Saturday 5 December, 2020

Jamaican Rhodes scholars share mixed views on 'Rhodes Must Fall'

iStock photo of bust of Cecil John Rhodes at the Rhodes Memorial in Cape Town, South Africa, shot with fisheye lens. Rhodes was a British imperialist explorer, businessman and politician whose historical reputation is now controversial. He endowed the prestigious Rhodes Scholarships which pay for outstanding international students to study at Oxford University in England.

iStock photo of bust of Cecil John Rhodes at the Rhodes Memorial in Cape Town, South Africa, shot with fisheye lens. Rhodes was a British imperialist explorer, businessman and politician whose historical reputation is now controversial. He endowed the prestigious Rhodes Scholarships which pay for outstanding international students to study at Oxford University in England.

Jamaican Rhodes scholars have joined their voices to the growing chorus of dissent supporting the removal of the Rhodes statue from the Oriel College in Oxford.  

"I support the removal of the Rhodes statue from Oriel College in Oxford and it’s relocation in a museum. In the current context of 'Black Lives Matter', the public display of this statue is unavoidably regarded as symbolizing, even celebrating, the racist, colonial, absolutely unacceptable element in Rhodes’s vision,"  Professor Trevor Munroe, 1966 Jamaica Rhodes Scholar, told Loop News in a statement.

Last week, thousands of anti-racism protestors gathered outside Oxford University's Oriel College with the simple message 'Rhodes Must Fall'. Cecil Rhodes, the industrialist and colonial-era political leader for whom the country Rhodesia, present-day Zimbabwe, was named, benefited greatly from the slave trade and has become a controversial and divisive figure in the decades since his death in 1902 because of his white supremacist leanings.  Rhodes set up the provisions of the Rhodes Scholarship, which is funded by his estate.

"The removal of the statue should not blind us however to the positive in Rhodes’ complex legacy  – in particular the establishment of the Rhodes Trust, the Rhodes Scholarship, and the Rhodes Mandela partnership (welcomed by Nelson Mandela himself in 2003) - all of which continue to fund intellectual distinction, focus on public service and ‘energy to lead ‘ amongst young people, black, white and brown, from Africa, North America, the Caribbean, and most recently, the Middle East, South Asia, and China. Notably the all male, obsolete aspect of Rhodes bequest was justifiably jettisoned by the Rhodes Trustees in the 1970s and the scholarship then opened to women," the retired professor of Government and Politics, Munroe said. 

"In fact the Rhodes Scholarship, and, I can testify as one who has often served on the Jamaican and Caribbean Selection Committees,  has,  over the years, financed scholars, including the economically disenfranchised, who as students, and who in later life, have led struggles against racism, colonialism and injustice in all its many forms," Munroe said. 

When contacted by Loop News, the 1968 Rhodes Scholar, Reverend Ronnie Thwaites echoed Munroe's sentiment, believing that the statue must be removed and that Rhodes scholars must continue to be agents of change, fighting against racism and other forms of justice in their home countries. 

Trevor Munroe

Munroe recalled leading a protest in Kingston against the Ian Smith-led regime in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), the day before his Rhodes Selection Committee interview. 

"Indeed, on a personal note, I recall the day before my own interview for the Rhodes scholarship by the Rhodes Selection Committee in November 1965. I was leading a protest demonstration in downtown Kingston against the racist Ian Smith ‘Unilateral Declaration of Independence' in then Rhodesia, designed to establish an apartheid racist state in what is now Zimbabwe. The next day, during my interview with the Rhodes Selection Committee, a Committee member asked me: “How could I have just led a demonstration against racism in Rhodesia and be here applying for Rhodes Scholarship?”  I replied then, as I would now: “More now than ever the funds extracted by racist exploitation of black people should come to those who would utilise those ill-gotten gains to fight against racism and injustice,” he said.  

"In pursuit of that purpose , many scholars applied and extended Cecil Rhodes’ encouragement of public service and leadership to strengthen the combat of  racism and to advance the cause of justice throughout their careers," Munroe concluded. 

However, another Jamaica Rhodes Scholar, speaking on condition of anonymity, had a more nuanced and complex approach to the 'Rhodes Must Fall' campaign.

"I cannot defend Rhodes, he was an awful man. I don't think his initial intent was to award scholarships to people of colour, it was to help the Dutch and English in South Africa, but the best revenge is to take that opportunity and education and be an advocate of change," he mused.  

One of Rhodes' primary motivations in politics and business was his professed belief that the Anglo-Saxon race was, to quote his will, "the first race in the world". Under the reasoning, Rhodes wrote that "the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race".

Reverend Ronnie Thwaites 

Still the Rhodes Scholar is largely ambivalent about the removal of Rhodes' statue at Oxford. In fact, he is leaning towards indifference as he believes the debate is "much ado about nothing", a great and mighty hue and cry largely signifying nothing.  

As a result, he is a bit wary of the clamour around the issue, and believes it is myopic act to seek simplistic solutions to complex problems. He quoted Aristotle to underscore his own musings: "It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it."

"Should I disavow Rhodes now years later? Should I stop referring to the scholarship on my CV? Should I now consider the scholarship a loan, and that I should pay over a similar amount to a good cause, preferably one in Zimbabwe or South Africa since he stole so egregiously from them?" the Rhodes Scholar mused. 

He said he could not, in good conscience, add his voice to a cause celebre, a "whipping tool for people who would use this furore to advance their own causes".

"I have a far more nuanced view. I don't defend Rhodes' legacy, but it is complicated, and I have taken and benefitted from that, and now, years removed , should I renounce it safely now? I have never seen the Rhodes scholarship as a badge of honour, it just happened to be the first scholarship that I got that year," he said. 

He said that most centuries-old legacies are tainted by some whiff of corruption, racism or otherwise. 

Asked if he were worried about being viewed as hypocritical given that he would have been asked to criticise Rhodes' legacy while being a recipient of the scholarship, he responded:

"Is there a purity test for the Rhodes scholarship? The Anglicans made money out of slavery. There is no hypocrisy in being a recipient of a Rhodes scholarship and being publicly critical of Cecil Rhodes and his legacy. But removing a statue won't solve the deeper problems, the most we can do is use our powerful legacies to advocate change and do good."

The Black Lives Matter movement has provoked calls for the dismantling of racist symbols all over the world. 

Protests in Bristol, England led to residents toppling the statue of 17th-century slave trader Edward Colston and tossing it into a river. A statue of noted slaveholder Robert Milligan, a prominent British slave trader who owned two sugar plantations and 526 slaves in Jamaica has been removed from outside the Museum of London Docklands. 

A statue of Christopher Columbus in Boston was beheaded, and another Columbus statue vandalised in Virginia, while over the weekend, crews removed the statue of Confederate president Jefferson Davis from the state capitol in Kentucky. There have been calls in some quarters in Jamaica to remove monuments with Christopher Columbus who 'discovered' the island in 1494 during his second voyage to the Americas. 

---Claude Mills

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