As #RhodesMustFall continues unabashed, ought we to sanitise history?

I have already commented on the existence of the #Rhodesmustfall campaign here. I was staggered to read in response to my first post, according to one comment on Facebook, that I was a “conservative historian,” seemingly based solely on my view that the Rhodes statue currently in situ at Oriel College should not necessarily be removed (1). I don’t take that as any sort of insult – I really don’t – I’m just bemused that such a label could credibly be thrown in my direction. I am certainly theologically conservative but, in the realms of politics and history, it would be a difficult epithet to make stick. I mean, I shan’t detail the history of my political allegiances and memberships nor document the tenor of every academic piece of writing I have ever produced, but suffice to say the view seems a little off beam.

And #Rhodesmustfall is the gift that keeps on giving. Other Rhodes Scholarship students wrote a letter stating “this scholarship does not buy our silence” and “it is not an instrument of censorship.” They went on to state:

There is no hypocrisy in being a recipient of a Rhodes scholarship and being publicly critical of Cecil Rhodes and his legacy – a legacy that continues to alienate, silence, exclude and dehumanise in unacceptable ways. There is no clause that binds us to find ‘the good’ in Rhodes’ character, nor to sanitise the imperialist, colonial agenda he propagated.

In response, Chris Patten went on the Radio 4 Today programme to tell them:

if people at a university are not prepared to demonstrate the sort of generosity of spirit which Nelson Mandela showed towards Rhodes and towards history, if they are not prepared to embrace all those values which are contained in the most important book for any undergraduate, Karl Popper’s Open Society, if they are not prepared to embrace those issues then maybe they should think about being educated elsewhere.

Going on to state “people have to face up to facts in history which they don’t like and talk about them and debate them.”

The Redress Rhodes group are quite correct that acceptance of a Rhodes scholarship does not buy their silence. Nor does the scholarship come with a sanitisation clause that demands they fawn over Rhodes and seek to paint him as some sort of hero. It is indeed their right to state, in whatever words they wish, that Rhodes was an imperialist, segregationist racist who favoured eugenics. Nobody is (or should be) arguing that they ought to ignore these important, yet highly concerning, facts of history. Indeed, it would be historically doltish to do otherwise. Equally, it seems highly appropriate that the Rhodes money now funds the very people he sought to subjugate. This is not papering over the unsavoury facts of history but allowing an albeit small reparatory right to stand against an obvious historical wrong.

Sadly, that is not what #Rhodesmustfall and Redress Rhodes are asking. They are asking that Rhodes’ statue be removed from Oriel College because it offends them. It is they who are asking to airbrush history. They are making subjective offence the arbiter of which facts of history we are prepared to hear (or see) in public. Patten rightly pointed out that, on top of the scholarships, several college buildings were erected with the money bequeathed by Rhodes. To be consistent, were the statue to be removed, the scholarship would also need to be returned and buildings torn down until the university can find more palatable funding sources. Similarly, we would have to trawl the annuls of history in order to find all others who held views which do not accord with modern orthodoxy (which is pretty well everyone ever) and make sure there are no present-day beneficiaries of their “dirty money.”

The issue is not the Rhodes scholarship itself nor the university benefiting from the money. It seems entirely right and proper to appraise the actions and person of Cecil Rhodes according to the facts of history. And, as it happens, the facts of history do not paint him in the most benevolent light. Nonetheless, to remove all trace of the man from history because his existence offends us is neither a credible stance for any self-respecting historian nor a legitimate response to facts we do not like. Whilst it is not an act of hypocrisy to accept a Rhodes scholarship and yet voice vociferous dislike – even abject revulsion – towards the man, it does seem a little hypocritical to want him and his legacy entirely expunged from history because the facts surrounding him offend your sensibilities whilst continuing to benefit from the same legacy left behind.

We cannot have it both ways. Either we remove Rhodes from history completely – including the benefits and monies left behind – or we accept these things as the legacy left behind by a real man whose value to humanity we can really, and legitimately, assess according to the facts we have refused to airbrush from history. Of course, either of these options only serve to save us from the accusation of hypocrisy. Only the second can save us from being labelled terrible historians who are more concerned with hurt feelings than historical facts.

We cannot possibly hope to the learn the lessons of history if, every time we find something unpalatable, we simply expel it from memory. We would know nothing of Stalin, Pot or Mao if the unpleasantness of knowing were to overrule the benefit of being able to accurately assess things as they really happened. What is more, we would have no room for many who are (rightly or wrongly) considered national heroes. And are we to expect future generations to do the same to us over what will inevitably be considered the unpalatable views of 21st century mainstream opinion? It is the fast-track to having no history left to study at all.

Notes

  1. If not me specifically, then the strong implication was that I must have imbibed the views and opinions of conservative historians.

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