Edwin Stanley Brown was a rugby player from the early years of Australian sport, and it was for him that a Toowoomba sportsground named a section of seating the “E. S. ‘Nigger’ Brown” stand. It was a sporting memorial. A tribute. An honour—that happened to include the word “nigger”.
It was around the time WWI began; whoever gave Brown that name—his family, his friends, his sporting community—they weren’t denigrating him. More than likely they were commenting on his whiteness. It was like calling a redhead named Frank “Bluey”, or a short guy named Tim “Big Tim”. It’s merely pointing to something striking about a person through the dim wit of antithesis.
And, of course, the opposite of being unusually white is being black, like a deep well or a dark night or… an aboriginal person… so the thinking went. Only, back then, it would have been outright strange to call a bloke Edwin “Aboriginal” Brown or Edwin “Indigenous” Brown. “Nigger” and various other terms were the accepted lingo, so that’s what they called him. It was no big deal.
But it is a big deal now. To continue to use that name in an unconsidered way, as it was on the “E. S. ‘Nigger’ Brown” stand, is to say: “It’s a joke, it’s funny,” or “No one gets hurt by seeing that name on something that is meant for the community”, or “It’s ok if we use that word in the right way”.
When a few years ago the Australian government decided to change the name of that stand, it went beyond knee-jerk political correctness. It was the right thing. It had nothing to do with Brown being unworthy of remembrance, and everything to do with a desire to reshape the present. People might be justifiably upset to see “Nigger” in stencilled lettering on a rugby stand and to have acts of past casual racism become acts of present casual racism. It was important then, and it’s important now because it has helped shaped now.
The question is, how far do we go in sanitising the present from the invidious legacies of the past? Across the globe there have been a litany of instances where people have campaigned for the removal of memorials of historical figures who were slave owners or who subscribed to racist precepts or supported colonial ambitions, or were sons of bitches in any number of ways. The most prominent current campaign is: Rhodes must fall! Hashtag.
I have at times been accused of being a historian, and until five seconds ago I knew next to nothing about Rhodes. He was merely the name attached to the Rhodes Scholarship, which in my mind is and has long been the most prestigious scholarship in the world, given to up-and-comers with great scholarly or political potential. They are sent to Oxford, one of the best universities in the world. Presidents and prime ministers and Man Booker Prize winners litter the ranks of Rhodes scholars.
Knowing next to nothing, my initial reaction to the campaign seeking to remove the Rhodes statue at Oxford was: largely pointless. The campaigners are focused on elements of Rhodes’ past—his colonial mindset and “achievements”—that are not particularly well known by your average person and thus cannot be said to be exalted. And there’s definitely no one out there saying that because Rhodes was a colonialist maybe there’s something to be said for colonialism.
There’s also the broader point about a present-centric sanctimony. Scratch the surface of any historical figure and not a single one can possibly escape unscathed from a thorough accounting of their beliefs and practices from the beautiful clarity and moral hegemony of current perspectives. Not one—if we had perfect evidence of their entire life.
That was my initial reaction. But not being fond of ignorance, I’m compelled to ask: so who was this cocksucker, anyway? It took about four seconds of reading to understand the depths of Rhodes’ colonial mindset. He was a great believer in empire—in the British empire. He believed in expanding and consolidating that empire at the expense of any and all others, but especially at the expense of those who were ripe for dominion, like the Africans and South Americans and south Asians and the Arabs. Any place filled with the uncivilised, that wasn’t already white or powerful.
Rhodes was a very rich man, and so upon his death he was able to bequeath a set of scholarships for manly men of a British persuasion. He wanted to incubate new colonialists in the British way. That’s why the scholars were to go to Oxford.
This got me to thinking: all those Rhodes scholars I already knew about, they have something in common. They are powerful white men. I thought about Australia and our Rhodes scholars who became politicians. Prime Minister Bob Hawke, almost-Prime Minister Kim Beazley, Prime Minister Tony Abbott, current Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull who is doing such a fine job of shitting on his liberal credentials. What do they have in common?
