Revisiting a previous article on the politics of memorials and their removal

Oriel College, Oxford — Wikimedia Commons

In 2016, as an undergraduate History student at the University of York, I wrote an article for the student newspaper Nouse entitled ‘The dangerous precedent of pulling down Rhodes’ which questioned the ethics and raised the possible implications of removing the public statue of Cecil Rhodes from Oriel College, Oxford. The purpose of the article was to argue against a general spirit of iconoclasm and the potential wider ramifications of the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ campaign at the time. My article’s conclusion at the time was that a removal of the Rhodes statue would create a ‘dangerous’ precedent with far-reaching ramifications. Shortly afterwards, Oriel College announced that following a consultation with faculty, students and alumni, the statue would not be removed.

Since 2016, however, the shortcomings of my original article and the positions it expressed have become more apparent. The Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 have heightened the moral urgency inherent in addressing the subject of memorials to figures associated with colonialism and white supremacy as a whole. The recent removal and sinking of the statue of 18th-century slave-trader Edward Colson in Bristol by a crowd of demonstrators has highlighted the appalling failure of British political, cultural and educational institutions to deal with the legacy of slavery and memorials erected to figures whose ‘achievements’ rested upon human bondage and plunder. Following years of discussion, committees, proposals, efforts to ‘contextualise’ the statue and unending delays, an act of crowd-sourced iconoclasm has put an end to the presence of a slaveholder’s monument that was long protected by bureaucratic inertia. For the authorities responsible for maintaining the statue to demand further ‘patience’ from Black and Minority Ethnic people whose protests and demands were left substantively unanswered for decades was vacuous and insensitive to begin with; it has now been rendered moot by the collective action of the assembled crowd.

Without defending the indefensible character and actions of Colson, a majority of the British public according to YouGov supported the statue’s removal but objected to the way that the statue was unilaterally removed from its plinth and hurled into the River Avon by an assembled crowd of protestors, without intervention by the Police. A general principle of allowing public statue and memorial placements to be vetoed and torn down by determined political activists, without wider democratic consultation, is difficult to justify. This position, which I broadly share, is succinctly expressed by the Queen’s University historian Robert Saunders:

“I would rather the statue had come down through constitutional action. The fate of public statues should not depend on whether police or protestors can muster bigger numbers. But much of the blame lies with those who for years blocked every constitutional avenue for change.”

Now, a wider argument about the removal of statues and memorials has opened up. The London Docklands statue of 18th-century slaveholder Robert Milligan was officially removed on 09/06/2020 by Tower Hamlets London Borough Council (not, as some have wrongly claimed, by order of the London Mayor Sadiq Khan). There has quite unsurprisingly been a reinvigoration of the Rhodes Must Fall campaign and Oxford University is confrotned with the need to address the issue of the public statue of Rhodes, and Rhodes’ larger legacy at Oxford. The likeness of Rhodes situated on the walls of Oriel College may now be facing a greater prospect of removal than at any point since the Rhodes Must Fall campaign began in 2015.

Whilst never remotely an admirer or defender of the 19th-centruy statesman and zealous imperialist, I held that the implications of removing the Rhodes statue set a precedent that would stretch beyond the green spaces and medieval walls of Oriel College. The principle of removing a statue or memorial to a figure of history, on the basis that their beliefs and actions were unjust, inhumane or strongly objectionable seemed to demand that many other monumnets to historical figures and events would be removed or demolished. The authority and criteria for doing this seemed arbitrary at best; crucially, no major political movement of the present was trustworthy enough not to abuse both. But depth that was lacking from the original article is reflected in a number of factors that were absent and unconsidered, which now it is important to revisit and address.

In the context of the Colston statue-removal, the British-Nigerian writer Ralph Leonard has observed — perhaps referring to a public debate argument in favour of reparations made by Christopher Hitchens in 2001 — that comparisons with other historical figures in that argument amounted to whataboutism and projection by those invoking the comparison.

“There is also something disingenuous about bringing up Marx or Engels, who never owned slaves, who supported abolition & never killed anyone in a purge, when there is real case before you of a slave trader that should be grappled with. I detect the itchings of an uneasy & even guilty conscience in so much of this “argument”.”

