Opinion //

Must Rhodes fall?

All historical figures should be held to the same standard or none at all, argues Josh Koby Wooller

"Well, I for one don't think so" "Well, I for one don't think so"

There is no doubt that the many crimes attributed to Cecil Rhodes mandate utter condemnation and contempt. At the very least, Rhodes, the patriarch of Apartheid in South Africa, is answerable for his conviction that the white race was superior to all others. He enslaved Africans into his monopolistic De Beers diamond production company; he instituted the ‘Masters and Servants Act’ of 1890, which called for sanctioned torture against slaves; and he is directly responsible for 60,000 deaths after creating a white police force designed to kill those not fitting his vision of racial superiority. Rhodes is, to put it simply, what he would often decry native Africans as, ‘a savage’. But let’s get something clear: the crimes committed by Rhodes are abhorrent in a twenty-first century context, and Rhodes did not exist as a quintessential racist in a vacuum.

The ‘RhodesMustFall’ movement, which emerged at the University of Oxford, seeks to expunge all mention of Cecil Rhodes from campus buildings, including statues and plaques. The initiative, led ironically by Rhodes scholar Ntokozo Qwabe, does not want to remove the funding which makes it possible for him to go to Oxford. Whether he likes it or not, Qwabe attends Oxford University because of Rhodes. Indeed, Rhodes’ scholarship makes it possible for many students to attend the prestigious institution who would otherwise be unable to. Qwabe is unlikely to give up his scholarship, and so we should treat his call to create a ‘safespace’ and erase Rhodes from history at Oxford as a double standard.

If Oxford, and Western universities more generally, were the institutionalised ‘cesspools of racism’ that Qwabe describes, then we should spare no effort in bringing them into modernity. But, in the absence of any other evidence, a vestige of the past in no way makes Oxford a racist institution. Dealing with the past through our current understanding of society requires no nuanced or contextual understanding and undermines the study of history. Tearing down a statue does nothing more than impose our values upon the past, therefore creating an impossible standard for figures in history. We are in effect engaging in historical revisionism.

Should RhodesMustFall’s model for history be accepted, we could not hope to have any historical figures to revere. Thomas Jefferson for example, would be derided as nothing more than a slave-owner, rather than an individual who emancipated people from an authoritarian monarchy. Churchill would be nothing more than an Islamophobe, rather than the voice that stood firm against Nazism. Closer to home, the statue of William Wentworth in USyd’s Great Hall would be nothing more than an antiquated and offensive vestige of our past, considering his association with the racist anti-immigration movement during the gold rush.  

No figure in history lives up to the standard of the present, simply because they were not surrounded by the contextual values of our era. Cecil Rhodes is a racist, but the image of the Rhodes scholarship is not. Many Rhodes scholars have campaigned against the colonialism and racism championed by Rhodes himself. His legacy to the university has changed since colonialism. The legacy of Alfred Nobel, a weapons manufacturer whose creations undoubtedly killed millions, has changed. The Nobel Peace Prize recipient is an individual who has contributed substantially to world peace. The Rhodes scholarship, which now provides an education to those that otherwise would not receive it, similarly has transformed the legacy of its namesake.

Problematic USyd namesakes

The Edmund Barton Medal – awarded for academic achievement in a Masters degree, despite Barton’s association with the White Australia Policy.

The statue of William Wentworth – situated inside the great hall, Wentworth supported a tax on Chinese immigrants during the Gold Rush.

The statue of John Henry Challis – located in the Great Hall, the University benefactor supported bringing labour from India to replace convict labour. These Indian ‘coolie’ labourers were often poorly treated and underpaid.

The statue of Gilgamesh – standing tall beside the Old Teachers’ College, Gilgamesh was an ancient Mesopotamian king who insisted on sleeping with all brides in his kingdom on their wedding night.