Fascinating personal insights, Robin. William Beinart has claimed that Salisbury may perhaps have been even more culpable, and Rhodes would probably have claimed to be acting as the agent of government and monarch. https://oxfordandempire.web.ox.ac.uk/article/rhodes-must-fall-uses-historical-evidence-statue-debate-oxford-2015-6
Robin Cohen (Reply)
Thanks, David, for your comment and for the link to William Beinart’s site, which is an excellent, and reliable, source. I’ve also been in touch with William. A couple of add-ons follow. First, Beinart makes it clear that my listing of casualties in the First Chimurenga is likely to be an UNDERESTIMATE. Second, it would have to helpful for me to separate out three interventions more plainly. In the case of Bechuanaland, Rhodes was the bad guy, as indicated. In the case of what became ‘Rhodesia’, as you say, Salisbury was implicated – thus the previous name of the Zimbabwean capital. Finally, with respect to the South African War, I can probably continue to assert Rhodes was the principal actor but, of course, any war has complex underlying and proximate causes, with a mix of structural and agentic elements. Thanks again for pointing me in the right direction.
Paul Finlay Stewart
Worth doing is reading Robert Rotberg on Rhodes and Ruth First and Ann Scott on Olive Shreiner alongside each other. The more interesting point about the current global social movement wave is whether this time the broad awakening of civic consciousness will result in more than a calibration in the brute facticity of the deeply entrenched systemic march of the material forces of history.
Robin Cohen (Reply)
Thanks, Paul, for your comment. I’m familiar with the Ruth First and Ann Scott book on Olive Schreiner and admire it. I had not read Rotberg on Rhodes and had difficulty getting hold of it in lockdown. However, there are some useful extracts one can access through Google. They make clear that Rhodes was also a useless student at Oriel, perhaps a lessor fault than the ones I have discussed. Your wider point merits much more thought and a lengthy reply. In short, I am encouraged that the Black Lives Matter movement has generated so much support across people of different heritages. As you hint, whether that will be enough to change deep-rooted forces remains to be seen.
Dear Robin: I read this with interest but disagree with the conclusion. In particular I don’t think your argument for ‘replacing’ Rhodes with another statue addresses the argument against erasure (and in fact the replacement you suggest sounds chillingly like the ‘heroic worker’ statues the Soviets and Chinese Communists erected to replace their imperialist statues).
I think tearing down the Rhodes Statue is a bad idea and should be rejected. This is not a defence of Rhodes; it is the exact opposite: he was clearly a rogue and clearly washed his reputation by contributing to Oxford. The trouble is, everything in Oxford has a similar background. If you really want to talk about Rhodes, let’s talk about the Blavatniks, the Saïds, and all the racist rogues in history who completely underpin the institution. If one really believed pulling things down would solve the problem, they’d need to pull down most of the UK (and that wouldn’t even scratch the surface: every palace of every past tyrant in every land should also be pulled down). I put it to you that this would do more harm than good.
What pulling down the Rhodes statue really looks like is Oxford selecting a scapegoat – a sacrifice to deflect attention from the real issues in order to preserve the status quo. Removing the statue renders invisible the real problems of institutional racism and ongoing colonial inequalities. It not only doesn’t fix those problems: it makes them harder to fix because they are more carefully hidden. It’s like trying to kill weeds by cutting off the flower heads: it just makes it harder to pull up the roots.
A better approach would be to speak back against the Rhodes statue in its own language: the language of sculpture, architecture, and epigraphic text. Create new buildings, sculptures, spaces, texts and artwork around the Rhodes statue to show up what a rogue he was – to demonstrate for everyone to see, everyday, how today’s society rejects what he stood for, just as much as the society of his day embraced – at least officially and legally – what he stood for. Don’t replace him with a Stalinist statue – surround him with statues of his detractors.
A lot of people are making lofty arguments about history – if you ask me, Bob Marley put it best: ‘If you know your history, then you will know where you’re coming from. Then you wouldn’t have to ask me, who the hell do I think I am.’ Tearing down the Rhodes Statue will mean that Oxford students and academics can keep on blissfully pretending they don’t know where they are really coming from. So, keep the Rhodes statue there, and put signs and symbols all around it to show up what a rogue he really was. Don’t whitewash Oxford’s reputation by randomly choosing one individual from its vast gallery of historical rogues and parading that one scapegoat in the stocks.
