Mary Beard says drive to remove Cecil Rhodes statue from Oxford University is a 'dangerous attempt to erase the past'

Classicist praises campaign to rid institution of racism but says 'history can’t be unwritten or hidden away'

Amelia Jenne
Tuesday 22 December 2015 17:30 GMT
Beard expressed 'admiration for young people challenging the lingering racism of the educational system'
Beard expressed 'admiration for young people challenging the lingering racism of the educational system'

The classicist Mary Beard has said a drive to remove a statue of the colonialist Cecil Rhodes from its campus is a “dangerous attempt to erase the past”.

The #RhodesmustFall campaign enjoyed a small victory last week when Rhodes' former college agreed to remove a plaque in his honour.

An online backlash ensued against the movement’s leader Ntokozo Qwabe who is on a prestigious scholarship for overseas post-graduates funded by Rhodes. But the star student told Channel 4 he was merely benefiting from “the resources of my people which Rhodes thought it was a good idea to pillage".

'Of course Rhodes was a racist', Beard told The Independent (Getty)

The movement aims to “decolonise the space, curriculum and institutional memory” at one of the world’s oldest and most traditional universities – starting with the legacy left behind by a man they say was a “racist and murderous colonialist”.

In response to the furore Oxford Professor Nigel Biggar told The Times that the magnate, who bequeathed part of his estate to Oxford on his death, was not a racist, but “an imperialist [who] believed in the modernity and progress that the British empire of his time represented”.

A belief so strong, Biggar argued, he “let [its] end justify his dodgy means”.

“Of course Rhodes was a racist”, Professor Beard told The Independent. “So were almost all his contemporaries in the West.”

“I have admiration for young people challenging the lingering racism of the educational system”, she added. “My worries are about the narrower historical point: that history can’t be unwritten or hidden away, or erased when we change our minds”.

“We need to face the past and our dependence on it and do better than it… that’s what the past is for.”

One her blog she writes that she hopes ethnic minority students will look up at statues of Rhodes in the same way she does to those of the hundreds of men in history who would have objected to giving women the vote: “with a cheery and self-confident sense of un-batterability”.

"If he was bad, then we have certainly turned his cash to the better... and maybe, to give him for a moment the benefit of the doubt, if he had been born a hundred years later even he would have thought differently"

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