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Rhodes Must Fall?

01 Jan Rhodes Must Fall?

There has been a great deal of publicity in recent weeks surrounding the campaign to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes from Oriel College.The College has come under considerable pressure and is now considering adding “clear historical context” to his monuments.The campaign to remove the statue has met with considerable criticism from a number of former Rhodes scholars as well as some Oxford historians with the debate and discussion featuring in a series of articles published in the Daily Telegraph.

According R W Johnson, who is also a historian and author, students looking to get rid of the Rhodes statue at Oxford for his views on races and imperialist history are showing ‘no respect for history’. In his view, the Rhodes Must Fall movement want to do something similar to “smashing old Muslim statues” like Al Qaeda and Isil have done in recent months. He acknowledged it was an extreme comparison “because Isil go on to behead people and do all sorts of other monstrous things”. But he said: “The movement displays the same disregard for history and hostility to it, and that’s what makes it a perfectly acceptable comparison to me. They are basically saying, ‘I don’t care that that statue has been there 100 or something years and that he was a very great historical figure of his time.’ “

However, I was particularly impressed with an article written by teenager Rupert Fitzsimmons whose post from his own blog was published in History Today; Rupert makes his points with  considerable clarity and insight.

The image of Rhodes is a historical document, much like a book or a painting, that, if removed, would amount to a censorship of history. The University of Oxford has indulged in such behaviour in the past: both John Milton and Thomas Hobbes had their books ritualistically burnt in the Bodleian Library’s quadrangle. For a campaign wishing to break with the past, it bears an ironic continuity with it. Some will argue that iconoclasm is not necessarily tantamount to the erasing of history. I believe, however, that historical sources such as statues and plaques provide an important gateway for the casual observer to engage with the problems of the past. Many Oxford students (and certainly most tourists) are not historians. Without public history they will be unlikely to question how the society around them came to be formed. By removing his statue, wider awareness of Rhodes and his actions diminish significantly. This, the total censorship of his legacy, is surely not what the campaign wants?

Such an erasure of history will result in a diminished understanding of those that suffered because of Rhodes – and other’s – actions. A similar predicament has been confronted by an anonymous group at Harvard in the last couple of weeks. Harvard, an institution directly funded by wealth generated through slavery, even more so than Oxford, is littered with busts, statues and plaques commemorating slave-owning benefactors and chancellors who are, by modern standards, morally disgusting. Rather than deface or attempt to remove these histories, however, someone has decided to highlight their hidden horrors with pink notes providing context. While there is a movement at Harvard called #Royallmustfall (the Royalls being the slave-owning founders of Harvard Law School), the anonymity of the added annotations suggests an intentionally more nuanced approach. Retaining proof of an unsavoury history can better illuminate the past. A piece of history does not have to be destroyed when it is not agreed with, but rather should be contextualised. To deliberately forget is to forget not only the cause of suffering but the suffering itself.

How wonderfully well written! Rupert’s own website, A Pilgrimage to the Past  is a fantastic resource and may very well be an inspiration to some of our own girls who have their own blog sites.

Any girls who would like to set up their own blogs should speak with Ms Pallister.

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