Note: this column was first published in print in February 2016. Michael Wood wrote another column in November 2017 which revised this opinion

This is the tale of two places: High Street in Oxford and the Matobo Hills near Bulawayo. In Oxford the statue of the imperialist Cecil Rhodes at Oriel College became the focus of a vociferous campaign demanding its removal earlier this year. My old college, Oriel takes history very seriously. After “careful consideration” it finally decided that it should remain but said it would add “a clear historical context to explain why it is there”.

That Rhodes was an imperialist with racist views, no one disputes. Many say you cannot judge him by the standards of our time. But by any standards his subjection of the people of southern Africa was driven by violence and racism, cheating King Lobengula of his mineral-rich kingdom with a mercenary army. A small portion of the vast wealth Rhodes accrued went to Oxford, founding scholarships that are open to people of all backgrounds. Bill Clinton was one; Nelson Mandela joined hands with the foundation before he died. But Rhodes’ statue still looks out over High Street, and despite the college’s decision to keep it there, some people have vowed to continue the campaign for its removal.

The legacy of imperialism is complex. In Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia), Robert Mugabe’s government recently said that though Rhodes’ statues had been removed after the country gained independence, his grave in the Matobos shouldn’t be touched. A spokesperson said: “Colonialism is part and parcel of our history.” Great as was the perfidy of Albion, that seems to me to be a sensible response to what are, after all, still tragic events for the people of Zimbabwe.

In 1979, at the end of the liberation war, I filmed in Rhodesia, the country named after Rhodes. I travelled on an armed freight train to a deserted Victoria Falls, hemmed in by guerrillas, its hotels empty, one hit by SAM missiles. Back in Bulawayo, I asked my hosts whether I could go out to the Matobo Hills to see Rhodes’ grave, which lay outside the security zone. We went on condition we were back in time for the curfew. The site lies 25 miles south of Bulawayo in brown granite hills with fairy tale outcrops. Rhodes lies buried on the Hill of Spirits under a polished granite slab, next to Leander Starr Jameson, the colonial politician who led the 1896 Jameson Raid against the Boers (and, so the story goes, was the inspiration for Kipling’s poem If). The site guardian was an Ndebele, and he took me to a high point with breathtaking views all around the horizon. There he spoke of ancient traditions, of oracles and shrines still consulted by the spirit mediums of the Ndebele people; it is one of the sacred sites of southern Africa.

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In the first liberation war, the chimurenga of the 1890s, that followed Rhodes’ annexation of Matabeleland and the death of King Lobengula, the spirit medium Nehanda was captured by the British and executed. In the 1970s war ‘grandmother’ Nehanda became an inspiration, with her photograph on Patriotic Front leaflets. The maternity ward in the main hospital in Harare is named after her.

Reflecting on those events, I have to say I am against statues being removed. I was sad to see Victoria’s go from the Victoria railway terminus in Mumbai, renamed the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST) – even though there are few more worthy than the great 17th-century warrior King Shivaji to have a terminal named after them.

Rhodes’ deeds certainly require an explanatory plaque, as Oriel proposes. But is that enough? Campaigners say no: they still want the statue gone. But why not add a new one? How about Lobengula, King of the Matebele, whose heart was broken by Rhodes ? Or Nehanda, the ‘ancestral spirit’ of the Shona who had at first encouraged hospitality to the British adventurers but died at their hands.

Oxford is a university of the world now. It has an Islamic Studies Centre; an African Studies Centre; a brand new China Centre. So open up, don’t close down. What better than to have an African hero – and heroine – looking out over High Street, reminding all who pass that rewriting the history of history is a core job for the historian; and that good history is one of the foundations of a better present – and a better future.

Michael Wood is a professor of public history at the University of Manchester. You can watch episodes of his latest BBC TV series 'The Story of China' here.
This article was first published in the March 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine


Michael Wood is professor of public history at the University of Manchester