Living with History, Part I

The University of Cape Town’s statue of Rhodes comes down, April 9, 2015. (Nardus Engelbrecht/Gallo/Getty)
The ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ movement and the questions it evokes

Editor’s Note: In the current issue of National Review, we have a piece called “‘Rhodes Must Fall’: The rights and wrongs of a movement,” by Jay Nordlinger. Starting today, under the rubric of his Impromptus column, Mr. Nordlinger expands this piece in a series.

Cecil Rhodes had a rocky 2015. He died in 1902, at the age of 48. His last words, according to lore, were, “So little done; so much to do.” He did a lot, in that relatively brief life. He made British colonialism boom in southern Africa. He also made a fortune in diamonds. He was virtually a stereotype of British imperial energy.

Was he a racist? Oh, yes, certainly in this sense: He believed that he and his fellow Brits were the superior race. He wanted to bring the world — the entire world — under its aegis. His ambition did not exclude the “recovery” of the United States (as he put it).

‐I love something that Rhodes said: “Remember that you are an Englishman, and have consequently won first prize in the lottery of life.” This may sound like a boast. But I think it was a reminder to an Englishman to be grateful: Through no effort or merit of his own, he was born into the leading country.

‐On dying in 1902, Rhodes left his entire fortune to public works — a considerable variety of them. In this, he was like Alfred Nobel, the explosives magnate from Sweden. Neither one ever married or had children. Both wanted their money to advance mankind. The wills they wrote were imbued with idealism.

‐I mentioned Rhodes’s rocky 2015. (Isn’t that a flavor of ice cream? Rocky road?) I also mentioned his will. In it, he left the University of Cape Town the land on which the main campus now sits. There is accordingly a statue of Rhodes on that land. Or was.

For decades, people grumbled about the statue — and the grumblers very much included Afrikaners, who resented Rhodes as a great symbol and leader of their enemy: the British.

In March 2015, students at the university decided that the statue of Rhodes at last had to go — or, as they put it in their hashtag, “#RhodesMustFall.” Did they go about their protest in an orderly, logical, civilized way? Don’t be silly. Students don’t have the time or patience for that now.

First, they smeared excrement on the statue (human excrement). Then they occupied a university building, making numerous demands. And they revived an old radical slogan: “One settler, one bullet!”

It took a month for the university to cave. Down went the statue. And the kids got a black-studies program.

‐Eight months later, in December, the “Rhodes Must Fall” movement moved to Oxford. This was Rhodes’s alma mater. He attended one of its colleges, Oriel, in the 1870s. His will included a great deal of money for the university — some of which was used for a building at Oriel, the Rhodes Building. It has a modest statue of the donor.

This is the Rhodes that “must fall.”

There was also money for the scholarships, of course — the famous Rhodes Scholarships, which have now gone to almost 8,000 people. Rhodes wanted to help students who had, among other qualities, “moral force of character and instincts to lead.” Our Bill Clinton was a recipient. He certainly had instincts, or the desire, to lead.

Rhodes aimed, in his scholarships, to promote harmony between nations and reduce the likelihood of war. His contemporary from Sweden, Nobel, had the same impulse.

‐At Oxford, the anti-Rhodes movement has been led by a law student from South Africa, Ntokozo Qwabe. He is a proud radical. After the Islamist attacks on Paris in November — attacks that murdered 130 people — he was disgusted. At the widespread sympathy for France.

“I do NOT stand with France,” Qwabe wrote. “Not while it continues to terrorise and bomb Afrika & the Middle East for its imperial interests.” (The young man makes a practice of spelling “Africa” with a “k.” I know why the American radicals of yore spelled “America” with a “k.” Why Qwabe does it to “Africa,” I don’t know.) He also called for the banning of the French flag on campuses such as Oxford’s. He likened the tricolor to the Nazi swastika. (Another word with a “k”!)

Interestingly, Qwabe is a Rhodes Scholar. It stands to reason that he has been accused of hypocrisy: benefiting from Rhodes’s largesse while trying to tear him down.

I give you Mary Beard, the classicist: “I really don’t think you can have your cake and eat it — you can’t whitewash Rhodes out of history but go on using his cash.”

(I pause for a language note: When Brits use that expression — “have your cake and eat it too” — they leave out the “too.” The “too” is strictly ours, strictly American.)

The charge of hypocrisy, Ntokozo Qwabe furiously denies. “I’m no beneficiary of Rhodes,” he has written. “I’m a beneficiary of the resources and labour of MY people which Rhodes pillaged and enslaved.” In the mind of this young man, all he is doing is “taking back crumbs of the colonial loot of Rhodes & his colonial cronies.”


‐Amazingly, Oriel College has not yet taken down its Rhodes statue. It says that it will review the matter over a six-month period. From what we know about university administrators — especially where racial pressure is involved — I wouldn’t bet the ranch on the statue’s retention.

I’m sometimes tempted to think, “The Left always gets its way.” I occasionally cite an old slogan out of Canada: “The Mountie always gets his man.” Isn’t that true of the Left? Don’t they always get their way?

No, that’s too cynical. And let me quote from the Daily Mail, on the Rhodes-at-Oxford business:

Numerous critics have condemned the proposed removal as an act of intellectual vandalism and moral cowardice, based on ignorance, with ugly implications for our cultural heritage.

Typical is the view of Britain’s most distinguished historian, Sir Michael Howard, an Honorary Fellow of Oriel and former Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford.

He’s added his voice to the protest against what he calls ‘the attempt to rewrite the history of the college and the university’. He says expunging the contribution of Rhodes would be comparable to the destruction of historical sites by ISIS in Syria.

He has urged all past and present members of Oriel College to strengthen the hand of the governing body ‘by making clear their disgust at this kind of fanatical iconoclasm’.

I ought to note that Michael Howard, the historian, is not to be confused with Michael Howard, the politician, and former leader of the Conservative party. Although they may have views in common.

‐Like you, perhaps, I find some of Rhodes’s views unsavory, and some others repulsive, I’m sure. Yet I would be perfectly relaxed about him on a building. Would I think differently if I were a black African, or a black anything? Or if I were of Afrikaans descent, for that matter?

There is an old saying, wise: One can bear lightly the injuries done to others.

I think that’s enough for one day. Thanks for joining me. I’ll resume tomorrow.


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