Was he the great businessman, politician, patriot, and visionary his admirers claim, a man who did more than any other to develop an African continent which in the 19th century was imprisoned behind walls of primitiveness, barbarism, superstition and under-development? Or was he in truth a rampant racist and colonialist, a white supremacist who treated a large swathe of Africa as his personal fiefdom, ruthlessly exploiting its people and resources for personal gain and enrichment?
These are the questions that underpin the contested history not just of Cecil Rhodes but European colonialism and empire in toto.
They are questions that have come to the fore in recent weeks over the campaign by students at Britain’s elite Oxford University to have a statue of Cecil Rhodes removed from the building of one if its colleges – Oriel College, to be precise – on the basis that he was a racist and a colonialist, a slaveholder whose veneration is an insult to the countless millions of Africans who suffered unspeakable exploitation and cruelty under Rhodes in the land he ruled, named after him as Rhodesia, which later became Zimbabwe.
Rhodes and other men like him from across the European continent in the 19th century – colonialists, adventurers, soldiers of fortune, administrators, merchants, etc. – arrived and set about the necessary task of introducing civilization and order to savages who’d only ever known spiritual and cultural desolation. This was their belief and the justification employed to plunder and pillage an entire continent, reducing its people to abject misery and despair while indulging in genocidal brutality and barbarity.
On this basis it is not only the statue of Cecil Rhodes that constitutes an offence to decency and justice. Every second grand statue and monument that litters central London and other British towns and cities are statues and monuments to the brutality of colonialism and empire, dripping in the blood of countless human beings whose only crime was to be born African or Indian or Irish in a period when to be such was to be untermenschen in the eyes of people like Cecil Rhodes and the ruling elites in the societies that produced them.
You would automatically think, then, that a campaign to acknowledge the victims of a man like Rhodes would have no problem in achieving its objectives. Alas, you’d be wrong. For in opposition to the campaign to have the statue removed has come threats from wealthy and not so wealthy members of Oxford University’s alumni to withdraw donations to the university unless the statue stays put.
Rhodes, it should be mentioned, was himself a student at Oxford in the 1870s. Upon his death in 1902 he left money to fund an international scholarship at the university. Among the 8,000 students who have since benefited from a Rhodes scholarship to study at Oxford are Bill Clinton, Bill Bradley, Naomi Wolf, and Rachel Maddow. By this method his legacy has been ‘whitewashed’, along with the history of colonialism he personifies, especially at traditional institutions such as Oxford University, a pillar of the British establishment where a disproportionate number of its political leaders, leading journalists, newspaper editors, and business leaders have been educated.
It’s not only Britain that has this problem of historical legacy, wherein its economic foundations and with them political, cultural, and educational institutions were built on crimes of genocide, slavery, ethnic cleansing, and colonial exploitation. In the United States we have Andrew Carnegie, who rather than exploit Africans and Africa amassed his wealth out of the brutal exploitation of American workers. Yet today Carnegie, a natural born Scotsman, is known as a great philanthropist whose legacy is embodied in the abundance of trusts, endowments, scholarships, colleges, museums, and cultural establishments that are named after him across the world.
Does his philanthropy excuse the barbarity by which he made his fortune? If the workers at the Homestead Steel Mill in Pennsylvania back 1892 could speak to us today about Andrew Carnegie and his legacy, what do you think they would say?
This is why the controversy surrounding the campaign to have Cecil Rhodes’ statue removed from Oxford is so important. It’s about acknowledging the rights of the victims of empire to a semblance of historical justice by refusing to burnish the legacy of men such as Rhodes today. For those who believe that the past belongs in the past and has no bearing on the present or the future, they are hopelessly deluded when we consider the role of Britain and its establishment in the world today. A colonial and empire view of the world continues to underpin British foreign policy, evidenced in its participation in the war on Iraq in 2003, its participation in the destruction of Libya in 2011, its role in destabilizing Syria and the wider Middle East, and its malign role in maintaining Western hegemony as an economic, geopolitical, and military straitjacket, impeding the development of the Global South abroad and upholding the rights of the rich at home in service to a system of injustice sold to us as liberal democracy.