It’s a clever debating tactic to try to turn your position’s weakest point into a strength. Critics of the Rhodes Must Fall movement have bravely claimed that theirs is the side of historical truth while their opponent’s position resembles those totalitarian regimes that write histories to suit their undemocratic purposes.
But of course British history as it is taught in our schools, sold on our bookshops’ shelves and depicted on our screens is still dominated by an incurious Whiggism that almost entirely fails to address colonialism and racism. Not only are the Magna Carta-based arguments for the expansion of African enslavement brushed out of the 17th century story of the ‘glorious revolution’, but Britain’s prominent role in expanding the slave trade and the continued legality of colour-based racism until the 1960s are carefully obscured by a focus instead on the antebellum American South and the 1960s US Civil Rights movement. There is no room here either for the question of who moved enslaved Africans to and governed over North America in the first place, or why Enoch Powell was joined by the majority of his party (and some Labour MPs) in affirming that ancient English liberties required white people to have the freedom to deny people a job because of the colour of their skin, an affirmation that was probably legally accurate until the 1968 Race Relations Act.
A key aim of the Rhodes Must Fall movement is to tell our history more openly and honestly. Counterarguments for keeping statues of racist colonisers to recognise explicitly the bad acts of the past elide a key point about our dominant national story. In Britain we don’t currently teach the history of enslavement or colonialism well (if at all) – as David Olusoga has asked, can anyone name a single British slave ship or slave-owner? Instead, the Department of Education has recently proposed adding Clive of India, a man Simon Schama describes as a ‘sociopathic corrupt thug’ to the national curriculum, and presents a shoddy one-sided account of William Wilberforce and his unique contribution to the abolition of slavery.
The Rhodes Must Fall movement is not only or mainly concerned with statues, and is rather making a wider point: that racism and colonialism are deeply embedded in Britain’s history, and not just in terms of African enslavement or Enoch Powell’s ‘rivers of blood’ speech. Our economic development as a global mercantile power and the manpower that fuelled the industrial revolution were built on the enslavement of Africans, working in Jamaica’s sugar plantations, Virginia’s tobacco fields (a crown colony from 1624, and where there were 300,000 slaves by the 1750s), and the cotton plantations of the Deep South whose raw materials helped make Lancashire wealthy.
The neglected reality of racial inequality at the centre of British history reveals four fallacies or errors among Rhodes Must Fall critics. First, they fail to see Cecil Rhodes as the crown prince of a central theme of British and indeed European history, reflecting not just Rhodes’ personal and depraved racism, but its implication in our wider economic, social and cultural history. In calling to remove statues of Rhodes, the Rhodes Must Fall movement explicitly argues their target isn’t just about Cecil Rhodes as an appalling individual racist, but what statues erected to honour him say about us as a society.
The second error critics make is that the Rhodes Must Fall movement is somehow opposed to free speech or wants to silence discussion about Cecil Rhodes. One difficulty for the Rhodes-statues-must-stand position is that that most such statues are currently unopposed by any counterbalanced (i.e. historically accurate) statues, installations or appropriate explanation, whether in our curriculum, wider national story or in situ. Viewers of a statue assume the person so represented must have done something worthy, something that distils for posterity values that can stand the test of time. (And of course they would be right in terms of why the statue was initially erected.) In response, the Rhodes Must Fall movement is insisting both that racial inequality has deeper historical or structural roots in Britain and that Cecil Rhodes is reasonably viewed (even by defenders of his continued representation in British statuary) as a totemic symbol and apex – or, rather, nadir – of the moral and economic superiority that justified those inequalities.
When such a statue is erected at an ancient Oxford college, it only adds to the sense that we are reflecting on the form of an important national hero. There is something particularly potent about Cecil Rhodes’s position in front of an Oxford college, so even it’s true that we can’t tear down all of his statues (or that of all of Britain’s past racists), it’s doesn’t follow that we shouldn’t remove any of them. It certainly doesn’t help the critics’ case when they fail to suggest what additionally we could or should add to the statue or to our wider discussion of enslavement or colonialism, and instead brush over these points as attempts to rewrite history or political correctness. If such concessions were considered, the continued placement of (some) colonial-era British heroes around the country would attract far less criticism.