The campaign to remove a statue of Oriel College, Oxford’s alumnus Cecil Rhodes, has gained momentum due to the statue’s presence acting as a reminder of the brutality of the British Empire, and in particular the British rule in South Africa. Yet, the removal of Rhodes’ statue would continue a dangerous process of censoring and would encourage a willingness to forget the atrocities of the British Empire.
At midnight on the 30th June 1997, Britain handed over sovereignty of Hong Kong to China. In the audience Chris Patten, the last Governor of the British Dependant Territory, is visibly upset as the curtain fell on what many regard as the last vestige of the British Empire. Nearly two decades and a peerage later, Patten finds himself once again dealing with the echoes Britain’s imperial past, this time as the Chancellor of Oxford University.
The #RhodesMustFall movement began in South Africa where in April 2015 a similar statue of Rhodes was removed from the University of Cape Town. Rhodes is a fundamental and essential figure in the history of South Africa and it is a fact, albeit an unfortunate one, that he is also one of the driving forces behind the racial segregation resulting in apartheid which still continues to affect South African society today despite officially ceasing in 1994.
The Oxford statue’s purpose has never been to glorify Rhode’s white supremacist views but to remember his association with the college. Following his death in 1902 he left 2% of his estate to Oriel College. His will also saw financial provision for the Rhodes Scholarship, a postgraduate award for non-British students to study at Oxford University. In 2005, Nelson Mandela did not think it detrimental or an act of betrayal to his country to partner himself with the Rhodes Trust, to form the Mandela Rhodes Scholarship, a similar award specific to those students from Africa. The collaboration between the estates of two central figures of South African history must demonstrate that Mandela himself could overlook Rhodes the man’s heinous beliefs.
In the same way that Rhodes is an essential part of South Africa history, Britain’s Empire is fundamental to modern Britain’s very culture and existence. To ignore both of these is counterproductive to the future benefit of both countries and an injustice to the valuable lessons still to be learnt. Lord Patten has recently called upon students to demonstrate respect for the principle of free speech, as opposed to forcing the college to comply with this act of censorship. The movement therefore should not be to remove the statue but see it serve as a reminder of the atrocities of empire, in an effort to see that they are never repeated. Its removal would only facilitate a willingness to forget the uncomfortable truths of Britain’s past instead of an open acknowledgment of the brutality of our past.
The #RhodesMustFall movement highlight that the statue symbolises racism and colonialism and it is for this reason it should be removed. Yet, it is for exactly this reason that the statue should remain as a reminder of the atrocities of the British Empire, so that we and other countries may never fail to learn from the lessons of the past.