From David Maughan Brown in York: Britain’s Got Talent At Being Racially Offensive

Cecil Rhodes from Punch 1892 (wikicommons)The Rhodes Colossus: Caricature of Cecil John Rhodes, after he announced plans for a telegraph line and railroad from Cape Town to Cairo.

June 18th Scientists the world over are using their analytic skills to discover more about Covid-19 every day, but they appear not, as yet, to have come to any conclusions as to why the virus, or perhaps the resulting lockdown measures, appear to be having a seriously detrimental effect on the intelligence of prominent ‘leaders’ in our society, even when they don’t show other symptoms.  The last couple of days have evidenced so highly-charged a competition to see who can make the most offensively tone-deaf statements about the ongoing manifestations of the Black Lives Matter protests that one could be forgiven for thinking that one had inadvertently dropped in on the preliminary rounds of a national Britain’s Got Talent At Being Racially Offensive competition.   Boris Johnson’s scintillating record in the field would obviously have guaranteed him a pass directly into the final.

On the off chance that anyone can begin to compete with Boris when the competition gets to that final, my bets are currently on Dominic Raab to come third, and the light horse in the field, Louise Richardson, the current – for how long one wonders – Vice-Chancellor of Oxford, to come second.

Dominic Raab, our Foreign Secretary until such time as the Tory party changes the designation because ‘Foreign’ is such a dirty word, has just been gifted the Department for International Development by Boris because ‘International’ and ‘Development’ are also dirty words, and our English Nationalist Cabinet apparently thinks charity should begin at home.  Other people might think it is ‘Dominic’ that is the dirty word.   Anyone but Boris might even think that a degree of racial sensitivity could be a good idea in a Foreign Secretary, even when his role must be assumed now to include doing away with foreign aid.  But Raab’s latest entry in the competition involves suggesting that the Black Lives Matter symbolism of  ‘taking the knee’ derives from ‘Game of Thrones’ and asserting that he would only do it for the Queen (having once done it for his wife).   That level of crassness does, of course, equip him very well to lead a Little Englander drive to limit International Development. A drive that is so unutterably stupid in its long term implications as to rival the Tories’ parallel obsession with Brexit.   The only way to stem the tide of people flowing towards Europe from Asia and Africa, whether fleeing wars and oppression or driven by climate change, is somehow to make staying in their own countries a better option than trying to get to Europe.   Cutting the funding for foreign aid and international development is a very peculiar thing to do for people in Europe who dislike foreigners and are paranoid about immigration. 

Professor Louise Richardson’s entry for the competition this week was by way of invoking the name of Nelson Mandela as an ally in her argument that the Rhodes statue high above the entrance to Oriel College should not ‘Fall’.  This was in spite of the fact that, after four years of resistance, the governing body of the College has finally voted to remove it.  The Independent carried a report today to the effect that Professor Richards was arguing that Rhodes was a man of ‘great nuance’ and that Mandela had recognised “that we have to acknowledge our past but focus on the future,” and said that hiding history was not the “route to enlightenment”.   Museums, as Professor Richardson obviously knows full well, are buildings which exist for the purpose of ‘storing and exhibiting objects of scientific, cultural and historical interest’, as the OED puts it.   Far from ‘hiding history’, putting that statue, like the infamous Cape Town one, in a museum, would make it possible to contextualise it and confront and understand that history, in all its ugliness.   You can’t do that when the statue is stuck in a niche high above the street, usually noticed only by those who find it profoundly offensive.

Professor Richardson’s enlisting of Mandela in her defence of the Rhodes statue is deeply offensive not just to black people but to all those of us, particularly those of us who were lucky enough to know him, who regarded Mandela with boundless admiration and affection.   He was for many of us, pace the boarded-up statue of Churchill, without question the greatest moral and political leader of the twentieth century.   In response to the ‘hiding history’ brigade, I’ve heard it argued that Germany does not need to have statues of Hitler all over the place in order to confront its 20th century history.  That is obviously true, but the analogy is worth dwelling on.  Rhodes was not responsible for anything equivalent to the holocaust, but it is a fact that he was greatly admired by Hitler who is on record, according to Rhodes’ biographer Antony Thomas, as saying that Rhodes was the only person who understood the historical conditions for maintaining British supremacy, but had been ignored by his own people.  According to the same source, Hitler’s admiration for Rhodes is further evidenced in the former’s statement of his belief that ‘the German people are called by the divine destiny to be the leaders of the world for the glory of the German being as well as for the human race.’  This was, word for word, but for two key words, a direct quotation from the ‘nuanced’ Rhodes:  Hitler had replaced Rhodes’ ‘English ‘ with ‘German.’   Professor Richardson should have known better.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Dickens and the San

