The End of the Rhodes

Photograph: Dr Jack Doyle

On Sunday, a statue of Edward Colston, former Tory MP and slave trader, was toppled in Bristol. I found this out the same way as many, through social media. Joining thousands on the streets last week at several Black Lives Matter protests, demonstrating against the insidious systemic racism in Britain, as well as in solidarity with protestors all over the world, I enjoyed a few moments of satisfaction that these protests had achieved something tangible.  Then, I carried on with what I was doing at the time which was calling various people on the internet a silly billy.

Recently, I deleted a former friend on Facebook. He describes himself as ‘one of those liberal conservative people.’ Often posting badly fact-checked articles on Facebook, he has many liberal friends who try to change his mind to no avail. Over the last week or so, his vitriol became stronger and less cohesive. I was hit with the realisation that I was stupidly trying to argue against visceral feeling with logical argument. I finally spoke my mind and realised the great pleasure that comes from not filtering your words. I took my newfound manifesto to Twitter. Armed with the simple freedom created from  not having the emotional burden of convincing those who simply refused to consider any rebuttal, I found great satisfaction in making them as furious as humanly possible. Which I was able to do by calling them two patronising little words: silly billy

These people are often to be found in the commenting on articles muttering about Megan Markle, parroting lines about the metropolitan elite or spouting racist bile about Grenfell from Jacob Rees-Mogg, the quintessential caricature of a mid 19th century Tory. Last week he emphasised the lack of his elite upbringing by proclaiming to parliament that “ Nanny is a part of the household”. I’m pretty sure I heard a few grumbles out of the window of a white van, held up by the marchers, “It’s a shame that black fella died, but there’s a time and a place…” Apparently, the inconvenience of being late to work is a greater imposition than the fact that the BME population of Young Offenders is four times higher than their proportion (14%) of the wider UK population.

Would these people (“I’m not racist, but that Tommy Robinson bloke makes some good points”), truly support a statue of Rhodes or Edward Colston going up? This is a man who designed the foundations of apartheid, stole indigenous land, was a self-avowed propellant of white supremacy and was responsible for the deaths of thousands of Africans. Would they really argue for the establishment of a scholarship in his name today? I doubt it. They don’t march to show that #AllLivesMatter until someone suggests that Black Lives do. If you’re arguing with someone who publicly has more empathy for the statue of a slave trader than a single refugee, then you might be fighting a losing battle. They want to preserve the status quo, and that is because they are the status quo; largely white and male. If one was to try and personify the ‘status quo’ of this country it would look like the original Dickensian description of a ‘gammon’, (the term that Nigel Farage unsuccessfully tried to rebrand as a slur against his main supporters):

“‘The meaning of that term—gammon,’ said Mr. Gregsbury, ‘is unknown to me. If it means that I grow a little too fervid, or perhaps even hyperbolical, in extolling my native land…my form dilates, my eye glistens, my breast heaves, my heart swells, my bosom burns, when I call to mind her greatness and her glory.”  

Nicholas Nickleby, Charles Dickens

When Dave from Stoke-on-Trent extols his native land he’s actually talking about calling the army in to stop a necessary and overdue protest. Dave doesn’t care that the recently published BAME report on Coronavirus highlighted the structural racism that directly leads to the disproportionate deaths of people of colour. The “hyperbolical” nature of his fervour ‘for the country’ is just because he feels that people like him are being left behind. It’s not logical- it’s a visceral feeling. Dave doesn’t see the poetic beauty of throwing the statue of a slaver into the very harbour where his ships carrying 100,000 men, women and children (19,000 of which died on the journey) once set sail. Instead, he sees the status quo that has benefited him for so long being overthrown. He may not have had any idea that the statue of Colston existed yesterday, but by God he wants you to know today how much he hates any sort of historical figure being destroyed. “No matter what, it is the history that matters”. One might argue the nuances with him, but I prefer to tweet him back,“bit dodgy mate, that means you think that the statues of Jimmy Saville, also a noted philanthropist, shouldn’t have been torn down either.”

The former director of the V&A said, regarding Rhodes,“Once you start rewriting history on that scale, there won’t be a statue or a historic house standing….The past is the past. You can’t rewrite history.” This is false equivalence;  a statue, in this case the statue of Rhodes in Oriel college is inherently about glorifying the individual it represents, not educating  people. History lessons in Germany aren’t suffering from a dearth of Hitler statues. Similarly, the eponymous scholarship celebrates it’s founder. Rename the scholarship to the Mandela Scholarship, with an addendum saying “formerly known as the Rhodes Scholarship’, if you must. Put Colston in Liverpool’s slavery museum (or perhaps in an exhibition of Bristol’s deep rooted history in the slave trade) and find a similarly appropriate spot for Cecil. Colston and Rhodes belong together, plastered with the people’s words, adorned with seaweed and set alongside each other in a museum; with a plaque describing the men they were and what they represented. Only then will History be fully and completely narrated, with all of parts of the story made visible. The people did this, their story is being clearly told. 

Instead of capitulating to the demands of a few holding the University to ransom, we must act radically and immediately. Rhodes must fall, by any means necessary and become part of history. It must not remain as yet another shameful homage to the colonialism that people talk about dismantling without actually taking meaningful action. 

And if you think otherwise, you are a silly billy.

If you would like to be on the right side of history, my editor has asked me to point you towards the Rhodes protest taking place today from 5pm. Unrelatedly, in an utter coincidence, there are deals on thick rope and angle grinders at Oxford B&Q at the moment.