Falling Statues and Morality: Cecil Rhodes can’t be rescued by history

This short article was published online at the website of the Review of African Political Economy (June 2020), the leading radical journal on Africa. I draw your attention to the correspondence included at the conclusion of the article.

All over the world, the Black Lives Matter movement has targeted statues that have been associated with colonialism, slavery and oppression. Fallen statures include Captain Hamilton in Hamilton (New Zealand), King Leopold in Antwerp, Edward Colston in Bristol, and Robert Milligan in London. At least nine other statues have been taken down in the US and dozens more are on the target list of protesters. In Oxford, the protests centre on the statue of Cecil Rhodes (1853–1902), the British mine owner and imperialist who gave his name to Rhodesia (before that was changed to Zimbabwe) and endowed the Rhodes Scholarship programme. He was a benefactor to Oriel College, Oxford, where his statue hovers over the gateway to the college. Rhodes is also depicted on a plaque on Oriel’s property in King Edward Street, Oxford, citing his ‘great services to his country’. Prime Minister Johnson, like many others, has argued that judging figures like Rhodes by current moral standards is illegitimate and anachronistic. The implication of this defence is that even though we may now come to a different view, Rhodes’s conduct was admired, or at least accepted, by his contemporaries who also supported his imperialist ideas.

Contemporaries who opposed Rhodes

But was this true? Rhodes’s customary deceit was to use his company, the British South African Company (BSAC), to negotiate a mining concession with African rulers, then send in settlers and administrators, and finally annex their territory with brute force. In 1896, the Ndebele in alliance with the Shona had had enough of this chicanery and rose in full-scale revolt. This was suppressed with Maxim guns, resulting in the deaths of about 2,000 Africans and 364 white troops and settlers. Known misleadingly in old British and South African history books as the Second Matabele War, it is identified by Zimbabweans as the First Chimurenga [liberation struggle] or the First War of Independence.

Rhodes’s political base was the Cape Colony, where he served as Prime Minister (between 1890–6). However, in the genteel surroundings of white Cape society, few were clapping his exploits. Many of Rhodes’s contemporaries did not admire him. Let me start with a minor but telling family recollection. My wife’s grandmother was married into Cape Town’s small political elite and was expected to endure Cecil Rhodes’s company at official receptions on many occasions. Her considered opinion was blunt: ‘Mr. Rhodes is not a gentleman’. Given how painfully polite she was, this would translate nowadays to ‘What a contemptible scoundrel!’

Another family member, Sir James Tennant Molteno, the speaker of the Cape Legislature, strongly opposed Rhodes’s imperialism and by supporting the moves to make Bechuanaland a protectorate of the British Crown, helped to impede Rhodes’s proposed annexation of territory from Cape to Cairo. Rhodes tried his usual manoeuvre again in 1895, using the BSAC to acquire a large chunk of land in North East Bechuanaland, a plan frustrated by three Tswana chiefs who visited London and demanded that the British honour their agreement to protect them from incorporation into the Cape Colony.

Another damming verdict came from Olive Schreiner, one of South Africa’s most prescient anti-racist and anti-sexist campaigners who, in April 1897, wrote to John X. Merriman: ‘We fight Rhodes because he means so much of oppression, injustice, and moral degradation to South Africa – but if he passed away tomorrow there still remains the terrible fact that something in our society has formed the matrix which has fed, nourished, built up such a man!’1 It should be added that her correspondent, John X. Merriman, later the Prime Minister of the Cape Colony, had served as Treasurer-General in Rhodes’s government but resigned in 1893 when the extent of Rhodes’s corrupt business dealings were revealed. This was known as the ‘Logan Scandal’.

In short, the pro-Rhodes argument that we are unfairly judging him by current standards, is deeply defective. African communities and chiefs, and whites with moral stature, including a significant number of people in high office, saw Rhodes for what he was, a ruthless reprobate, and did not approve of his imperialist adventures. For reasons of self-restraint, I must forbear telling the full story of how Rhodes was the principal actor in dragging Britain into the South African War (1899–1902), where the consequent deaths comprised 22,000 British troops, 25,000 Afrikaners (many in concentration camps) and the often forgotten (surprise, surprise) 12,000 Africans. The indelible stain of Britain’s first concentration camps has not disappeared.


Evoking ‘changing moral standards’ in Rhodes’s favour is not a compelling argument. It fails to accept the arrogance of ‘presentism’ (that we would have done things better and that we are morally superior). It fails to recognize the extent of opposition to Rhodes, from both African and white social actors. It fails, finally, to acknowledge the degree of commonality in moral standards, then and now. As Robert Cook, the historian of the American Civil War, put it: ‘the truth, as I see it, is that in general terms today’s morals are not as different from those of the past as some commentators profess to believe. In the nineteenth century, for example, significant numbers of Britons thought that empire-building was wrong, and that slavery was a sin that had to be eradicated’.


What, finally, of the argument that taking a statue down is a form of erasure – that if there is nothing there, there is nothing to learn. Those of us who want the Rhodes statue to fall are asked to learn from history. This is the strongest argument of the ‘standists’, but one that can easily be addressed by suggesting a replacement. Obviously, what is appropriate will need consultation and agreement between many interested parties – going well beyond the governing body of the college. I would like to suggest a new version of ‘The Unknown Miner’ – a sculpture of a resilient African whose manual labour produced Rhodes’s wealth and filled Oriel College’s coffers.2 Rhodes’s statue was erected in 1908. Perhaps such a replacement would provide a better history lesson we can all learn from for the next 112 years.

Robin Cohen is Emeritus Professor of Development Studies, University of Oxford, a former Dean of Humanities, University of Cape Town and a founding member of ROAPE.


1 Paul Maylam The Cult of Rhodes Cape Town: David Philip, p. 87.

2 See (below) Wald’s sculpture of that name in front of the Chamber of Mines building at the Faculty of Engineering, University of the Witwatersrand.


David Green

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.

Alan Gamlen

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.

David Seddon

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.