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Is the Present Crop of Rhodes Scholars the Last?

03 Jul 2020
By Colin Chapman FAIIA
The home of the divisive Rhodes statute, Oriel College. Source: Andrew Shiva / Wikipedia / CC BY-SA 4.0

Black Lives Matter campaigns across the UK have brought the legacy of the Rhodes Trust into the limelight. With racism, colonialism, and the vestiges of historic figures at the forefront of global conversation, the future of the scholarship may be in jeopardy. 

There have been approximately 8,000 beneficiaries of what the Rhodes Trust claims to be the world’s most prestigious scholarship award. They include three Australian prime ministers: Bob Hawke, Tony Abbott, and Malcolm Turnbull. Former United States president Bill Clinton also had a spell at Oxford thanks to Rhodes. Among the 142 Australian Rhodes scholars to study at Oxford University since the scholarship was instituted in 1902 are Kim Beazley, former leader of the opposition and immediate past president of the AIIA; Neal Blewett, a former Labor minister; Creighton Burns, an editor of The Age; the philosopher David Chalmers; businessman Sir Rod Eddington; James Edelman and Dyson Hayden, both High Court judges; novelist Richard Flanagan; and George Gallop, a West Australian premier. A full list can be seen here, together with profiles.

Who was Cecil Rhodes and why is his legacy now in contention? Born in 1853, Rhodes attended Oriel College, Oxford in the early 1870s before founding the De Beers diamond empire in South Africa – a company that now has significant interests in Australia, including the Argyle diamond mine in the Kimberley region. It was as a mining magnate that Rhodes achieved his fortune. He chose to use much of that fortune to fund the Rhodes Trust that finances the scholarships that bear his name. Cecil Rhodes laid claim to much of southern Africa, adding substantially to the British empire. His achievement made him famous, but the manner in which he achieved it now threatens his legacy.

The future of the Rhodes scholarship is in doubt after the successful campaign by the Rhodes Must Fall protest group to have his statue removed from its plinth outside Oriel College, Oxford. Hundreds of chanting demonstrators supporting Black Lives Matter have said the statue is no longer acceptable.

Oriel College’s governors have agreed to remove the statue and find it a new home, almost certainly a museum, saying their decision had been taken “after a thoughtful period of debate and reflection.” The university has set up an independent commission chaired by the master of St Cross College to inquire into the Rhodes legacy, including the future of the Rhodes scholarship. It will also look at ways Britain’s most prestigious university can offer more support for black and ethnic minority students.

The decision to remove the statue from its prominent position overlooking one of Oxford’s busiest thoroughfares was taken as the Black Lives Matter campaign in Britain reached its crescendo, following the wave of anti-racism demonstrations that swept the world after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, United States. The demonstrations and protest marches have particular resonance in Britain, given events involving Conservative government ministers, including prime minister Boris Johnson. The government has recently been forced to make a public apology for the Windrush scandal, in which Home Office officials sought to deport the British-born children of Caribbean immigrants brought to the UK in the 1950s and 1960s to fill an urgent need for labour, especially as bus drivers and railway and health workers. A damning official inquiry found at least 83 people were deported illegally, and many more rounded up by police on Home Office instructions and held in detention pending deportation. They lost their jobs, homes, and human rights.

It would be wrong to imagine the British protests as solely related to Floyd’s death. There have been a number of well chronicled incidents of police actions against Black people. The most recent include official figures from the Office of National Statistics stating that Black men are three times more likely to die from COVID-19 than their white counterparts. The Johnson government omitted the section of the Department of Health report which dealt with the impact of COVID-19 on black and other ethnic minorities and when, after media pressure, it was finally published he promised a more detailed investigation. On Monday, the Wall Street Journal, in a front-page article, made the interesting observation that these statistics emerged despite the country having a universal health care system free at the point of delivery. However, the NHS has a rich data bank. Public Health England suggested part of the discrepancy could be because those of black and other ethnic minority backgrounds had high rates of diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity- factors that increase the risk of death if COVID-19 is contracted. Clinicians, quoted in an extensive analysis, say the main drivers of these conditions are social, not biological. These factors are caused by the fact that blacks, on average, are poorer than whites and often live in deprived areas, experience poor education and tend to work in jobs at greater risk to infection. While this may not amount to racism in the strict sense of the word, it is evidently a powerful catalyst for protest in Britain.

