A Colossus of Sorts: Rhodes, from Africa to Bishops Stortford

‘What are you engaged on at present, Mr Rhodes?’

‘I am doing my best to enlarge Your Majesty’s dominions’

We used to have discos in the Rhodes Centre. I once saw Ann Widdecombe speak there in front of an audience of admiring local Tories. The car park was a popular site for people vomiting after staggering out of the nightclub opposite that had routine identity crises, changing its name from H2Os to Scorch to Zenchi and beyond. The building itself was the house of Cecil Rhodes, described by the museum within as ‘financier and founder of diamond company De Beers’ and by others, the architect of an ideology of White Supremacy that would stain the twentieth century. Having grown up in the town of Bishops Stortford, the birthplace of Cecil Rhodes, his legacy was taught to us as benign and mythologised, a form of hagiography—he was in the league of the ‘great’ British explorers of Livingstone and his ilk: curious, never vicious. Miles away in southern Africa, the name of Cecil Rhodes meant and continues to mean something very different. When I visited the exhibition in the Rhodes Centre honouring the life of Cecil Rhodes I left a single comment in the book by the exit, addressing a question the exhibition didnt seem to answer or even acknowledge: Where is the history?


This was the slogan spray-painted onto the statue of Rhodes at the University of Cape Town (UCT), amongst others things including human excrement, as protests broke out in early 2015. Rhodes sat here outside Jameson Hall, looking out over Madiba Circle and the southern suburbs of Cape Town which surround the University’s upper campus; until this moment, untouched and largely ignored, his presence both unequivocal and part of the scenery. By early April, #RhodesMustFall had become #RhodesHasFallen.

The seated figure of Rhodes was cast in bronze by the figurative sculptor Marion Walgate and unveiled at the university in 1934, a time when the campus would have been alive with the dream of decolonisation, apartheid an approaching yet implausible prospect in the Cape. Walgate evidently had a penchant for the colonial settler, as one of her later works was the depiction of Jan van Riebeeck’s sailing into Table Bay on the South African five shilling piece. Walgate’s work cast these men into South African history, and they had lived on through the Apartheid era and beyond, again simultaneously as the architects of power and oppression in this country, as well as part of the make-up of everyday life.

Rhodes was born in the vicarage of Bishop’s Stortford, and in his early teens escaped his destiny of following in the footsteps of his priestly father by joining his brother Herbert in Natal in 1870. It was hoped that a better climate would soothe his asthmatic blights. He became a Freemason in 1877 and a millionaire in 1880, when he founded the De Beers Mining Company, beginning in diamonds and then turning to gold, holding a strict control over a multiplicity of smaller companies. Business was not his primary concern though, it was merely a means to an end, his obsession was with power and he saw business as the vessel that would bring him this power. It had not taken long for Rhodes to place Africa into his worldview.

His imagination soared — he even had visions of annexing the planets to the British Empire. He garnered avid followers at home and abroad but he would sign photographs which he gave to admirers with salutations such as ‘Yours Spitefully, Cecil Rhodes’. His name would be remembered for four thousand years, according to his own calculation. He cared little for money but left a fortune that has been estimated at anything between twenty-five and forty-five million pounds. There were no planets, but he managed to add 800,000 square miles of territory to the British flag and to a dream: the vision of a Pax Britannica, on Earth and into the universe.

Rhodes had one simple dominating idea all his life. He got it early and it never left him. He was convinced that the English-speaking people of the world were the master ‘race’ of the world, that the British Empire was the supreme achievement of history, and that all the world should, if possible, be ruled benevolently by the British Crown. He was obsessed with his own death and he made wills throughout his life and left extensive plans for his burial. His first will was written when he was 22, leaving vast amounts of his fortune to his comrades for ‘the establishment, promotion and development of a Secret Society’, integral to which was the ‘the extension of British rule throughout the world’ alongside the small task of the

occupation by British settlers of the entire continent of Africa, the Holy Land, the Valley of the Euphrates, the Islands of Cyprus and Candia, the whole of South America, the Islands of the Malay Archipelago, the seaboard of China and Japan, the ultimate recovery of the United States of America as an integral part of the British Empire.

Rhodes lived in a house on the Groote Schuur estate in Muizenberg, Cape Town, once the property of the Dutch East India Company, and there his remains still lie today, presented with fastidious instruction. Rhodes, when describing how the Matabele warrior Mzilikazi had been buried in a cave, seated upright on a throne, so that even in death he might face the grievous expanse over which he had ruled, exclaimed, ‘What a poet that man was!’ It was thus Rhodes’ instruction that he be buried looking out over ‘the World’s View’ stretching away for fifty miles  northwards to the country that would eventually bear his name. When you climb the path to the top and you see ‘the World’s View’, the grave of Cecil Rhodes is at your feet. Rhodes had no intention of being buried at home, in the unassuming town of Bishops Stortford, no, he had to be an eternal outpost for the project of British domination. Bishops Stortford at the moment of Rhodes’ death lit up like a tiny bulb on a circuit board, cast into the history of British Colonialism, but the town would remain lit behind a veil, bound to forget the legacy of the man it had produced.

