Firstly, a very happy New Year to all of you, and my sincere apologies for the lack of content over the last few months. Sadly the demands of higher education have meant that I’ve had to neglect this blog, but rest assured that it remains alive and kicking.
Today I want to address a topical issue which has been in the news recently – the controversy over Cecil Rhodes and his legacy at Oxford. For the last few months, a hard-left organisation calling itself (imaginatively enough) ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ has been calling for the removal of a statue of Cecil Rhodes from the grounds of Oriel College. This movement argues that the presence of the statue is apparently an affront to ethnic minority students, due to some of Mr Rhodes’ views and actions during his lifetime.
Cecil Rhodes is almost certainly the greatest of all British imperialists, and is perhaps single-handedly responsible for the extension of British rule over much of southern Africa. From an unremarkable middle-class background, Rhodes grew to become one of the wealthiest businessmen in England, as well as the eventual Prime Minister of the Cape Colony. Today, he is best known for having set up and endowed the Rhodes Scholarship, a means for talented international students to study at the University of Oxford.
I will be clear, brief and unambiguous here; I thoroughly oppose the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ movement, and moreover consider it symptomatic of something deeply wrong with the student left in Britain. My opposition comes from two discrete reasons, both of which I think should be outlined. In addition to these reasons, I also find the tactics and approach of the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ movement abhorrent and tasteless – however, I don’t think it is worthwhile to discuss this here.
My first reason for opposing the movement (and the most important, I believe) is the relativistic nature of history. What does this mean? Much as science can be divided into paradigms, I believe history can as well. I take ‘paradigm’ to mean a set of theories, methods and standards (here I use the definition given by Thomas Kuhn in ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolutions; much of this article owes a considerable debt to Kuhn.) A historical paradigm is obviously different from a scientific one; here, the theories and methods are fundamentally political. For instance, the paradigm that Genghis Khan lived in was one in which laying waste to Asia for the furthering of the Mongol people was considered normal. Alternatively, the paradigm that the Crusaders lived in was one in which the Saracen occupation of Jerusalem was considered unthinkably terrible. The ‘standards’ of a paradigm consist of the ways by which the success of its theories are measured. Remaining with the above example, Genghis Khan would have been evaluated as a successful leader by most of his contemporaries, on the basis that he expanded his empire and subjugated his enemies.
It is here vital to realise that paradigms are incommensurable. One cannot measure the success of one paradigm using the standards of another. To do so would not only be unintelligible (how can we evaluate which set of standards are the best?) but would also leave us hoist upon our own petard. Consider a relatively uncontroversial example; that of sexism. In 21st century Western Europe, it is generally held that sexism is an egregious and counterproductive belief; however, in the Middle Ages that which we call sexism was universal. We can label the Middle Ages as terrible; however, using the standards of their historical paradigm, medieval Englishmen would similarly label our society as equally terrible. It is impossible to evaluate who is right.
Let me here apply this conceptual framework to Cecil Rhodes. Within the paradigm of the 19th century, Cecil Rhodes was not just a great man but one of the greatest Britons to have lived. The standard for greatness here is the furtherance of the British nation, and the extension of British rule over as much of the globe as possible. This standard was understood by all nations – including the conquered. Therefore, within his paradigm Cecil Rhodes was undoubtedly a great man. I contend that we cannot provide a moral judgement of Cecil Rhodes, except a descriptive judgement of how he was viewed within his paradigm. If we attempt to judge him, we must inevitably do so according to our contemporary morality. But this is unfair, as that suggests that our present morality is an absolute one. As I have discussed above, no historical paradigm is superior to another, and as such the moral standards of one cannot be considered better than another. At most, we can state (correctly) that were a man like Cecil Rhodes to be alive in our time, he would be considered a bad person.