June 12th

David Vincent’s very pertinent blog about Charles Dickens, with its vivid quotation from Little Dorrit describing Victorian lockdown in London, raises an interesting issue in the context of the current Black Lives Matter protests.  That relatively short quotation is enough to illustrate Dickens’ excellence as a descriptive writer whose extensive body of fiction fully justifies his reputation as one of England’s leading novelists.   In addition to being a powerful novelist, Dickens was a social reformer whose fiction is regarded as having assisted with bringing about positive social change during the nineteenth century.  But, unsurprisingly perhaps, there were other sides to him, as there were to the ‘philanthropists’ Cecil Rhodes and Edward Colston, not the least of which was, by all accounts, the way he behaved towards his family.

In the context of the Black Lives Matter protests, the mention of Rhodes and Colston in a blog reflecting on Dickens is not inadvertent.   Dickens visited the exhibition of ‘Bushmen’ in the Egyptian Hall in London in 1847, and wrote an article in Household Words in 1853 excoriating the notion of the Noble Savage.  In that article, he announces that he ‘abhors, detests, abominates and abjures’ the ‘horrid little’ leader of the San group on display ‘in his filth and his antipathy to water, and his straddled legs, and his odious eyes shaded by his brutal hand.’  But he goes further than merely expressing his abhorrence when he declares: ‘I have not the least belief in the Noble Savage…. I call a savage something highly desirable to be civilized off the face of the earth… he is a savage – cruel, false, thievish, murderous; addicted more or less to grease, entrails and beastly customs….”  Dickens’s casual countenancing of the genocide which took place in parts of South Africa in the nineteenth century, which is implicit in the desirability of “civilizing” savages off the face of the earth, is made explicit later in the same essay: “All the noble savage’s wars with his fellow savages (and he takes no pleasure in anything else) are wars of extermination – which is the best thing I know of him, and the most comfortable to my mind when I look at him.’

While the language is as vivid, and the description of the San leader as powerful (in this instance as powerfully offensive), as it often is in his fiction, this is clearly not the Dickens of Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol.  In so far as Dickens appears to be advocating genocide, the extent of the explicit racism expressed here goes beyond that of Rhodes and probably, although I haven’t read any of his writings, of Colston.   Colston needed his slaves to be alive if they were going to bring any money in for him; and Rhodes needed black labourers to dig for his diamonds.  So should the Black Lives Matter movement be moving on to have statues of Dickens removed as well, and while they are about it, have his books removed from our library shelves and burned, once all the statues of Victorian slave owners and other overt racists have been removed?

The obvious answer is a resounding “no”.   That, of course, is what anyone would expect from a retired English professor.  But isn’t that a bit hypocritical, coming from someone who has been a strong advocate for the removal of the Rhodes statue at the University of Cape Town, and has expressed regret the Colston’s statue wasn’t removed in response to earlier petitions?  Why not statues of Dickens as well?  The argument that Dickens has enriched our cultural life immeasurably, and that his fiction was promoting progressive social causes won’t wash.  As philanthropists, Rhodes with his scholarships and other donations, and Colston with the money he gave to schools in Bristol will unquestionably have brought social benefit, in spite of the sources of their wealth.  The tired argument that Dickens, like Colston and Rhodes, were ‘men of their time’ isn’t any more convincing.  There were plenty of mid-Victorians who didn’t think that genocide was a good idea.

Leaving aside the obvious argument that burning books isn’t a good idea in principle, there seem to me to be three main arguments for distinguishing between Dickens on the one hand and Rhodes and Colston on the other.  First, Dickens’ abhorrent views about ‘noble savages’ didn’t inform his fiction in any significant way, unlike, for example, the way Wilbur Smith’s racist ideology has informed his best-selling novels and influenced for the worse hundreds of thousands of readers’ racial attitudes in the process.  Second, leading on from that, Dickens’ racial views have not led to thousands of deaths.   The genocidal Afrikaaner settlers who murdered all the San in the Orange Free State were not inspired to do so by having read Dickens’ articles in Household Words.  Third, anybody looking at a statue of Dickens will recognise it as a tribute to an unquestionably important novelist whose major legacy is his body of fiction, not anything he wrote in Household Words.  In fact, perhaps regrettably, the chances of anybody, including any possible San visitors to U.K., knowing anything about his views on the San are vanishingly small, so it is highly unlikely that his statue, unlike those of Rhodes and Colston, is going to be hurtful or offensive to  anyone.   