Robin Cohen (Reply)
Thanks, Alan, for your thoughtful and interesting comment. We have also exchanged emails, so we know better where we differ and agree. Let me start by coming clean. Reading my piece again, I don’t think the conclusion (the statue should come down) is adequately connected to the argument (Rhodes was a rascal, and many knew it at the time).
We are now in a different place. Just after my blog and your comment were posted, the governing body of Oriel voted to remove the sculpture. The statue of the slave trader, Colston, in Bristol was pulled down and (briefly) replaced with a striking statue of a black female protester. Many statues have fallen and there have been many arguments and counter-arguments to follow. Yours, I think, is a perfectly credible view, namely to ‘speak back’ by creating ‘new buildings, sculptures, spaces, texts and artwork around the Rhodes statue to show up what a rogue he was’.
Certainly, I concur that we don’t want replacement identikit Stalinist heroic workers everywhere. By way of a footnote, it is pertinent to note that some socialist realist sculpture is being much more sympathetically considered – for example, the facades of the buildings in the Marszałkowska Residential District in Warsaw and other works by Karol Tchorek (1904-1985).
Back to Rhodes et al. It seems to me that the debate now is about complementarity (your view) or replacement, not whether the statues should remain as they are. Here, two pertinent questions arise. First, a point made by David Olusoga. Have we now reached a moment when representational figures of all sorts are somewhat passé allowing us to move to more figurative forms of sculpture (his example was Gormley’s Angel of the North)? Second, a point by William Beinart and now by many others. Can the sculpture become an imagined space above the plinth, which can be rotated for aesthetic or educational purposes, or in response to demands for recognition and representation? A relevant model exists in the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, London, which has already hosted 13 occupants, creating animated public conversations on a number of occasions.
After thinking about your comment and the subsequent interventions I have changed my mind – I’m now a ‘rotator’, not a ‘replacer’ and would like to see a mix of representational and figurative art. I would still like an unknown heroic African worker to be there, but also – to think aloud – an ear (signifying the need to listen), a hearing aid (we need to listen even harder), protestors (more than one), the first black Rhodes scholar, a complex dialectical mask (both shielding us and inhibiting us from seeing) and, maybe, in the fullness of time, the original Rhodes sculpture. This way what is hidden will not only be revealed but illuminated and debated, somewhat as you wish.
Thanks again, Alan, for your potent intervention.
What is more important surely than the issue of whether statues should be pulled down or not is the reality of the movement and the debate it engenders – a combination of events has generated a righteous anger about the glorification of some white men and the effective obliteration of a whole swathe of historical reality, and it should be nurtured and maintained.
I am in any case concerned that statues are always of individuals and tend to present in a very public way the whole idea of history as the product of individual ‘great men and women’ – something that the ‘traditional’ history books also perpetuate. We need to revive and find some way of publicising the alternative tradition whereby history is made by men and women collectively. Memorials to the dead do often comprise groups of figures, and lists of names (whether inscribed on a monument or read out in public) is often a way of drawing attention to both the individuals and the collective.
But we need a different approach, perhaps more in the way of ‘performance’ than in the construction of stone or metal objects. History is, after all about process and complex understandings and experiences.
Robin Cohen (Reply)
David, thanks for your comment. You will notice that in my reply to Alan Gamlen (above), I touch on one or two of the points you make.
I concur completely that statues of single (usually white, male) people are increasingly outdated and limited. They are predicated on ‘great man theory’ (I use the masculine gender deliberately) or Hegel’s ‘World-Historical individuals’. It would be going too far to abandon the idea that some individuals are hugely important in effecting changes, but clearly there are far too many sculptures about great men (who then turn out not to be so great).
I very much like your idea that we need to think of how we represent the collectivity and social movements in so stubborn a form as a sculpture. You’ve made some suggestions. I also quite like the ‘unknown’ tradition (the unknown soldier, peasant, worker, holocaust survivor, nurse), which at least say something about collective endeavour and suffering. But you add an important point about ‘performance’. This suggest that the moments when sculptures are defaced, attacked, pulled down, celebrated, photographed and discussed are precisely the moments that need to be captured. Banksy had a good idea – making a statue of people pulling down the Colston statue (the slave trader in Bristol). Probably we need to go further and supersede the static form with more kinetic creations.