Those who would defend a slaveholder statue such as that of Colston by making reference to other ethically challenging historical memorials were doing so as a deflection from the moral wrong at hand, and from the remedy available for it. Leonard did not refer to Rhodes in this argument; it may be said that Rhodes, by benefit of birth in the post-abolition 19th-century, has a more contestable legacy than that of an outright chattel slaveholder and trader such as Colston. However, the issue of whether reference to the non-removal of other memorials represents an attempt to deflect attention from where it should be focused; to engage in whataboutism or suggest moral equivalence between slaveholders, imperialists and more ambigious figures with contested public memorials; is one which deserves addressing.

If there was one ethical minefield which my 2016 article had sought to navigate and do so without injury to the argument at hand, it was the issue of comparison between the figure of Rhodes at Oriel College with monumnets such as the Karl Marx Memorial in Highgate Cemetery, erected in 1956 by the Communist Party of Britain (itself vandalised in 2019), or the manifestations of other anti-capitalist political movements such as Ba’athism and Khomeinism. The task of dealing with analogous situations by comparative discussion is met with the risk of entering into the non-sequitur and disengaging from the original issue at hand, that of Rhodes being glorified and the continuing injustice this casued. How the original article addressed this and other possible equivalences goes to some length to showing where the argument fell short.

My 2016 article referred to the comparable issues of memorials to Marx, Engels, Lenin and other communist figures, both those located in Britain and in countries formerly ruled by communist dictatorships. It also drew attention — using some inartful and splinter-covered prose which I would hope to avoid now — to the connections between various Marxist, postcolonial and postmodernist thinkers whose ideas permeate through progressive movements such as Rhodes Must Fall, and the atrocities which their ideas have inspired. The article rather dismissively said of Rhodes Must Fall, “if it wants to be logically consistent”, that it must “turn against its own forebears”. Whilst attempting to apply consistency and uniformity of the same principle; the destructive ideas held by Rhodes and figures of imperialism have analogues in the intellectual titans of the progressive hemisphere, and are thus similarly objectionable; this part of the article might fairly read as an exercise in tu quoque. More plainly, an unfamiliar reader could have easily read it it as defence of Rhodes himself, uncharitably performed by disparaging the intellectual foundations of his critics, as well as accusing them of hypocrisy. Rhodes Must Fall are even suggested to not be “morally serious” unless they commit to removing not only the Rhodes statue but “all monumnets to oppression”. It is the part of the article of which I now find the least defensible, and an application of an argument that I encourage others to refrain from emulating.

Though structured around objecting to the wider potential for political abuse of statue-removal, the article did not fully address or contextualise the inherently political nature of every ‘historical’ statue and memorial construction. The selectivity of the memorial-construction process was highlighted prominently with the Colston statue; it was erected by Colston-admirers in 1895 at a time of high-imperial anxiety, over 170 years after Colston’s death, and deliberately omitting any reference to his role in the slave trade. For want of column-space or want of better priorities, this shortcoming renders the overall direction the 2016 article under-informed in respect of an important point which is widely overlooked in public discussions about historical memorials. Whilst the article did not embrace the tiresome cliche that history itself is being “erased” or “abolished” with each removed statue, it employed the now cringe-inducing phrasing that the “solution to humanity’s problems do not lie in destroying the past”. This referred not to Rhodes individually but to an assumption made by the article itself that further removals and permanent destruction of objectionable public displays of any description would be inevitable and should be avoided. In the absence of any context of the selectivity and political purpose inherent in memorial-construction, the article did not make clear for any lay audience that ‘destroying the past’ is an act which the continued presence of a statue can accomplish more effectively than its removal.

The article also did not comprehensively explain for a lay and non-historical readership the indespensible fact that memorials are frequently constructed in historical eras far removed from the events they memorialise to serve inherently political purposes. The Cenotaph memorial to the British dead of the First World War was dedicated on November 11th 1920, exactly 2 years after the signing of the Armistice, to memorialise the war dead of the British Empire and Commonwealth. By contrast, most of the thousands of memorials to the Southern Confederacy in the United States were constructed decades after the end of the U.S. Civil War, usually to intimidate African-Americans, counteract progress in African-American civil rights and to reassert the future of white supremacy. A prime example of statue-removal which could be scarcely considerable as an ‘erasure’ of history include the recently-departed Robert Milligan statue; though sculpted in 1809, it was removed from public display in 1943 and placed in storage until a regrettable decision to re-erect the statue in 1997. Removing it once again in 2020 would simply restore the status quo ante as it apparently was for most of the 20th century.

