Let Rhodes stand, though Oriel fall

By June 21, 2020February 18th, 2021No Comments

Oxford University’s cowardly surrender is a wilful vandalism of history, writes DANIEL HANNAN, an Oriel graduate who is tearing up his donations to the college


PUBLISHED: 22:48, 18 June 2020 | UPDATED: 08:08, 19 June 2020

Yet again, the future of Cecil Rhodes hangs in the balance.

Intimidated by a delirious mob, the governing body of Oriel – his and my Oxford college – voted to remove the statuette of the 19th-century diamond magnate from its niche high above the city’s high street.

Yesterday, the inevitable backlash began, as a former universities minister blamed ‘culture wars’ for the decision to topple Rhodes, while the Foreign Secretary warned against ‘airbrushing’ history.

I’m not sure which is more depressing – the anti-intellectual frenzy of the crowds who gathered outside the College on Thursday or the way Oriel’s Fellows folded so cravenly.

Universities are supposed to elevate facts over feelings – but that principle sits ill with identity politics.

Angry protesters have little interest in argument or nuance. Almost no one, in the current climate, wants to point out that by the standards of his era Rhodes was a liberal (as well as a Liberal).

No one likes to mention that, when Oriel’s own students were polled four years ago, majorities in every ethnic group wanted to keep the statue.

No one dares correct the campaigners when they describe Rhodes as an ‘architect of apartheid’ – despite the fact that he died in 1902, while that monstrous system of formalised racial categorisation was imposed in South Africa in 1948.

In fact, far from facilitating apartheid, the wily nabob opposed the attempt to take away the vote from black men in Cape Colony.

‘My motto is equal rights for every civilised man south of the Zambezi,’ he wrote, referring to the great African river.

‘What is a civilised man? A man, whether white or black, who has sufficient education to write his name, has some property, or works.’

The campaigners, naturally, don’t want to hear this.

Nor do they want to be told that Rhodes was an early sponsor of Izwi Labantu, the newspaper of what became the African National Congress, the party of the late Nelson Mandela.

Nor do they care that, when Rhodes endowed the scholarships that have brought thousands of Commonwealth and American students to Oxford, he specified that: ‘No student shall be qualified or disqualified for election to a scholarship on account of his race’.

Nor that, within five years, one of those coveted places had been won by a black American.

Nor that, as Chris Patten, the Chancellor of Oxford University, reminds us, Africa currently supplies a fifth of all Rhodes Scholars.

They don’t want to hear these things because they are not interested in Rhodes as a human being.

They want him, rather, to be a target: a symbol of racist oppression that allows them to flaunt their indignation.

To be clear, Rhodes was no saint. His mines stood on land that he had arguably tricked out of the Ndebele people, who had not understood the implications of the contracts they signed.

That misunderstanding led to a brutal war.

Still, it is worth recognising that wars were pretty standard in Africa at that time. The Ndebele themselves, for example, had only recently acquired those lands by waging a far more gruesome campaign against the Shona.

That is not to excuse anything, simply to point out the difficulty of applying retrospective morality.

‘The study of the past with one eye upon the present is the source of all sins and sophistries in history,’ wrote the historian Herbert Butterfield. ‘It is the essence of what we mean by the word “unhistorical”.’

There is something narcissistic about judging historical figures purely on the basis of how closely their views resemble our own.

Winston Churchill was in southern Africa at roughly the same time as Rhodes. So was Gandhi. The first opposed Indian independence, while the second viewed black Africans as dirty and savage.

Should we tear down their statues, too? Of course not.

Rhodes stands in stone because, having made a lot of money early in life, he did not spend it on himself, but gave it away to what he saw as deserving causes – including Oxford University, which he had first attended in 1873.