From David Maughan Brown in York: Colston and Rhodes

June 8th

As I watched last night’s news coverage of the statue of Edward Colston being pulled, Saddam Hussein-like, off its plinth before being dragged to the harbour and thrown into its depths, I wondered how long it would take before the name of Cecil Rhodes was mentioned.  The answer came with today’s BBC 1pm news – just over 15 hours.

There can be no escaping the fact that statues of historical figures are not simply inanimate sculptural artefacts that have been erected as historical records of what their subjects looked like.   They honour particular individuals and embody the values that informed the life-story for which those individuals are recognised.  So Saddam Hussein honoured himself with his many statues, and the destruction of the statue in Bagdad represented a symbolic rejection of the values represented by the statue as well as marking the end of his rule.   Edward Colston’s statue was erected in Bristol towards the end of the nineteenth century ostensibly to honour his very extensive philanthropic legacy in Bristol, but that, critically, was not all he was known for.   Many of the now highly contentious statues of Confederate generals in the Southern United States were not erected at the time of, or shortly after, their deaths but rather in the 1950s and 1960s in tacit opposition to the Civil Rights campaign.  Their erection embodied a particular set of mid-20th century values as much as any 19th Century ones.

The mention of Rhodes by the BBC was via reference to the highly contentious ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ campaign, which started at the University of Cape Town and then spread across South Africa, before being taken up at Oxford.  Its original focus was on a statue of Cecil Rhodes, who had donated the land on which the University was built.  The statue dominated the approach to the University and had to be passed by students walking up the hill to go to lectures, including steadily increasing numbers of black students.   It honoured a very driven man who achieved a remarkable amount in his relatively short life, acquired a vast amount of money, seized a million square miles of land in the process and, like Colston, was a benefactor to many good causes.  But in achieving what he did Rhodes was utterly ruthless, occasioned a great many, mainly black people’s, deaths and operated on the basis of a wholly repugnant racism, best exemplified by his bald five-word statement to the House of Assembly in Cape Town: “I prefer land to Niggers”.   It was Rhodes who pushed the Glen Gray Act, a blueprint for apartheid, through the Cape Parliament in 1894.  How could it possibly be appropriate for a statue bearing that weight of history and racist ideology to preside over the physical access to a post-apartheid South African University?   The statue had been a bone of contention for a number of years before a bucket of excrement thrown over it by a student heralded the protests that led to its final removal by the university.  With hindsight, it would have been far more sensible to celebrate the new dawn in 1994 by having a statue that was bound to be seen as a provocation quietly removed, instead of keeping it in its place of honour for fear of offending the university’s alumni and the more conservative white citizens of Cape Town.

Edward Colston was a very significant benefactor to Bristol, but he only had the money to give away as a result of wealth gained from the transportation across the Atlantic of around 85,000 African slaves.  The presence of the statue, with its highly visible demonstration of implicitly on-going admiration for Colston, had been deeply hurtful to many citizens of Bristol, and the subject of petitions for its removal for many years, to no avail.  It should have been removed via peaceful processes decades ago, as its presence was a gratuitous and wholly unnecessary provocation, just as the statue of Rhodes was.  The much less prominent statue of Rhodes at Oriel College is still in place.  After extensive debate and, one gathers, threats from donors to withhold their donations to the college, it was decided to keep it.   It was argued, as it was in Cape Town, that one shouldn’t judge 18th of 19th century figures on the basis of 21st century values and thereby ‘rewrite history’.   But the decision to retain the statue is not a ‘historical’ decision, it is a contemporary decision made in the context of 21st century values.  It is very difficult to argue that it is not an implicit endorsement of Rhodes’s own repugnant values, which, as it happens, were extreme even for the late nineteenth century, and were regarded with suspicion by many prominent figures in England at the time.

Our hopelessly tone-deaf Boris Johnson and Priti Patel have, with depressing predictability and lack of emotional intelligence, been castigating the ‘vandalism’ and thuggery involved in pulling Colston’s statue down, beating the Law and Order drum to appeal to the elderly Tories in the shires.   For my part I would much prefer Bristol to have found a more orthodox way to remove Colston’s statue long ago, but what I took away from watching the news reports of yesterday’s protests was an unexpected sense of optimism for the future.   The large crowds of mainly young people who took part in the protests were strikingly integrated.   Black Lives Matter very much, and it very clearly isn’t just black people that they matter to.