Month: May 2016

Remembering Racism: Will History Fall with Rhodes?

by Katarina Schwarz, PhD candidate, Queens University Belfast



Universities have always revered history as a source of knowledge for the future; a grand narrative of lessons to be taken into the present to enrich our understanding of our origins, make better decisions in the present, and continue progress for the future. It is therefore no surprise that people care enough about the way that history is treated in these institutions to spark broad debates, controversy, and an international movement. From South Africa, to the United Kingdom, to the United States, students (as well as members of staff) are rallying for a radical adjustment in the way that people interact with the “glorious” history of their institutions. Whether or not it is true that Rhodes Must Fall, a conversation about his proposed demise is now unavoidable.

The Rhodes Must Fall Movement (#RhodesMustFall) began in South Africa in 2015 at the University of Capetown, initially directed towards the removal a statue commemorating Cecil Rhodes. This campaign became a springboard off of which other movements launched, including Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford, Royall Must Fall at Harvard, the Black Students’ Movement at Rhodes University, and many more.

In these campaigns, demands for the abandonment of particular statues, names, and symbols serve as the public face of a broader agenda to deal with institutionalised racism within universities. Students connect individual experiences of suffering and harms to inclusivity to these relics, and call for their schools to stop commemorating individuals who were major players in enslavement, apartheid, and the development of racial inequality at large. Statues of various colonial figures, shields featuring the crests of slaveholders, and the names of colleges and buildings are all under fire from these movements.

These demands have not gone unchallenged. At every point of protest there has been opposition on a number of levels. The primary criticisms accuse ‘offended’ students of attempting to wipe out a part of history which simply cannot be expunged. They claim that those who contributed significantly to an institution should be remembered for their part, and judged by the standards of their time rather than contemporary morality.

Implicit within these objections is the assumption that the history of an institution is inherently valuable – that the traditions, the heritage, the relics of the past form an important part of the culture of that university. If this were not the case, then donors of Oxford University would hardly have been outraged enough to threaten the withdrawal of over £100 million of gifts and bequests from the school if the statue of Cecil Rhodes gracing Oriel College were removed. If this were not the case, changing a crest or the names of buildings and schools, would be considered an uncontroversial rebranding exercise rather than an outrage.

It is clear that both sides of the debate have their own attachments to history – it is viewed as something valuable and relevant to current personal experiences. So can it be legitimate within this debate to argue for the removal of relics of that history from public spaces? To answer this question, it is important to recognise the differences between the narrative of history, and memorials which recognise particular aspects of it. As Christopher Phelps identifies:

History is one thing, memorials another. As tributes, memorials are selective, affirmative representations. When a university names a building after someone or erects a statue to that person, it bestows honor and legitimacy. The imprimatur of an institution of higher education affords the subject respect, dignity, and authority. This makes memorials every bit as much about values, status quo, and future as about remembrance.

The selective nature of memorials make them as much about excluding certain figures, certain parts of our history, as they are about remembrance. The choice to honour particular individuals, and to continue doing so by giving them one of the few portions of the public space in a university, cannot be a neutral recognition of institutional history. Given that this history is affirmed and alive in the present, it cannot be enough to simply justify injustice by labelling it a byproduct of ‘the times’.

Moreover, removing statues does not remove these figures from the narrative of history, it simply ends the positive commemoration of figures that were the architects of mass enslavement, apartheid, and racism. When Hungarian rebels toppled statues of Stalin in 1956 their actions were celebrated, not considered a pillaging of history; Stalin and his role in history have not been forgotten because of his eviction from public commemoration. Likewise, there has been little outcry over the removal of over 800 statues of Lenin in the Ukraine (in response to provocations by Putin’s Russia). Lenin’s place in the annals is not seen as jeopardised by this action, particularly given that most of the works have been transported to museums, an action equally possible in the university debate.

A more nuanced objection to removal recognises the particular role of memorials in affirming a particular conception of history, and identifies them as sites of a discourse on the role of history, modern race relations, and minority experiences – discussions that can only be had when there are people publicly questioning the validity of such relics. This objector should therefore be satisfied by the development of the student movements, despite disagreeing with one prong of their demands.

Regardless of which side of the debate you fall on, it is important to recognise that Rhodes falling is not a debate about whether we remember or erase particular figures in the history of our institutions. It is a debate about how we treat particular aspects of history, and memorialise them in the public space. Given that the history is very much alive for all sides of the discussion, it is also important to recognise the very particular histories to which the relics in question relate: histories of mass enslavement, racialisation, apartheid, and genocide. The legacies of these practices live on in the contemporary experiences of racism which black and minority ethnic students face on these campuses – experiences which should be grappled with as much as feelings of attachment to blocks of stone.


