Some cities still bear the imperial mark: Abbottabad in Pakistan, Livingstone in Zambia, Brazzaville in Congo. If the residents are content with these names, they need not change. Others have.
Alexandria Arachiosa is now Kandahar. Juana is Cuba. Léopold-ville is Kinshasa. Southern Rhodesia, named for Cecil Rhodes, is Zimbabwe. The history of the British Raj did not vanish when Calcutta decided to spell its name Kolkata; neither the Empire’s critics nor its defenders can achieve that. In Russia, St Petersburg became Petrograd, then Leningrad, then St Petersburg again. A campaign now aims to restore Volgograd’s former name, Stalingrad, changed by Khrushchev in 1961 as part of his de-Stalinisation programme. New statues of Stalin went up last year in several Russian towns. His portraits hang in streets in Donetsk (formerly Stalino). The rehabilitation of Stalin is a disquieting trend, yet, like the others before them, these new monuments will probably not last forever.
In much of the criticism of ‘Rhodes Must Fall’, the question echoes: where will it stop? Who will be next? Cromwell, Clive, even Churchill? The answer is that it will not stop. Future generations can and will interrogate the past.
Whatever happens to Rhodes’ statue, it is a sign of healthy public engagement with history that there is such a vigorous debate. Monuments to historical figures and regimes stand not by divine right, but by the grace of those who live alongside them. No vision of the past can be set permanently in stone.
Sixty-three years before Cecil Rhodes went up to Oriel, Percy Shelley matriculated at University College next door. His poem Ozymandias describes a traveller in an empty desert who comes across two ‘trunkless legs’ and a ‘shattered visage’ of a statue, with the inscription: ‘My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings; Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
The British Empire was not the first and will not be the last great power to see its icons crumble. In the historical longview, as Ozymandias fell, so Rhodes will fall. It is only a question of when.
The writer is a historian and author. She tweets @AlexvTunzelmann