Shortly before Christmas 2015, Oriel College announced its intention to remove a plaque commemorating its controversial benefactor, Cecil Rhodes, and to stage a “listening exercise” about dismantling his statue, which overlooks Oxford’s High Street. Lobbied by the local manifestation of South Africa’s Rhodes Must Fall (rmf) movement, the college publicly repudiated Rhodes’s “colonialist” and “racist” views, claiming that they stand in “absolute contrast” to “the values of a modern university,” not least diversity and inclusion.

Seven weeks later, however, Oriel made an abrupt U-turn. In the wake of an overwhelmingly hostile reaction in the press and from alumni, together with the desertion of some donors, the college reversed its position. Instead of removing the plaque and the statue, it resolved merely to add an explanation of historical context. “The College believes,” it announced, “the recent debate has underlined that the continuing presence of these historical artifacts is an important reminder of the complexity of history and of the legacies of colonialism still felt today. By adding context, we can help draw attention to this history, do justice to the complexity of the debate, and be true to our educational mission.”

We ought to tolerate the public celebration of morally ambiguous heroes.

That was the right and reasonable stance to take, and the very good news is that Oriel College got there in the end. The bad news is that it nearly didn’t. And that fact bears some reflection. Why was it that the Governing Body of an Oxford college—replete with very highly educated and experienced adults—came so close to capitulating to the shouty zealotry of a small group of students?

Of course, if the proponents of rmf are correct about the past, if “imperialism” and “colonialism” were simply and grossly evil and Rhodes simply and grossly wicked, then the Fellows of Oriel should have capitulated. Whereas we ought to tolerate the public celebration of morally ambiguous heroes—those being the only kind available to us—we probably shouldn’t tolerate human manifestations of the Devil incarnate.

So were the student supporters of rmf correct? Did they get their history right? Was Cecil Rhodes diabolical?

The case against him was this: that he held black Africans in contempt as racially inferior; that he sought to abolish their voting rights in the Cape Colony; that he supported racial segregation and laid the foundations of the policy of apartheid; that he promoted forced labor and reduced miners in his diamond mines to slaves; that he invaded and stole the ancestral lands of the Ndebele; and that he promoted genocide against them (and the Afrikaners). In short, Rhodes was South Africa’s Hitler.

I have refuted these charges at length elsewhere (“Rhodes, Race, and Empire,” Standpoint, March 2016). Here let me focus for a few minutes on the quotation attributed to Rhodes and deployed by rmf in its petition to Oriel to substantiate some of the main charges: “I prefer land to niggers . . . the natives are like children. They are just emerging from barbarism . . . one should kill as many niggers as possible.” This was taken verbatim from either a 2010 essay or a 2006 book review from which the essay draws. The author of both is Adekeye Adebajo, a former Rhodes Scholar, who is now the executive director of the Centre for Conflict Resolution in Cape Town.

If all (or much) of this were true, then Rhodes would surely deserve to fall from public grace. But it’s not. The “quotation” is, in fact, made up from three different quotations drawn from three different sources. The first was lifted from an 1897 novel by Olive Schreiner, who oscillated violently between worshipping Rhodes and loathing him: it is fiction. The second was misleadingly torn from its proper context. And the third is a mixture of distortion and fabrication.

With the fiction I will deal no further.

But what should we make of “the natives are like children. They are just emerging from barbarism”? It’s true that Rhodes thought that black Africans were generally inferior to the British in terms of cultural development. He had good reason to think that. After all, whether in terms of science or technology or communications or commerce or liberal political life, late-nineteenth-century Britain was many, many miles ahead of any indigenous southern African society. And in important respects British civilization was morally superior, too. Just as we twenty-first century moderns react with moral indignation against forced marriage, the honor-killing of women, capital punishment without fair trial, militaristic society, slavery, and the wicked cruelty of despots, so our Victorian Christian forebears railed against the abominable practices of the Zulu and Ndebele.