  • Defaced statue of Louis Botha outside the Houses of Parliament in Cape Town during the #RhodesMustFall campaign by HelenSTB (2015) 
  • Edward Linley Sanbourne, ‘The Rhodes Colossus: Caricature of Cecil John Rhodes’, after he announced plans for a telegraph line and railroad from Cape Town to Cairo, 10 December 1892
  • The statue at the centre of the controversy: a statue of Cecil Rhodes by Marion Walgate (1934)

Antislavery and Trafficking PhD School in Brno, Czech Republic

In November 2016, the Antislavery Usable Past project will team up with the Utrecht Network to deliver a five-day interdisciplinary PhD School focused on antislavery and trafficking.

The School is open to any PhD candidate whose dissertation is focused on issues of slavery, antislavery, or trafficking; be it historical or contemporary. The School will enable PhD candidates to develop a network of early career scholars; learn practical academic skills and multi- and inter -disciplinary methods; and engage with leading scholars in the field.

The PhD School in Antislavery and Trafficking will take place in the picturesque Bohemian City of Brno, Czech Republic, at Masaryk University. It includes a one-day field trip to Vienna, Austria, to visit the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the agency tasked with the taking the lead on issues of trafficking internationally.

See the Utrecht Network website for more information and details of the application process. Members of the Antislavery Usable Past postgraduate research network are particularly welcome to apply.

New publication: Britain’s History and Memory of Transatlantic Slavery

This new collection of essays brings together localised case studies of Britain’s history and memory of its involvement in the transatlantic slave trade, and slavery. These essays, ranging in focus from eighteenth-century Liverpool to twenty-first-century rural Cambridgeshire, from racist ideologues to Methodist preachers, examine how transatlantic slavery impacted on, and continues to impact, people and places across Britain.

The new publication features the work of Kate Donington and John Oldfield. It will be published in September 2016 by Liverpool University Press. See the flyer for further information and details about the pre-publication discount.

A new transatlantic alliance of Historians Against Slavery

By guest contributors Matthew Mason (Brigham Young University, Utah) and Stacey Robertson (Central Washington University), Co-Directors, Historians Against Slavery

Beginning in the era of the American Revolution, and even with the Quakers before that, the abolition movement was a transatlantic phenomenon. Whether in the era of Anthony Benezet and Granville Sharp or of William Lloyd Garrison and Thomas Fowell Buxton, abolitionists found that differences in the political cultures in Britain and America posed opportunities as well as challenges for the cause. Following in their footsteps, in recent months Historians Against Slavery (HAS) has been examining ways of expanding and organizing our activities in the United Kingdom.

To that end, on Friday 29 April 2016, we as Co-Directors of HAS met with a group of about 30 British scholars, museum leaders, and activists to discuss the formation of HAS-UK. HAS board member and superstar organizer Zoe Trodd and her Antislavery Usable Past network convened the gathering at the Wilberforce Institute for the study of Slavery and Emancipation (WISE). After we offered a brief history of HAS and answered a variety of questions, we listened to Kevin Bales, a professor at WISE and overall rock star in the movement; Richard Benjamin, director of the International Slavery Museum; Aidan McQuade, director of Anti-Slavery International; Mike Gardner, an expert on digital networks; John Oldfield, director of WISE; and Jean Allain, who is working to establish Lawyers Against Slavery. Stacey and I came away from this gathering feeling energized by the potential for HAS-UK, and struck by three ways in which HAS-UK may well end up looking different from HAS in the US.

First, academics in the UK are expected to establish the “impact” of their work, and so an organization like HAS – which is focused on employing scholarship to support human rights – is attractive. In other words, the academic context in the UK is very friendly to scholarly involvement in activism.

Second, the diverse participation in the gathering suggested that HAS may be able to make inroads quicker in some areas there than in the US. The UK’s academic culture seems much better integrated with what they call the “heritage community” (museums, historical sites, that sort of thing) than US academic culture, so there are great opportunities for partnerships in this regard. The interest of antislavery NGOs like Anti-Slavery International, and discussion at the meeting of how the media in the UK loves to cover the activities of such NGOs, suggests other opportunities for HAS in the UK. We in HAS have always been interested in partnering with antislavery organizations and people in the heritage community, as illustrated by our ongoing collaborations with the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. But such immediate and high-energy and –profile partnerships in the UK may give us the momentum we need to expand our efforts in this direction in the US.

Third, in our opening statement we spoke of HAS founder James Brewer Stewart’s repeated point that the contemporary antislavery movement too often loses or marginalizes African-American voices and history, and that HAS should never lose sight of that. It was interesting to watch that theme unfold in this meeting in Hull because of the different racial scenario in Britain. Linking antislavery to people of colour there means connecting with hot-button questions such as reparations for slavery as well as the legacy of the British Empire. It seems that the question of reparations is analogous in the racial politics of Britain to mass incarceration / Black Lives Matter in the US; in both instances, any engagement with contemporary slavery that ignores such questions risks being marginalized politically and impaired in impact.

We look forward to seeing how HAS-UK unfolds given these differences from the US context for HAS’s work. Given the energy, intellectual gravity, and good will of the people gathered at the Wilberforce Institute in April, we are confident that this unfolding will produce multiple benefits.