With the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ campaign still making headlines, I’d like to give a couple of my thoughts on the idea of statue removal and the white-washing of colonial history. For those that don’t know, ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ is a campaign for the removal of the statue of Cecil Rhodes, who was both a prominent supporter of colonialism and British imperialism, as well as an important figure in education as founder of the Rhodes Scholarship, which still funds scholarships at Oxford University today. These demonstrations originally began in Cape Town, quickly descending into violence, arson and vandalism, but has now crossed the Atlantic over to Oxford university and other campuses in the UK.
While Rhodes is no doubt a controversial and sometimes polarising figure, the demonstrations here in Britain have been peaceful, with many students not calling for the removal of the statue but simply wishing to draw attention to the British Empire’s colonial past. However, there are still a number students (a third of Oxford students surveyed, according to The Guardian) that are demanding the demolition of the statue itself, viewing it as a symbol of white supremacy and tacit approval of slavery and colonialism.
This has now spread to similar demands about monuments to Queen Victoria. Although claims that the Cecil Rhodes protesters are demanding the removal of Queen Victoria’s statue by the Daily Mail are exaggerated as Owen Jones points out, one student from the ‘Women of Colour Feminism Society’ had the audacity to claim “that some white students are so defensive over a statue of Queen Victoria, someone who sanctioned so many colonial exploits, shows you just how far white supremacy and racism is ingrained in our university.”
I would like to stress that it is not just white students that are opposed to these flagrant acts of jacobinist iconoclasm: infact, with regard to the campaign to remove Cecil Rhodes statue from Oxford university campus, 45% of students that identify as “black and minority ethnic” oppose the removal of the statue, with 7% being unsure and 51% stating that the statue does not affect their personal Oxford experience.
Still, this does reflect a growing trend in the need for vehemently anti-imperialist students to (perhaps inadvertently) white-wash Western history. In the USA, various confederate monuments have already been dismantled, flag removals have been demanded and the campaign to remove the statue of the (admittedly disgraceful) Edward Cornwallis in Canada show a worrying tendency of young students to police their own history and (for reasons I can’t comprehend) deny the role played in history by these divisive and often deplorable figures.
During a recent interviewing of Roger Scruton, Christina Hoff Sommers raised the issue of Yale university students protesting the ‘Major English Poets Pre-1800 to 1900’ course for not being diverse enough and featuring too many “dead white men” like Shakespeare and Chaucer (one student claimed that she was “traumatised” by the course), meanwhile back in London King’s College have removed many busts and portraits of “bearded white men” in their Psychology and Neuroscience department amid pressure from BME students and have begun to replace them with a ‘wall of diversity’ in order to make minority students feel less “alienated” and “intimidated”.
Back to the issue of statue removal, I don’t see how (other than as a passing publicity stunt) this kind of behaviour can do any good for raising awareness of colonial history. Fortunately, a majority of anti-imperialist, anti-colonial students are not pushing for statues to be removed or vandalised, and are instead using these monuments as a rallying point for demonstrations intended to raise awareness of the fact that key figures in Western development, despite making progressive leaps in areas like education, were also involved in exploits that modern people would now consider heinous. This is a good lesson for everybody to learn, and while I don’t expect to see much enthusiasm for raising awareness of exploits like the white slavery of Barbary any time soon, I still enthusiastically support these awareness-raising campaigns against colonialism as an evil alongside communism and fascism.
Some detractors of these demonstrations claim that colonialism should be celebrated for the apparently “civilising” effect it had on so-called ‘backwards’ nations; this rings about as hollow to me as claims that communist dictators like Mao and Hoxha should be venerated because, despite doing some bad things, they did improve adult literacy and dental hygiene.
Still, when it comes to students obnoxiously and arrogantly policing the curriculum of the universities that have graciously accepted them as students it is frankly infuriating and needs to be opposed by all sensibly-minded students. The removal of statues and destruction of monuments is even more reprehensible, especially when students like the above quoted accuse defenders of these monuments of being tacit supporters of white supremacy. Thankfully, it is only a minority of students (although a large and growing faction nonetheless) that are engaged in this long march through the institutions, and there is a promising number of anti-colonial activists that are raising awareness peacefully and respectably without resorting to bolshevik and nazi-like tactics of iconoclasm.
Robert E. Lee statue removal in New Orleans, 2017
The whole affair reminds me of an episode of VICE that I watched a few years ago, about Memphis city council’s planned removal of the statue of Confederate general and early KKK-supporter Nathan Bedford Forrest, which caused annoyance for some historians, sparked an outraged protest by the local KKK cell and inspired a counter-protest by a coalition of bloods and crips that did not end up representing on the day because it was raining.
Featured below is a video of Josephine giving her thoughts on the latest demands of far-left students and activists to destroy historical monuments (I recommend you follow her channel, all of her content is golden) as well as the interview of Roger Scruton by Christina Hoff Sommers (discussion of the poetry course starts at 23:15 but I would recommend you watch the whole interview if you have the time). I’ve also included relevant links to articles regarding the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ movement from some British centre-left and centre-right tabloids.
Nadia Khomami: Over one third of Oxford students want Cecil Rhodes statue removed (The Guardian)
Owen Jones: Is a Queen Victoria statue offensive? (The Guardian)
Yussef Robinson: Oxford’s Cecil Rhodes statue must fall – it stands in the way of inclusivity (The Guardian)
Kevin Rawlinson: Cecil Rhodes statue to remain at Oxford after ‘overwhelming support’ (The Guardian)
Luke Mintz & Harry Yorke: Top UK university to swap portraits of bearded white scholars with wall of diversity (The Telegraph)
Amanda Williams: Now Cecil Rhodes protesters take aim at Queen Victoria statue that describes her as the ‘Empress of India’: Students claim the long-reigning monarch ‘supported colonial exploits’ (Daily Mail)