Additionally, the article did not fully consider or address the impact that Rhodes’ continued presence on the campus of Oriel College made on the students who must view the statue, live in proximity to it, and endure the passive glorification of a figure associated with the most destructive and oppressive ideals of British imperialism. The continuing legacy and impact of colonisation from the division and destruction wrought upon Africa by the entire history of the British Empire extended far beyond the actions of Rhodes himself. If Rhodes as a politician, mining magnate and industrialist could not be recognised as a slaveholder or perpetrator of genocide himself, Rhodes’ own fanatical belief in the mission of the Empire and widening its expanse significantly contributed to the abhorent conditions experienced in Southern Africa by those living under colonial rule.

Rhodes’ legitimation of the imperial mission extended far beyond his direct administration of the Cape Colony and his involvement in mining interests, which both involved concerted disenfranchisement of black citizens and the drawing of racial lines between them and the different white settler colonies. Rhodes’ Anglo-Saxon white supremacism, expressed in a belief in “the finest race” and the “first race in the world”, is not a factor to be divorced from the merits of removing, relocating or re-contextualising his statue. The obscene demagougery of D.W. Griffths’ Birth of a Nation (1915) cannot and should not be separated from its white supremacist context for reasons of artistic and cinematic criticsm, as the work cannot be understood without it. Rhodes’ monetary and architectural legacies at Oxford too cannot be understood without a fuller understanding of the man and his self-avowed mission. The original 2016 article, in its pursuit of understanding and extrapolating a universal principle from the act of removing the Rhodes statue, did not consider this, and its conclusions are the lesser for doing so.

In the simplest terms, Rhodes may fall without reference to the objectionableness of Marx, Engels, Lenin and their representations in stone, whether state-manufactured monoliths now littering memento parks and graveyards in former communist states or by memorials erected by socialists and communists in the West. Preventing Rhodes from being removed because of an apparent inconsistency in how memorials to the political leaders and intellectual architects of left-wing or anti-capitalist dictators are dealt with is an untenable position.

There is still a notable imbalance and inconsistency in academic discussion between the legacy of iredeemable colonial enemies of humanity such as Colston and Milligan versus their equivalents in the Soviet Union and the Non-Aligned Movement of the 20th century. In the same respect, the intellectual architects and legitimisers of Empire and colonial racism such as Rhodes are held to be culpable for the poisonous legacies of their ideas. Marx, Engels and later figures of far-reaching influence such as Sartre and Foucault are generally treated in academic contexts as divorced from any destructive consequences of their ideas and philosophies in the real world, including when the figures themselves held a direct influence in their implementation. This being said, that academic dissonance does not provide any justification for opposing or cautioning against an earnest and historically-informed campaign to remove a specific monumnet; especially when the monument was erected to glorify a figure responsible for the oppression and suffering of millions of human beings, in the context of legitimising a far greater imperial system which made this possible.

Though it was from no sympathy for Rhodes’ profoundly misguided ideas and reprehensible actions that I wrote my original article, I recognise that in applying an ethic of universalisability; if one objectionable statue goes, they all must go; this did not address the context of the Rhodes statue, or any historical memorial, on its own terms. The distress and anger which the figure of Rhodes continues to cause students, academics and any person of Black and Minority Ethnic backgrounds, particularly those from formerly-colonised regions, should be cause enough to merit serious plans for its removal from a position of prominence at Oxford. The original conclusions I made were made with both overly-cautious as to the possible consequences of removing the Rhodes statue, and without full consderation for the individual conditions experienced by those whose personal landscape involves the Rhodes statue in their everyday life.

Whatever decision results from the renewed campaign to have the statue removed; by relocation to a museum or otherwise; it should be taken with regard to the implications for the students and faculty at Oriel College first and foremostly. Abstract universal principles that must be applied or hypothetical long-term historical consequences that may result should be no obstacle to this. One of the only historical tasks more difficult than interpreting the past is extrapolating from specific events to predict the wider future; it is also, for the most part, futile.

Writer. History and Law graduate