The past few years have seen a steep rise in debate over the displaying of historical objects considered to be offensive. Confederate memorials in the South have fallen under heavy scrutiny, and South Carolina even elected to remove the Confederate flag from its capitol building in July.
Students in South Africa joined the debate last year, convincing the University of Cape Town to take down a statue of Cecil Rhodes, the British imperialist and racist who founded the colony of Rhodesia and is responsible for the oppression of countless indigenous Africans. Recently, this “Rhodes Must Fall” movement has relocated to Oxford University’s Oriel College, where another statue of Rhodes stands.
While students are pushing for the removal of the statue, and administrators wish to leave the statue the way it is, neither of these are the solution that Oxford needs.
The fact is that the Rhodes statue is a piece of history; according to a New York Times report, Rhodes attended Oriel College in the 1870s, donated a large sum of money to the university after his death in 1902, and is known as a central figure of the nineteenth century, for good or nefarious reasons.
To remove the statue would be akin to removing a passage from a textbook; it would be a “tokenistic” solution, instead of addressing the real problem at hand, said one Oxford student, according to a BBC report. Therefore, simply forgetting the memory of Rhodes’ actions is far from an adequate solution for racial tension that exists today because of him.
However, the current state of the statue is one that glorifies Cecil Rhodes’ accomplishments. Under the statue is a plaque that recognizes the “great services” Rhodes rendered to his country, according to the New York Times article.
The statue is also in a setting that completely ignores the atrocities that were committed in Africa, so that students like Ntokozo Qwabe from South Africa have compared the statue’s place at Oxford to the presence of a statue of Hitler in Germany, according to the BBC report. For this reason, it is imperative that historical monuments and statues be portrayed in the proper context, rather than being left alone or removed altogether.
Take, for example, the Confederate flag flying over the South Carolina state capitol. While the flag is offensive to many Americans, it still represents one of the most crucial wars in the history of the United States. Therefore, the South Carolina capitol building is not the place for the flag, while a museum is the perfect setting. In a similar way, the monument to King Leopold II in Ostend, Belgium is offensive to many Congolese.
In his book King Leopold’s Ghost, author and historian Adam Hochschild accredits this to Leopold’s brutal enslavement of Congolese natives, who were sometimes punished by having their hands cut off. When Belgium left the monument – which depicts Congolese subjects looking up to their king – untouched, an anonymous citizen severed the hand of one of the bronze Congolese subjects, thus changing the context of the statue to “better represent… Leopold’s real impact on the Congo,” as Hochschild notes in his book.
Now the statue represents the conflict between Leopold II and the Congolese and the reality of its repercussions, rather than simply glorifying an immoral figure.
Therefore, Oxford needs a solution that will put the statue in the proper context. The first step is to remove the plaque that commemorates Rhodes and replace it with a more accurate historical representation. While the statue can be moved to a museum, this solution is much easier for an object such as a flag.
Instead, the monument needs a counterpart that embodies the other side of the conflict. Only when the oppressed Africans are represented can the statue become a monument to the conflict instead of a glorification of Rhodes himself.
The other issue is Rhodes’s place in the Oxford atmosphere. While the statue is a very visible part of the campus, it plays a minor role in the tension between England and what is now Zimbabwe and Zambia. The glorification of Rhodes is more present in the Rhodes scholarship, which is currently one of the most prestigious scholarships in the world.
Fortunately, this scholarship, which is funded by Rhodes’s endowment to the university made possible by his African diamond empire, may be an opportunity to set things right if it is used to help victims of Rhodes’s African influence attend Oxford.
This is not the Cold War, and toppling statues is no longer a suitable solution for the pieces of history that we are ashamed of. Changing the context of Cecil Rhodes’ presence at Oxford is the only way that history can be reconciled and tensions can be alleviated.
Alex Oliveira is a staff columnist for the Daily Campus opinion section. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.