Last week, Cressida Dick, commissioner of the Metropolitan Police was forced to apologise to the family of two black women found murdered in a London park. Two police officers were suspended from duty after it was revealed they had taken “selfies” of themselves beside the dead bodies. The victims’ mother, the first female Church of England archdeacon from a black and ethnic minority background, suggested the officers’ alleged actions “spelt volumes to the ethos that runs through the Metropolitan Police.” Commissioner Dick described the incident as “shocking and disgusting.”

Despite these incidents, it would be quite wrong to view Britain as a racist country any more than you would apply that label to Australia. Racism exists, but it must be said that most of the thousands of Black Lives Matter protesters up and down the country were peaceful. They cooperated with police even when hundreds of National Front supporters, anarchists and other motley groups with different motives, attacked both other protesters and the police with bottles and other missiles. When a senior police officer intervened, suggesting a large group of BLM banner bearers pack up for their own safety, they did so.

The BLM movement has also made other gains, by far the most significant being the support of the Premier League football (post-COVID-19, its remaining 180 or so games are being played in empty grounds but televised and distributed worldwide). The shirts of all players bore the message “Black Lives Matter” and before each game rival teams formed a large circle on bended knee, silently endorsing the same message.

The way history it is taught in schools is also a core, though diminishing, part of the UK protests. This is not a new issue. Discussion on whether to take Rhodes’ statue down has been controversial for many years, and its removal will not change that. In a university city, where views on history wars are elegantly expressed, opinions are polarized. At one extreme, Rhodes is depicted as an English version of Hitler. The view of 2015 doctoral student Brian Kwoba that Rhodes was responsible for “stealing land, massacring tens of thousands of black Africans, imposing a regime of unspeakable labor exploitation in the diamond mines and devising pro-apartheid policies” has been much quoted in the British media.

There is no doubt that Rhodes played a powerful, arguably even the major, role in the expansion of the former British Empire in Southern and East Africa. Zimbabwe, formerly Rhodesia, was named after him. The protesters in Oxford claim that Rhodes was a white supremist, citing his role in the establishment of apartheid in South Africa and his time as prime minister of the South African Cape Colony.

Yet his story is also one of an enterprising buccaneer. The son of an Essex-based Anglican priest, Cedric Rhodes went to southern African aged 16 to recover from consumption. He worked as a manual labourer on his elder brother’s cotton farm and later became involved in diamond discoveries in the area. By the time he returned to England, aged 20, he had made enough money to pay for his studies at Oxford University, where he stayed for 8 years. He never looked back, returning to southern Africa to acquire and develop vast swathes of land for mining and agriculture.

The Oxford Commission will not find it easy to dismantle or rename the Rhodes scholarship. The funding comes from the Rhodes Trust, set up by the mining mogul in his later years for the benefit of overseas students. It will not be possible to give the scholarship another name. The University will not want to forego an important source of funding.  If the Trust wished to divert the money elsewhere there could be legal barriers.

Like it or not, Rhodes is an essential part of UK history, however much some would like to rewrite it. Those who argue for the Rhodes name to be remembered believe it wrong to whitewash over the darker elements of Britain’s past. There is no doubt that history should be better taught in British schools, with less “1066 and all that” and focus on the foibles of Kings and Queens, and much more of the rise and fall of the British Empire. Rather than ban the word Rhodes, why not stop singing “Land of Hope and Glory,” however much Boris Johnson may like it?

Colin Chapman is a writer, broadcaster and public speaker, who specialises in geopolitics, international economics, and global media issues. He is a former president of AIIA NSW and was appointed a fellow of the AIIA in 2017.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.