Rhodes must stay: destroying the past is a mark of tyranny

A vandalised statue of Rhodes in South Africa. But will he fall in England too? (AP Photo/Schalk van Zuydam)

When the Emperor Caracalla had his co-ruler and brother Geta murdered, in 211 AD, he also decreed that all inscriptions that refereed to Geta should be effaced, and all images of Geta should be destroyed. Today, you can still see the way the inscription on the arch of Septimius Severus in the Roma Forum has been altered. A few images of Geta survive, however, so the damnatio memoriae was not as thorough as it might have been.

The idea of getting rid of images or other memorials to people who have fallen from favour is not unknown in English history. Henry VIII, on divorcing Katharine of Aragon, decided to have all the H and K monograms reworked as H and A, to celebrate his new love, Anne Bullen. When she fell, they had to be altered, though a few did survive, notably in King’s College Chapel, Cambridge. The erasure of memorials to people whose time of favour was passed perhaps explains why there are no verifiable portraits in existence of the unfortunate Queen Katharine Howard, with one possible exception, in stained glass, in King’s College Chapel as well.

Some years ago, you may remember, following revelations about the sexual life of the great artist Eric Gill, there was a campaign to remove or cover up his Stations of the Cross in Westminster Cathedral.  Luckily, the Cathedral authorities had the courage not to give in to this request. To quote then Bishop (now Archbishop) George Stack: “There was no consideration given to taking these down. A work of art stands in its own right. Once it has been created it takes on a life of its own.”

Right now controversy rages at Oriel College, Oxford. My hope is that the College, backed by the University, will be courageous and refuse to listen to this very silly campaign to have Rhodes’ statue removed. To give way over the statue would only invite the campaigners to turn their attention to Rhodes House and the Rhodes scholarships. But that is not the real reason for rejecting the removal of the statue, though it should be an important strategic consideration.

The real reason for keeping the statue is that the custom of damnatio memoriae is something we associate, not accidentally either, with tyrannies: Caracalla was a tyrant, and so was Henry VIII. Stalin loved to have his enemies erased from history, and he was the greatest of tyrants. Hitler wanted the Jews to be erased. The desire to have Rhodes removed from history springs from a tyrannical political correctness that denies that Rhodes did anything good, and that any celebration of his memory can be justified. But the truth is that there was a lot of good about Rhodes, and that he is a man worth remembering. He may not have been a saint, but this world produces few saints; he is certainly not worthy of damnation.

The anti-Rhodes brigade refuses to see any nuance in history. Their view of Rhodes is entirely negative, for their judgment is based on a willed morality that has little to do with any balanced consideration of evidence, or any realization that there may be two sides to every story.

My own position is that statues should be left well alone. They are part of our history, and they remind us of who we are. Cecil Rhodes, for better or for worse, is one of us. We had better deal with that. So too is Henry VIII: there are several statues of him still around, which I would not want to see touched, even though he is hardly my favourite monarch. But you can’t erase history; rather you should learn from it. Isn’t that one of the things you learn at university?