Rhodes, violence and the statue at Oriel College, Oxford

Monday, 2 August, 2021 - 16:00

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This is an abstract of the historical appendix to the commission appointed by Oriel College to discuss the Rhodes legacy, which I would like to make the basis of the discussion. History has been central in the debates about the Rhodes statue and other legacies of Rhodes's donation to Oriel College. The protests by Rhodes Must Fall in 2015/6, renewed in 2020, helped to trigger challenging questions about the relationship between the past and the present and what action should be supported in the present. Rhodes’s legacy should be debated. Aside from his very public role in his life time, he quite deliberately set out to memorialise himself and his views, and this project was further pursued by his admirers and protagonists (Maylam, 2005). The Commission appointed by Oriel College requested that I examine evidence about aspects of Rhodes’s political impact.With respect to the key areas of focus in this appendix, the evidence shows that Rhodes made a number of important decisions, or supported developments, that intensified racial segregation at the Cape in the late nineteenth century. He had some power to influence an alternative political direction in the Colony but advocated a racially restrictive franchise, punitive racially-based Masters and Servants legislation, a labour (poll) tax for African people only, a segregated local government system and segregation in the South African cricket team. He was involved in the beginning of coercive compounds for black workers and other racially restrictive practices as an employer. To a limited degree a pragmatist in Cape politics, prepared to work with a range of people who would be useful to his interests, Rhodes was a deeply committed British imperialist, intent on white, specifically British, authority and committed to the idea that ‘the natives’ should be a ‘subject race’ (Samkange, 1982, 15; Vindex, 1900, 159). In respect of Zimbabwe, 1890-97, Rhodes and his Company were responsible for extreme violence against African people: unbridled use was made of the Maxim gun; cattle were looted by his Company and its agents on a large scale; in the 1896-7 war, grain stores, crops and gardens were appropriated or destroyed over a sustained period as a deliberate strategy; many Ndebele soldiers were shot in flight; supposed rebels were sentenced and hung or shot without due process of law. Over a period of nine months in 1896-7, African men (including armed men), women and children sheltering in caves were blown up with dynamite, when it was clear that many were being killed. Rhodes was well aware of these practices, at times present while they were taking place and involved in strategic discussion about the wars. On the basis of this evidence, the College should not retain a celebratory statue but should move it.

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