by Emma Gilpin. Box compiled by Alex Waygood.
The iconography campaigns that have taken place in recent years remind us of the fact that history is littered with people and things that it would perhaps be preferable, or at least more convenient, to forget. There have been movements across the University of Cape Town, Harvard University and the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, as well as other universities across Europe, America and Africa, to address some of the iconography across their campuses that still reflects those times (see box below). However, these campaigns have frequently been accused of attempting to erase history, and this in particular was one of the main arguments against removing the statue of Cecil Rhodes that faces onto the High Street at Oriel.
The Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford campaign, which took on the college throughout 2015 and 2016 and continues to campaign for decolonisation in Oxford, was inspired by the campaign of the same name at the University of Cape Town, which succeeded in getting a statue of Cecil Rhodes removed from their own university’s grounds. This campaign differed from its Oxford-based counterpart in that students were more demonstrative throughout the campaign, throwing paint and once even faeces at the statue. The intensity of the South African campaign perhaps stemmed from the fact that the statue was more visible to students on a daily basis and it was more obviously a statue of Cecil Rhodes. It may also reflect the sad truth that in the UK it is much easier for us to distance ourselves from colonialism and the atrocities committed by men like Rhodes.
Attempts to decolonise universities and remove iconography which represents racist values or figureheads have become a global student movement, but Rhodes Must Fall Oxford brought the campaign to national attention, forcing many of us to face up to our country’s role in the colonisation of multiple countries and the abuse of so many native peoples. Across America, students have campaigned to remove symbols of slavery that have been ingrained in their institutions. At Harvard, the term ‘house master’ has been dropped for decanal roles due to its connotations of slavery, whilst protesters at the law school successfully campaigned to have remove the Royall family coat of arms from the college’s crest, as the family are renowned for their brutality towards their slaves. (See here and here.) It seems logical that a modern institution that values diversity and inclusion would not want to seemingly endorse a family like the Royalls, or a notorious imperialist like Cecil Rhodes.
Some people believe that it is possible to support some iconography campaigns and not others. The Rhodes Must Fall debate has sparked discussion about whether we should remove statues of Winston Churchill, who, despite being the Prime Minister who helped to defeat the Nazis, also contributed to the starvation of many Indian people – arguably Great Britain’s ‘problematic fave’. For similar reasons, the Black Justice League at Princeton University has campaigned for the names to be changed of buildings celebrating President Woodrow Wilson, a renowned supporter of racial segregation.
It is difficult to justify supporting some iconography campaigns whilst suggesting that others are unnecessary. Though a man like Cecil Rhodes is, to most people, almost impossible to endorse, we print figures like Winston Churchill on our banknotes because we celebrate him as an icon of British history. We can decide who our icons are: who we celebrate, and who we remember less favourably. These issues are complex and multifaceted, but the argument that removing a statue of a historical figure is an attempt to ‘erase history’ is nonsensical. History exists not so we can glorify those who may or may not have served our country well; it exists so that we can learn and not repeat the same mistakes.
Read the rest of The Poor Print‘s special report on Rhodes, Rhodes Must Fall and the Oriel statue here.
References for this feature are included in-line, and are also included in the report’s Complete Bibliography. The Complete Bibliography also links to copies on the Poor Print server of many primary sources linked to in this feature.
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Box updated on 02/01/18.