What ‘erasure of history’ really looks like

Amelia Oakley 24 April 2016

I’ve invested careless amounts of emotional energy in the past year reading through mindless comments on articles which lament the loss of ‘the coup d’etat’ of ‘PC culture’ and the left’s wish to ‘censor everything’. Yet all left-wing students are doing is elucidating how society is constructed in a way that disenfranchises and oppresses minorities.

Considering glaringly obvious racial inequalities in society, this should go without saying. Yet Peterhouse alumnus David Mitchell, recently stated: “racism in history…it goes without saying, doesn’t go without saying.” It is peculiar that Mitchell states this in the same breath as arguing that the request for the Cecil Rhodes statue to fall is an attempt to erase history; not simply because the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ (RMFO) campaign is literally based on the fact that Rhodes’ racism has gone without saying, but because it unpacks the mentalities behind this fallacy that minorities are somehow ‘censoring’ history by exposing the atrocities of the past.

True historical erasure is the lack of visibility given to people of colour who have contributed to Britain’s progression, spanning women’s rights, combatants in the world wars, scientists, inventors and artists. But more so, erasure is dismissing RMFO because Rhodes was ‘a man of his time’ when Rhodes’ peers actually opposed his atrocities. Such atrocities include the establishment of a paramilitary force, the British South Africa Company's Police (BSACP), and the systematic murder of over 60,000 black south Africans.

Erasure is situating the Benin Bronze Okukor in Jesus College’s hall with an irrelevant Latin inscription and no identification that it was raided in the Benin Expedition of 1897, which resulted in the murder of thousands of my ancestors and the exile of Oba Ovonramwen. Erasure is African diaspora studying in a college that has a ‘Rustat Conference Room’ with scarce public information to identify that Tobias Rustat was a slaver, and eating in a hall with a portrait of Jan Smuts with no recognition that he oppressed Africans with skin like theirs.

People cite circumstances of the past as reason to dismiss condemnation of these figures, yet had Rustat enslaved western white men, or Churchill constructed a man-made famine in Britain rather than Bengal, declaring, “I hate [Britons]… they are a beastly people with a beastly religion”, there would be no Rustat Room, and no Churchill College. Figures are only granted the luxury of historical context when it is black and brown bodies spared and not white ones.

The proposed removal of Rhodes’ statue, Harvard Law School’s crest, and other decolonisation moves are not attempts to ‘erase history’ but rather to demand that institutions confront the historical systematic oppression of people of colour. The action of removing statues is not unparalleled. Rather it has been a historical response to recognising the inappropriateness of celebrating an immoral figure through something as ceremonial as a statue, as shown by the removal of images of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and the removal of statues of Lenin and Stalin at the fall of the USSR.

My A-level history textbooks still taught me plenty on Lenin and Stalin, because removal of ceremony does not equal historical erasure. Rhodes was aware of the importance of immortalisation through art, a form of celebration which detracts from a holistic perspective of the man and his atrocities.

What intrigues me about Rhodes is the public’s sudden obsession with remembering him. Paul Maylam asks how it was “that such a mediocre person could have generated…so many monuments and memorials, so much commemorative naming, so many anniversary celebrations?” concluding that “Rhodes desired, and purchased, his own immortality”. Yet even google-able statistics reveal that interest in Rhodes only really picked up when ethnic minorities highlighted his crimes. And so it seems that objection to RMFO and similar anti-colonial movements are, really, more to do with silencing minorities, resistance to change and failure to face up to the reality of colonial history, not care for Rhodes himself.

If people truly cared about so-called ‘erasure of history’ and historical integrity, they’d recognise that Rhodes was as despicable when he was alive as he is today. And so, to David Mitchell and those of similar persuasions, left-wing students have done their homework. Please, for the love of God, do yours.