Tear it down, Oriel

I was brought up in Rhodesia, the country named after Cecil Rhodes, so I’m quite interested in the current controversy about the removal of his statue outside Oriel College in Oxford.

The supporters of Rhodes and other champions of British imperial history, argue that it was people like him who made Britain “great”, and “civilised” the countries they conquered. They talk about the thousands of miles of railways, and imposing colonial architecture. Whilst those things may indeed still be used by the native populations there today, that was never their original purpose. Railways were laid to help transport stolen minerals and other products of slavery as quickly as possible back to Britain, and to move British soldiers efficiently around hostile lands. And the fine colonial buildings were built to facilitate the administration of the plundering and oppression, and provide opulent luxury for the oppressors. None of it was done to help the natives; it was done to exploit and steal from them, and crush any resulting dissent.

If Rhodes and his kind had indeed tried to improve the lives of the people of the foreign lands they looted, the catastrophic revolutions that tore through the British Empire after WW2 may never have happened. In the 1960s, for example, almost nothing was provided by the followers of Rhodes for the natives of Rhodesia. We white-skinned sons of empire, a mere 5% of the population, went to fine schools, had good health care, great sports clubs, public swimming pools and spacious parks – access to which was either wholly forbidden to black-skinned people or severely restricted. I clearly remember the public buses and toilets labelled “whites only”, the fine railways that 95% of the population couldn’t use – except for riding in filthy, overcrowded, rickety third class carriages; I remember the shops, hotels, restaurants and bars that black people could work in but not use.

In the African tribal lands schools and health clinics were few and far between, very basic, and more likely to be run by Catholic missionaries rather than the government. Black-skinned people could only work as labourers, domestic servants or do other menial jobs that white people didn’t want to do. They couldn’t take managerial positions or serve as officers in the police or army. They couldn’t vote or stand in elections. When I worked on Rhodesia Railways, as late as 1979, black people weren’t even allowed to become train drivers because, it was said, they weren’t clever enough. We white people lived in pampered comfort in exclusive leafy suburbs, whilst the black-skinned people who provided our comfort were forced to live out of sight in sheds at the bottom of the garden, or miles away in segregated overcrowded shameful townships. This was the true legacy of Rhodes and his kind.

Tear down his statue, Oriel, and smash it to atoms.

John Andrews is a writer and political activist based in England. His latest booklet is entitled EnMo Economics. Other Non Fiction books by John are: The School of Kindness; The People’s Constitution; and his fiction novel: The Road to Emily Bay. Read other articles by John.