Nevertheless, Rhodes believed that black Africans could become civilized. He did not regard them as biologically inferior. This is important, because if one regards a people as biologically inferior and incapable of development, then that is a reason to exclude them permanently from participation in their own government. But that was not how Rhodes saw things. In a speech of 1894 he made this quite clear: “Now, I say the natives are children. They are just emerging from barbarism. They have human minds . . . . We ought to do something for the minds and the brains that the Almighty has given them. I do not believe that they are different from ourselves.” (Note what Dr. Adebajo chose not to include in the second part of his composite quotation.)

Rhodes was disposed to let his lofty ends justify recourse to dubious means.

Which brings us to the most damning quotation—“one should kill as many niggers as possible”—which is the main ground of the charge that Rhodes was South Africa’s Hitler. The earliest source for this, however, is Dr. Adebajo’s book review of Paul Maylam’s 2005 biography in the Times Literary Supplement (July 28, 2006). Not one of Rhodes’s several dozen biographies reports it, not even Maylam’s.

A similar quotation—though ad hoc rather than general in form and lacking the word “niggers”—does appear in Gordon Le Sueur’s 1913 biography, which Maylam cites. The setting is the 1896 Matabele War. The Company’s men have just discovered that the Ndebele are about to launch another attack, shortly after losing a previous battle. On asking how many of the enemy had been killed in the first encounter, Rhodes is told that very few had been, since they’d thrown down their arms and begged for mercy. Then Rhodes (reportedly) responds, “Well, you should not spare them. You should kill all you can, as it serves as a lesson to them when they talk things over at their fires at night.” In other words, “Next time don’t give quarter, but kill all you can. Otherwise, they’ll only come back to attack again.”

Whatever moral evaluation one makes of this advice—given on the battlefield of a conflict undisciplined by any international laws of war—it is a world removed from a recommendation of a general policy of genocide aimed at black Africans. Therefore the allegation that Rhodes said “One should kill as many niggers as possible” is a false claim, which appears to be based on a sexed-up version of Le Sueur’s report—a version that has been completely abstracted from its historical context and to which the word “niggers” has been added.

Cecil Rhodes was no Hitler. But nor, of course, was he a St. Francis. Convinced that the extension of British rule was commensurate with human progress, Rhodes was disposed to let his lofty ends justify recourse to dubious means, both in business and in politics.

Moreover, as a typical entrepreneur he was an impatient man, who preferred founding things to managing them: hence his culpably negligent delegation of the administration of Matabeleland in 1893–96. And his impatience sometimes made him a reckless gambler, most notoriously in his support for the fateful Jameson Raid.

Further still, for most of his life (up until 1896) Rhodes’s overriding concern was the reconciliation of Afrikaner and Briton within the British Empire. This was an entirely reasonable concern, since tension between them had broken out into open war in 1880 and would do so again in 1899. Since one of the bones of contention was the Afrikaner ill-treatment of black Africans, however, the price of reconciliation—at least in the short term—was the compromise of native interests. And this Rhodes was willing to pay, arguably, too often.

To his credit, however, although Rhodes succeeded in becoming extraordinarily rich while still a young man, he wasn’t fixated on wealth for its own sake. He didn’t use it to feather his own nest or that of his kin. He tended to live quite frugally and didn’t build himself multiple palaces. He wanted money in order to give him the power to realize his political purposes—namely, the economic development of southern Africa and the reconciliation of its warring parts within the British Empire. He used his riches and his power for public, not private, ends. If only the same could always be said of her current rulers, South Africa today would be a much happier place.

The truth about the past was of no interest to the activists.

What’s more, Rhodes’s achievement in developing southern Africa’s economy was prodigious: in addition to helping establish the diamond and gold industries, and reforming the banking system, he was assiduous in promoting progressive agriculture, establishing fruit farms, and extending railway and telegraphic communications.

Finally, his color-blind scholarship scheme has become the most famous and prestigious educational programme of its kind, creating a global community of public leaders with a common root in one of the Western world’s leading sites of higher learning.

I have dwelt on the history in order to demonstrate that the grounds on which the Rhodes Must Fall activists demanded the purging of public space of any sign of Rhodes are at very least un-nuanced and at very worst fraudulent. This raises a question about the content of university education. The activists were members of one of the world’s most prestigious seats of higher learning, and their leaders had all been admitted to postgraduate study. Had these students not been taught to read texts—especially the messy text of human history—with close and careful attention? Had they not been trained to proportion claim strictly to evidence? Had they not been warned to beware of their own biases and not to rely on a single congenial source? Had they not been told that academic virtues apply outside the classroom, too? Apparently not. So what were their teachers doing?