From wealthy backgrounds.
Who support policies that fuck refugees.
Me cago en la leche!
Now, does this mean that these politicians support or supported policies that fuck refugees because of the Rhodes Scholarship? Perhaps not. But it is enough to prompt one to think about their commonalities and the broad set of conditions they share that would allow them to become the sort of men who are willing and able to fuck refugees. That is, it’s prompted me to think about privilege and institutional racism.
Right, then, back to the point. Rhodes was a decent bloke in some respects, and a motherfucker in others. Even in his own time he was a motherfucker: we’re not talking about Bartolomeu Dias and 1488, we’re talking about the years leading up to WWI. About yesterday. About the period that turned Africa into the terrible mess it is right now.
Rhodes is worth knowing about if you are the sort of person who wants to know about such things. Indeed, it is much better to know about Rhodes and his achievements and legacies and what drove him, than it is to rid him from our consciousness. There’s understanding to be had.
Which is to say, I think Rhodes’ statue should stay. For ignorant bastards like myself who might nevertheless pause to read something edifying, a plaque or something of the order should be installed beneath Rhodes’ statue, pointing to his legacy. Allow people to remember that such men were important men, and important men achieved important things, and many of those important things were fucking terrible. We need to know, not forget and not place the burden of remembering onto the shoulders of a few eager history and politics students.
I think we should let Oxford wear its colonial and racist past on its lapel. Turn this into something good and useful. In the future, tens of thousands of influentiable young students will walk before that statue. Some will gaze at it. Some would read my imaginary plaque and learn. Such a plaque could be free of heavy-handed judgement. It could merely quote Rhodes and let the reader think about it for themselves.
I know! A little juxtaposition, a favourite at universities. Start with the actual words of Rhodes’ bequest:
My desire being that the students who shall be elected to the scholarships shall not be merely book-worms, I direct that in the election of a student to a scholarship, regard shall be had to:
His literary and scholastic attainments.
His fondness of and success in manly outdoor sports, such as cricket, football and the like.
His qualities of manhood, truth, courage, devotion to duty, sympathy for the protection of the weak, kindliness, unselfishness, and fellowship, and
His exhibition during school days of moral force of character and of instincts to lead and to take an interest in his schoolmates, for those latter attributes will be likely in after-life to guide him to esteem the performance of public duties as his highest aim.
Then, to shed further light on what might at this point appear to be anachronistic thinking and nothing more, juxtapose the following quotation from his formative years, from when he was a young man with a fire in his belly, keen to remake the world:
I contend that we are the finest race in the world and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race. Just fancy those parts that are at present inhabited by the most despicable specimens of human beings what an alteration there would be if they were brought under Anglo-Saxon influence, look again at the extra employment a new country added to our dominions gives. I contend that every acre added to our territory means in the future birth to some more of the English race who otherwise would not be brought into existence.
Me cago en la leche!
Enough to spark minds, I contend. A few of the influentiable would read that and find out more and—being of course from Oxford and destined to be very important themselves—would become men and women of influence who understand this world a little better and seek to make it a little better thanks to what they know.
Oxford would be acknowledging their history. A colonial history. It’s better than forgetting, or constraining such knowledge to those who have the time or money or inclination to take a history course on colonialism.
Don’t tear down. Repurpose. Make it a statue that shames us, or them, or… just makes you think “well some-fucking-body should be ashamed!”
Make it mean what you think it should mean in this moment. That’s the truly postcolonial, postmodern thing to do.
Tearing down is not teaching, not opening minds, not ameliorating wrongs. Its sanitising for the sake of forgetting. As I understand it, forgetting is the opposite of what the Rhodes Must Fall campaign is about. So make the means match. Repurpose Rhodes. You could even put a hashtag on that.