Rhodes Must Fall and the Study of African History at Oxford

Miles Larmer

It has been a tumultuous period for African history at Oxford University. Rhodes Must Fall, which began life at the University of Cape Town in March 2015 with protests against its statue of Cecil Rhodes, arrived in Oxford in summer 2015 and has dominated headlines about the university ever since. This blog post is not about the campaign itself: instead, I want to explain its impact on the study of African history at Oxford, and how this reflects awareness of Britain’s imperial history.

Many of my students have been active in RMF, and it is clear that while it focuses on Oxford’s own Rhodes statue, it has consistently sought to raise more substantive issues about the experience of Oxford’s black and minority ethnic students. The most common accusations made by its critics is that, in demanding the removal of the Rhodes statue, RMF seeks to erase history and to close down discussion of it. This is in my experience the exact opposite of both its intentions and its results. The Rhodes statue has until recently hidden in plain sight on Oxford’s High Street, visible to those in the know but unacknowledged by its hosts. This mirrors the way that Oxford’s own imperial history is both self-evident to insiders but publicly unacknowledged. RMF has demanded the opposite of silencing: the vocal acknowledgement of Oxford’s past, the way that past finds continued expression in the university’s buildings, courses and discourses, and critical reflection on how best to come to terms with that past. The energy and excitement generated by RMF has been reflected in our teaching: students of African and Imperial history have had their studies enriched, not suppressed, by the debates and demonstrations in the wider university. As academics we have relished the opportunity to have core debates in African history – on the impact of colonialism, the nature of African resistance, on economic development and nationalism –enlivened as a result.

Why then has RMF raised such a storm? The most important reason is Britain’s relative failure to come to its imperial past, to engage in an effective ‘imperial reckoning’. All former European colonial powers have their own neuroses and ellipses about their history, but in one way or another Germany, France, Belgium and Portugal have begun to come to terms with that history. In Britain, this past manifests itself largely as a deafening silence, a cloak of invisibility, behind which lies a largely benign interpretation of British imperialism at odds with the evidence of violence and exploitation.

Publicly, Britain remains a decidedly neglectful post-imperialist: the farcical closure of Bristol’s Empire Museum means we lack a major museum devoted to empire; Britain’s diverse population is historicised to the ‘Windrush’ moment and not to the deeper imperial past that enabled it; and the statues and symbols of empire – common but uncommented on in Britain’s towns and cities – are, despite a thriving popular history movement, not widely appreciated. Empire is largely characterised as something that happened ‘out there’, rather than self-evidently bound-up with Britain’s own history, which cannot be understood outside its imperial past: the centrality of colonial expansion and enslavement to the rise of the British economy, the imperial underpinnings of Britain’s participation in the first and second world wars, and the disassociation of decolonisation and contemporary multiculturalism. Asian and African students are often amazed at the ignorance of their British counterparts about an imperial past they learn about in primary schools. Those British students often express their dismay at their lack of access to the history of either empire or Africa at school or university. Opinion poll findings that 44% of Britons are proud of the British Empire can be explained by the tendency to see empire as a subject for complacent self-satisfaction rather than critical self-analysis. Consider as an analogy the shift in public opinion regarding British policing in the wake of the Stephen Lawrence and Hillsborough enquiries and it becomes possible to grasp the similar gulf between popular perception and historical reality of imperialism, and the potential for such views to change when confronted by evidence of that reality.

How has Oxford responded to the challenges posed by RMF? Race equality working groups have been established across the university. The History Faculty is seeking to ensure that Oxford’s own black history is reflected, for example celebrating the pioneering Asian and African Oxford scholars of the 19th and early 20th century who also experienced racial discrimination. Teach-in events are discussing RMF, decolonising the curriculum and other transformation issues.

The History Faculty is meanwhile updating its curriculum to better reflect wider global history. Oxford currently offers only one undergraduate African history course. African history has traditionally been taught in Oxford as an offshoot of imperial history, suggesting a history in which Europeans are the primary agents bringing influences to which Africans respond. Delivering the new curriculum, however, requires additional appointments and resources, and it is by no means clear that these will be made available. Academic departments in Oxford depend on colleges, which control the lions’ share of the university’s resources, to appoint lecturers who will deliver these courses.  Contrast this with a major American research university where, in the parallel context of the ‘black lives matter’ campaign, seven new appointments in African American History have been agreed. In March 2016, the university identified curriculum reform as one of the ways it was responding to demands for change. I agree: the history that we teach in Oxford, and in universities and schools around Britain, is central to addressing the challenge of movements such as RMF. Whether we can do so effectively remains to be seen.

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