The second remarkable feature of the rmf activists is that the truth about the past was of no interest to them. I made my views known in public in the London Times newspaper in December, in an Oxford Union debate in January, and in Standpoint magazine in March. No one at all, let alone any rmf member, has challenged my account then or since. The truth about the past, and the duty to do justice to it, is of no interest at all. History is merely an armory from which to draw politically useful weapons.

But useful in what cause? On the day that the rmf students presented their petition to Oriel, I observed about eighty of them gathered outside the college. Before their leader led them in rehearsals of ritual chanting, she exhorted everyone who had been “victimized” by Oxford University to raise their hands. One hand shot up, followed by three uncertain ones. A prominent complaint was that Oxford’s curricula are too white and male. To which the sensible retort is, “Well, that might be true. So tell us which texts you think should go, which texts should replace them, and why the latter are better than the former.” To my knowledge, no such substantial proposal was made at the time, nor has any been forthcoming since. The quantity of adamant indignation dramatically outstrips the paucity of grievance. What, then, explains the gap? It is hard not to fill it with ambitious egos lusting for the limelight as Radical Crusaders.

A third feature of the rmf group was that they comprised a small minority. Just over 2,000 people signed up in support. On the generous assumption that they were all Oxford University students, that amounts to about 10 percent of the student body. They were a small minority, but an intimidating one. During the Oxford Union debate, every statement by an rmf proponent met promptly with a storm of cheers and applause. If you were not paying attention, you would have thought that the audience was overwhelmingly supportive of rmf. But at one moment I decided to look rather than listen, and I observed that, during the storm of applause, most of those present were actually sitting on their hands. In the days after the debate, several students went out of their way to tell me that they had felt inhibited from expressing dissent.

History is merely an armory from which to draw politically useful weapons.

Which brings us from students to dons. rmf was seriously wrong about the past, and unbelievably arrogant in its present self-certainty. I am told that, when they presented their petition, they refused even to look upon the Fellows, lest they countenance the college’s reluctance to repent. Nevertheless, instead of doing their pedagogical duty and insisting that the students enter into a responsible, rational discussion, Oriel’s dons capitulated. Why?

I can only speculate, since I was not there. But speculation need not be uninformed. Maybe a handful of Fellows shared the students’ ideological zeal, being absolutely convinced that “imperialism” and “colonialism” are synonymous with racist contempt and the grave violation of human rights, and that Rhodes, being an avowed imperialist, was surely guilty of both. Others, less dogmatically trammeled but no more historically expert, were caught in the headlights of ideological abstractions such as “imperialism,” “colonialism,” and “racism”—all of them heavy-laden with negative moral evaluations—which cannot currently be interrogated in public without attracting instant outrage and considerable risk to one’s moral reputation.

Notwithstanding this dismal chapter, there were hopeful elements, and the story as a whole had a happy ending. From the beginning there was a brave minority of Oriel Fellows who argued against capitulation. Eventually, after reflection provoked by the debate in the press—and not just because of donor-desertion, as the Daily Telegraph reported—a majority of dons voted to un-capitulate. Meanwhile, both the Chancellor and the Vice-Chancellor of the University spoke out strongly against the doctrine of “safe spaces” and in favor of adult exposure to irritating difference as an opportunity to flex the muscles of liberal tolerance.

Thankfully, therefore, the tale turned out to be comic rather than tragic. But what is its moral? One candidate is this. Most people were not persuaded by rmf’s case, but, feeling unsure of their grounds, they kept their mouths shut. So the zealous certainty of a minority tied the tongues of an uncertain majority. If that is not to be repeated, then the majority need to be given greater confidence that what they think can be said in public without risking social death, because they are not, in fact, alone in thinking it. Hence the vital public role of magazines such as Standpoint and The New Criterion, not only as sources of politically incorrect viewpoints, but also as springs of dissident courage.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 35 Number 5, on page 45
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