Much has been written, and even more said, about the recent demand to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes from the portico of Oriel College in Oxford. Should a racist colonist, slaver and imperialist still be honoured in marble (or whatever material is used) now that his country of birth has moved forward with its values and realised that much of what he did must be regarded as questionable by today’s standards? Some have stepped forward and outlined ways in which Rhodes was far from the character it has been claimed he was, but let us set them aside for the moment. Let us also set aside the fact, for the moment, that Rhodes’ second most famous legacy, after the colonisation of the eponymous Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, is the endowing of a fund to provide scholarships for overseas students to come to study in Oxford. Let’s set aside any countervening qualities that Rhodes may have had – indeed, let’s pretend that he is someone completely different – Clive of India for example, though there must be many others for whom defensive arguments are harder to make. Let’s follow the consequences of acquiescing to the students’ demands and see what else would have to be done for consistency.
Let’s deal with the simplest issue first. If we pull down this statue, which other ones would we also have to destroy? It’s not known how many Frenchmen Nelson slaughtered personally, but he was certainly responsible for sending many of them to watery graves. Whether he was racist about the French or merely following the orders of his monarch to engage them in warfare is doubtless recorded in many biographies, but none of us have time to read those, so let’s pretend he was a francophobe. He’ll certainly have to come down off that column. Three of the four plinths surrounding him also have statues. One is of George IV, a bastion of white male privilege if ever there was one. Another is of General Charles Napier, conqueror of parts of the world which are now Pakistan. The third is another conqueror of India, Sir Henry Havelock. It is safe to assume that the views of all three of these, particularly on the question of the dominance of the white races, would be unlikely to gain the approval of the Oxford students. So Trafalgar Square would probably have to be left statue-less. Indeed, it is going to be safest to destroy all statues everywhere. Queen Victoria, outside Buckingham Palace, was Empress of the British Empire and Prince Albert was her husband, and must share the blame. That chair opposite the Royal Albert Hall will have to be empty. Indeed, it should probably be re-christened the People’s Concert Hall, or something more inclusive.
Then there’s St Paul’s Cathedral. For a start it’s a religious building, designed and used by people who believed that those of other faiths were doomed to burn in Hell. But St Paul himself persecuted Christians before he converted, and thereafter spent all his time trying to impose his faith upon the Romans, the Corinthians, the Thessalonians and even the Ephesians. This is cultural imperialism at its most blatant.
Jesting aside, is there a single person who died over fifty years ago who could not be regarded as some kind of racist? Is it seriously being proposed that none of them is deserving of any honour because of that fact? Could those accusing them say with any credibility that they would not themselves have been just that kind of racist, had they not had the benefit of enlightened thought and debate upon the subject, itself largely a consequence of international trade and relations, such as Rhodes’ scholarship encouraged? The word ‘racist’ didn’t exist in English discourse prior to the 1950s, and only arose to deal with the way that people behaved when they came into contact with members of other races. It certainly wouldn’t have existed, as a word, or even a concept, when Rhodes was around.
This re-writing of history is troubling. Agatha Christie’s And then there were none was originally published as Ten Little Niggers. Having no particular love for her work, I’d have been happy if they had simply stopped publishing it. But if people want to continue to read stories about privileged upper-class members of the British Establishment being murdered, but yet find the title offensive, then changing it seems to be reasonable enough. My fear, though, is that even recording the fact that it used to be so called, at least without using suitable asterisks, will itself be regarded as racist and offensive. Yet whom does this protect? The black people who were once so described? The reputation of a novelist of the British middle class in the early part of the 20th century, who is as likely to have been as murky on her racial politics as everyone else’s great grandmother? Or is it more likely the precious ears of those who cannot bear to believe that racist words ever existed? And are these people the same ones who would stop their ears at the word ‘niggardly’ even though it has no etymological connection with the racist term, and yet would happily talk about ‘nitty gritty’ without realising they are speaking like a slaver? A little learning is a fearful thing, and these principled stands are being taken by people who, despite their supposed status as students at a legendary university, seem terrifyingly ignorant of some of the details affecting their arguments.
Bowldlerising history is not going to work any better than it does with literature. People will always want to hear about the bits which have been expunged, and maybe they will be attracted by that fact itself, with possibly harmful consequences. Erecting statues is largely a thing of the past – we don’t tend to do it any more. Destroying them all because we once admired people who, if we assessed them as people of today we could not bear would be a measure of cultural vandalism akin to so-called Islamic State’s destruction of Palmyra.