The upshot of this is that the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ movement are guilty of intellectual dishonesty. They are judging a man from the past by the standards of the present. Not only is this incorrect and unintelligible, it opens the door to a whole world of absolutist iconoclasm. If the University succumbs to their demands, then they legitimise the position that a particular moral paradigm can be used for any time period. What might be the next to fall? Surely the statue of Edward VII that stands next to that of Rhodes shouldn’t stay; for surely Edward VII was complicit in the ‘atrocities’ of the Empire? What about St. John’s College; in the Book of Revelation St. John states that non-Christians will be burnt in the fires of hell, so surely we’re going to have to rename St. John’s? My point is that this application of the moral standards of the present to the past is grossly unfair and incoherent.
I now move on to my second point, namely whether the reputation of Cecil Rhodes is warranted. In this, I will seek to prove two things. Firstly, that by the standards of his time Rhodes was a great and indeed moral man. Secondly, that in the twenty-first century, we should continue to commemorate him. The first entails the second.
Cecil Rhodes devoted his entire life to the British Empire. He never married, he had few personal interests, and almost all his money was invested into imperial projects. By the standards of any era, this signifies a remarkable single-mindedness and patriotism. However, the 19th century valued these values far more than our current period; as such, it seems evident that he was a great man of that period. An objection might be raised; surely this patriotism manifested itself in imperial conquest, and as such is not morally impressive. However this is a serious historical misunderstanding. Within the 19th century paradigm, all societies implicitly understood that their state was to be considered superior to all others, and as such should grow at the expense of others wherever possible. This was, moreover, not a solely European phenomenon. A common misconception has it that non-European societies lived in a blissful utopia without violence or imperialism. This is plainly untrue. The states the British Empire conquered lived by the sword, growing at the expense of those weaker than them, and as such they also understood that the victory of the Empire was simply part of the same ‘game’ that they had all been playing. Had the Zulus played this ‘game’ better, then there may well be a statue of Shaka Zulu on the walls of Oriel College; as it turns out, the British won that particular round. The point remains that all parties involved knew the nature of imperialism, and the British should not be judged for having emerged triumphant.
I could, at this point, attempt to discuss some of the misrepresentations of the Empire in modern discussion. However, this essay is already overlong; as such, I will limit myself to saying that the British Empire should always be seen as a product of an imperial age, and never as a simple narrative of exploitation. I don’t wish to put forth a revisionist interpretation of empire, nor am I particularly nostalgic for it. Nonetheless, I urge readers to acquire a holistic understanding of this key phase of British history.
It is, however, a logical jump from (as I have done above) asserting Rhodes’ greatness within his paradigm, to arguing that we should continue to fete the man. Nonetheless, I believe this latter proposition is also true. Firstly, there is the not inconsequential matter of the Rhodes Scholarships. These continue to act as a pathway for the finest academic minds in the world to study at one of the best universities in the world. They have enabled hundreds of people to receive an education which they otherwise would never have been able to afford; one of these people is Mr Ntokozo Qwabe, a law student at Oxford who is behind the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ campaign. If just for this, Rhodes deserves to be commemorated. But I believe that this is not the only reason. The history of the British Empire is an integral part of the history of Britain. It is impossible to ignore, and counterproductive to simply denigrate. Whilst we can certainly deplore certain elements, the Empire defined Britain. Why should we be ashamed of it? To be ashamed of our history is to be ashamed of our present, and to do this would be an unacceptable lapse of national spirit. Rhodes was a central figure in British imperial history, and the presence of his statue is a commemoration of this period of our nation.
In conclusion, then, I stand in total opposition to the methods and goals of the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ movement. Whilst I am no apologist for the British Empire – and will freely admit that the history of the Empire contains many instances of brutality and injustice – I refuse to allow a small minority of people to dictate the history of my country. Britain was an imperial nation, and should never be ashamed of its history. Moreover, it is fundamentally incorrect – and sets a dangerous precedent – for historical figures and events to be evaluated according to present standards. If we carry on down this route, I foresee historical revisionism of a terrifying nature to become mainstream. Our history should be free of moral judgements, and instead be a descriptive record of events; its’ increasing politicisation does not bode well for intellectual freedom in the 21st century.