The final will of Rhodes included a donation of funds to set up UCT upon his death, Rhodes clear in the understanding of the intrinsic link between education and power. It may seem strange that it has taken until 2015 for the statue to be removed, or at least a vocal movement demanding its removal to emerge, you would think that the end of Apartheid would have brought the statue down. But he remained, and at UCT his name and presence is unavoidable (even after the removal of the statue): memorial groves and scholarships bear his name, and until early April, his bronze cast figure looked down upon each and every student entering the halls of the university. The ‘epistemological whiteness’ of the university is stark but something which runs deep into the foundations of power; famous Africanist academic Mahmood Mamdani was suspended from UCT for criticising the reluctance of educational institutions to embed African scholarship in its curriculum.

The continued existence of symbols such as the Rhodes statue highlights the resilience of racial inequality in post-Apartheid South Africa, something that is still to this day entrenched and through the rise of political figures such as Julius Malema, the issue of ‘race’ is one that will not go away in modern South Africa. One banner hoisted during the protest read, in a piece of pure Situationism, ‘ALL RHODES LEAD TO COLONISATION OF THE MIND’, encapsulating the need for his removal not only from his geographical place but from his conscious one too.

Tongues of land

Bishop’s Stortford is an unimportant market town, with now only the slightest of markets, on the boundary of Hertfordshire and Essex, a commuter satellite supplying humans to the City of London via Liverpool Street. Whilst the town was built on the ford that runs through it—the Saxon Sterort-ford meaning ‘ford at tongues of land’—this waterway is now mostly hidden and kept from sight by an ugly and gargantuan cinema complex and lifeless blocks of flats housing airport workers, many of them first generation migrants. The supply chain of the M11 motorway and the Stansted Express train route into Liverpool Street means that the immaterial workers of Canary Wharf brush shoulders with the workers of the service stations and the airport in the chain restaurants that line the high street.

Small traces of some history can be sensed in the centre of the town, but they have been repurposed: the Corn Exchange is now an open-top terrace bar for the town’s coked-up small businessmen and car dealership owners to peer down from onto the high street, the building itself hidden in large canopies and red-glaring heaters. But this is a town that thrives in its ahistoricism, in its ability, luxury, to forget. From a vantage point up the steep incline of Lindsey Road you can see downhill towards the Cricket Club and tennis courts on leafy Cricketfield Lane, and the land making up the private property of the local private school. It’s a stark reminder of the class make-up of towns like this: the strange coalescence of twenty-first century labour. We are here just beyond the suburbs of London, only another recession and a matter of miles away from what writer Laura Oldfield Ford has observed: ‘Monster Ripper and Smirnoff, Brandy Boost, oversized glasses of chardonnay at Wetherspoons monday club, valium scored for a few quid in the pub , the stink of weed drifting from portakabins , red eyes and yellow bibs’ (sic).

The town council decided a few years ago to end its twinning with Villers-sur-Marne in France and Friedburg in Germany, in a pathetic show of Euroscepticism sold to a disinterested public as a ‘cost saving measure’. This only reiterates the sense of dislocation in the town.  When hearing about this move, I had flashbacks to the time when the mosque was forced out of the town after racist attacks. The building is now a multi-storey car park, serving a nigh-on empty shopping centre. That vitriol has been shifted onto the European population that has settled in the more working class areas of town; acts of petty but persistent vandalism pepper the pages of the local newspaper. Bishops Stortford has not so far become a target seat for UKIP, as the local ingrained Tory MP gets elected without the town really noticing, but their votes are growing election after election, so it feels inevitable. But both the Canary Wharf and the airport workers have more in common than they think; they are ‘overworked and told they need to work harder, busy, but still feeling that they can’t get everything done, many are too drained to care’.

Every time I turned to confront the ghost of Rhodes on the high street he disappeared. Bishop’s Stortford has an altar to Rhodes at the Rhodes Centre, much like the one on the Groote Schuur estate, but whilst the one is South Africa is theatrical, the one in rural Hertfordshire is invisible. What is stark is how a sleepy commuter town, thriving on its ability to provide labour to the City of London, can be joined across time and space by the history of colonialism; Bishops Stortford and Muizenberg two nodes in the complex network of colonial history, at one end the history is still so very current and alive, the other largely forgotten or ignored.

