It can be easier to rename a country than to tear down a statue. The founder of the African colony of Rhodesia (part of present-day Zimbabwe), Cecil Rhodes, continues to preside over the entrance of the Oriel College, one of the oldest academic institutions at the University of Oxford. Above kings and, of course, former rectors. A donation in 1902 of 100,000 pounds sterling from the former student – some 14.5 million euros today – served to immortalize in stone his prevalence over George V or Edward VII, who occupy a more modest place in the row of six monuments at the feet of the colonialist businessman. 150 academics have refused to teach on campus as long as that image is kept on the façade. An independent commission, created by the rectory, has proposed to withdraw it. Thousands of people stood on Oxford’s High Street, last June, in the midst of a pandemic, to demand the disappearance of the symbol of a colonial and supremacist past. All in vain. “Regulatory and financial obstacles”, has alleged the rector, have led to the decision that the statue stay where it is.
The Rhodes case It is the latest skirmish in the battle for colonial history that is being fought in the United Kingdom of Brexit between those who are willing to review it, whoever falls, and those who ask not to judge the past with the glasses of the present. “For a group of people in this city, a single surname in particular, Rhodes, has been a serious problem for many years. I think we’ll end up seeing the statue collapse. I just trust that I can still see it. ” Danny Dorling is 53 years old, was born in Oxford and returned there, after an academic tour of England. He is Professor of Geography at the University’s School of Geography and Environment. He is also one of the signatories of the manifesto against the monument. But above all, it is the perfect guide to understand what is at stake around a stone. Your book, Rule Britannia (“Rule, Britain, rule the waves”, the song symbolizing British imperial patriotism like no other), signed with Sally Tomlinson, was the necessary best seller to understand what many of those who gave themselves to the Brexit dream were missing. “For some people, that colonial past offers them a sign of identity, it tells them who they are. Many of them are rich and powerful. But they have managed to include poorer people on their side, those racist teenagers from the 1970s, who are now over fifty years old, ”Dorling laments.
For some, the colonial past offers a hallmark. Many of them are rich and powerful
The spread in the UK of the Black Lives Matter movement, which emerged across the Atlantic, caught the conservative government of Boris Johnson by surprise. Not so much by forgetfulness as by an ideological and cultural entrenchment that prevents questioning the past and its myths in an honest way. Of the last 14 prime ministers the UK has had, 11 have studied at Oxford, Conservatives and Labor. The definitive dismantling of the Empire, in the middle of the 20th century, and the massive arrival on the island of population from the colonies, has caused constant ebbs and flows of racist episodes: the bloody confrontations of Notting Hill, which finally led to the popular carnival of that London neighborhood; the creation of the British Black Panthers; the Mangrove Nine trial, the activists who incited protests after a police raid on that Caribbean restaurant … and so on for seven decades, in which progressive – but also patronizing – legislation attempted to repair inequalities. “All great empires tend to be a bit hypocritical during their slow decline,” explains Dorling. “They have told themselves a story of superiority and greatness, and they have created a military and administrative system in which they have displaced many people to the colonies and have forged attitudes.”
The spread in the United Kingdom of the Black Lives Matter movement, which emerged on the other side of the Atlantic, caught the conservative government of Boris Johnson by surprise
And some of those inherited attitudes were reluctant to understand the reasons why an exalted mob finally brought down the statue of Edward Colston, in the center of Bristol, a year ago, and celebrated the moment when the city’s hero ended up in the background. from the pier. Through the Royal African Company, the businessman transported more than 80,000 slaves from Africa to North America in the 17th century. With his donations, hospitals and schools emerged in the British city. Few mourned the disappearance of the monument, recovered from the waters and now conveniently hidden in a discreet municipal museum, where, vandalized and lying, it is exposed to the public.
It was the campaign that unleashed that alerted the government. The website Topple The Racists (Take Down the Racists) identified at least 78 statues across the country that deserved the same fate, including that of Cecil Rhodes, but also some of Christopher Columbus or the explorer and cartographer James Cook. Downing Street reacted immediately with a new policy dubbed Retain and Explain (Preserve and Explain), which imposed many legal and administrative obstacles to the possibility of removing a monument.
The argument was easy to sell: the past is not censored. It is preserved for future generations and its context is conveniently explained. “All of these statues reflected the preferences of the people at the time, not just a single narrative or official doctrine,” argued Robert Jenrick, Britain’s Minister for Municipal Policy. It was logical that he should be the one to lead the strategy, because the vast majority of councils governed by Labor have been willing to review their artistic heritage. “They are of a huge variety. Some very loved, others hated, but all part of the fabric of our rich history and our architectural environment, “said the politician.
The apparent good intentions of the law mean that many complex situations end up in limbo of frustration. Even the great museums, which have been immersed in a process of “decolonization” for years to explain the origin and circumstances of their collections, face the suspicion of patrons or the lack of precise knowledge of their experts. The most notorious case has been that of the Rex Whistler mural that adorns the Tate Britain restaurant. Allegory The Expedition in Pursuit of Rare Meats It was commissioned in 1926, but some of its representations are uncomfortable, by racists, in 2021.
The debate leads to a trap with a difficult exit: Where is the limit of the review? “For me it is something very simple: we must allow people to question their environment and continue to ask questions for the next 20 or 30 years. Because racism is not the past, it still exists ”, reflects Dorling. Not an Oxford stone would be saved if its origin were traced to the end. The British Empire did not build a Colosseum, like the Roman Empire, but hundreds of train stations throughout Great Britain. He spread the wealth of his activities throughout the country, so that all were accomplices and beneficiaries. To reconcile with such a recent past it is not enough to tear down statues, although some, more than others, are increasingly unbearable.