The resilience of names

It may seem a futile pursuit to pull down historic statues. Colonialism and Apartheid are part of South Africa’s history and should not be forgotten or confined to history; but there is a larger question about symbols in post-colonial Africa. In Rhodes’ Rhodesia, after independence, there was a clamour to erase the symbols of colonialism by the liberation party Zanu-PF, e.g. the renaming of the country to Zimbabwe and the capital, Salisbury, becoming Harare; this was the first priority. In South Africa, after the end of Apartheid, the same concerns were of course persistent, but many of the colonial street names and statues remained, such as the statue of General Louis Botha at the entrance to the South African parliament, a man of contested legacy who whilst unifying the British and Boer republics, divided the country along racial lines. The Mandela leadership of the African National Congress (ANC) at the end of Apartheid and beyond, prioritised reconciliation rather than the radical purging of Zanu-PF in Zimbabwe.

The protests for the removal of the Rhodes statue are indicative of the fact that these divisions and frictions, whilst maybe being veiled for the sake of peace and stability, went profoundly unchallenged during the Mandela era. As mentioned before, the emergence of Julius Malema and a more widespread questioning of the role of the ANC in South Africa’s future, particularly after the Marikana killings in 2012 which saw the single most lethal use of force by the South African security forces since Apartheid; all have brought ‘race’ back to the forefront of political discussion in modern South Africa.

Scroll through pictures of the protest that made their way onto Facebook and it quickly becomes clear that the removal of Rhodes was not the pinnacle of the movement, his removal never being enough to quench the thirst for seismic political and social change. Placards like ‘Black Staff at UCT matter’ bring to light the treatment of maintenance staff on campus as part of the widespread outsourcing of services to private companies. The protestors have been clear that by attacking an emblem of racial supremacy on campus, they do not only reveal the inherent racism of the institution, but also the neo-liberal takeover of universities across the world. It is not a ‘cost-saving’ procedure, but a radical seizing of power.

Out of his dust may UCT rise

What UCT vice-chancellor Max Price said upon the decision to remove the statue is precise:

Today marks the day that UCT decided that the statue of Cecil John Rhodes should come down. He will fall from the podium from which he’s surveyed this campus, this city and the continent for many decades. But it must be remembered not for his falling, but for what rose in his place. The campus community we’ve all longed and hoped for, the UCT we’re already in the process of becoming. Rhodes must fall. Out of his dust, may UCT rise.

The historicity of the link between Bishops Stortford and Muizenberg, Cape Town is undeniable if perpetually obscured or forgotten across time and space. In South Africa, the history of Cecil Rhodes and the political philosophy to which he gave birth or at least was the most vocal proponent of, lives on in tangible and resilient ways. The protests at UCT are indicative of this historic endurance, an ‘epistemological whiteness’ that has not been sufficiently challenged in post-Apartheid South Africa, and finds itself bound up in the privatisation of education and universities and the racialization of labour in the twenty-first century.  In Bishops Stortford this history is unknown, not covered up because it is unconscious. Yet history binds these two geographical locations in profound ways, which remind us of the complicity of the British Empire in today’s global political system. It makes the case of reactionary historians who seek to ‘reclaim’ colonialism and argue for its ‘achievements’ all the more vulgar.

What would a movement to rename the Rhodes Centre in Bishops Stortford look like? It would inevitably get caught up in the small-town politics of petitions and rickety pasting tables in the town centre on a Saturday, and would not have the vitality of the protests seen at the UCT. In fact, it would seem trivial. We may hark to more appropriate Bishops Stortfordians to hail in Rhodes’ place: Glenn Hoddle bought his first house on the Thorley housing estate, Russell Brand went to the Hockerill School in the town. But this would not make this process any less politically worthwhile or historically relevant. The history of the British Empire must remain current, it must be on show and it must be challenged even in places of triviality. I can already hear the voices of school governors, bemused shoppers shuffling back to the car park and Town councillors who entered politics under the guise of being ‘unpolitical’, chiding unnecessary tinkering in the town.  The answer is that it will achieve nothing and everything. Whilst tearing down statues and changing street names is never going to be radical enough to reinvent entrenched inequalities bound up in time and space, symbols remain extremely powerful and enduring, simultaneously towering physical ornaments and haunting ghosts from the past.

Jonny Keyworth is a writer based in East London. His fiction has appeared on Queen Mob’s Teahouse, and his non-fiction in Think African Press, Port Magazine, Interface Journal, and Litro. He has got an MA in African Politics and is currently finishing his first novel.

Jonny can be found online on Twitter @jonnykeyworth and on his website www.jonnykeyworth.com