Matthew Parris

Here’s my solution to the problem of what to do with the statue of Cecil Rhodes at Oriel College

It should be allowed to remain — but opposite it should be erected a new statue of Lobengula, the great Matabele leader

23 January 2016

9:00 AM

23 January 2016

9:00 AM

Lobengula was the second king of the Matabele people in what is now Zimbabwe. He was also the last. Cecil John Rhodes smashed his authority, and broke his tribe.

The Matabele (a breakaway people from the Zulu kingdom to the south) had been making their way north, and by the time Rhodes arrived on the scene were in effective control of a vast area of southern Africa, stretching from the Limpopo river to the Zambezi. Matabeleland was rich in -minerals and the tribe were being pestered by white prospectors. Rhodes saw his opportunity. He made an ally of Lobengula, who had been king since 1869, and in 1888 persuaded him to grant Rhodes’s emissaries an exclusive deal known as the Rudd Concession.

Lobengula could not read or write and key parts of the understanding were verbal, but I’ve never heard it seriously disputed — even in the unwaveringly pro-Rhodes version of history I absorbed during my Rhodesian boyhood — that Rhodes tricked Lobengula. As a king, he admired and trusted the dynamic white man in whom he recognised the qualities of leadership. For £100 per month, a steam boat, and one thousand rifles plus ammunition, Lobengula believed he was selling the mineral rights to his territory. He didn’t realised Rhodes intended to occupy it. Rhodes himself described the concession as ‘so gigantic it is like giving a man the whole of Australia’.

Within a year Rhodes had attained a charter for his company so that legally he was unassailable the eyes of a (suspicious) British government. Soon prospectors — and settlers, and a police force — moved in, on Rhodes’s orders. The maxim gun followed. The Matabele rebelled in 1893. They were utterly defeated. Lobengula, deceived into selling his people for a mess of potage, had fled. He died a few months later of an imported disease, smallpox.

I recall, even among the hardened white supremacists among whom I grew up, an embarrassment about Lobengula’s fate. I should like to have known him. Witty, sharp and ‘every inch a king’, according to those who did, he comes across as having a generosity of spirit that was his undoing. ‘Did you ever see a chameleon catch a fly?’ he asked, towards the end of his life. ‘The chameleon gets behind the fly and remains motionless for some time, then he advances very slowly and gently, first putting forward one leg and then another. At last, when well within reach, he darts out his tongue and the fly disappears. England is the chameleon and I am that fly.’

I admire Rhodes tremendously, I admire his achievements, and I’d argue that what is now Zimbabwe is the better for his life and work. His racism was routine for his era and he was not unusually cruel, so I would not blame him for his racial attitudes, but the fact is that he was — as London very well knew — an unscrupulous chancer. Rhodes was a dreamer, an achiever and a rascal.

I’ve been observing with a certain doubtfulness the high horses on which both sides in the dispute over the future of Rhodes’s statue at Oriel College seem to be riding. I wouldn’t dream of removing it, but that’s partly because I admire the man. The argument used against Oxford students campaigning against the statue appears to be that ‘you can’t rewrite history’. This argument is way too strong. I don’t remember hearing it from Tory friends when a Baghdad mob was toppling the statue of Saddam Hussein in 2003. I cannot call to mind protests from Times and Telegraph readers as statues of V.I. Lenin came down all across the former Soviet bloc.

I’m afraid that we do regularly decry, debase or destroy monuments to individuals who history has subsequently decided were bad eggs. Personally I’d leave in place the many statues erected to General Franco in Spain, and retain the names of the many town squares named after him — but I do understand the feelings of those millions who think otherwise.

So here’s a modest proposed compromise. How about a statue of the great Matabele king, Lobengula, somewhere at Oriel where he and Rhodes can see each other? There is, you see, no danger of important figures from our western European history being forgotten, but Lobengula, whose name was once familiar to British newspaper readers, is now almost completely forgotten — even by a younger African generation in Zimbabwe.

The deposed Matabele king was, when the white man crossed the Limpopo from the south, in the process of subjugating and dispossessing by force the other tribe inhabiting those lands: the Mashona, an unwarlike and pastoral people who were not united by an imperial hierarchy as the Matabele were, and were no match for Lobengula’s fearsome warriors. Robert Mugabe and his Zanu-PF party are essentially a Mashona political movement, regaining after a century their regional hegemony — and there’s more than a hint of that in modern Zimbabwean politics. The Matabele have not (to put it delicately) been favoured by the government in Harare.

So here’s my quid pro quo for Lobengula’s rejoining Rhodes at an Oxford college. Rhodes’s body lies beneath a simple plaque in a rock grave in the beautiful granite Matobo hills south of Bulawayo (‘Bulawayo’ means ‘place of slaughter’ in Ndebele, the language of the Matabele). I think that, when he dies, Mugabe should take his place beside Rhodes in that serene and moving spot.

They were both great leaders, as was Lobengula. All three did terrible things. All three did great things. All three changed history. All three are among the architects of modern Africa north of the Limpopo. All three were prisoners of their era and circumstances, as we all are. Yet all three transcended their time to some degree. Their spirits will always walk the African bush.

Do we have to judge all the time? Could we not just acknowledge?

There, now I’ll have annoyed both sides.

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Show comments
  • Jack

    Daft. The analogies simply don’t work. Franco and Saddam were evil dictators. Lenin was little better. The destruction of their statues was more than symbolic. It coincided with the end of their vicious, unjust regimes. The anti-Rhodes bandwagon is merely a politically correct movement spearheaded by an assortment of insolent, ignorant idiots.

    • quotes

      He has successfully achieved much of what he set out to do, though. A great leader need not be a good one. Napoleon was a great leader, as were Stalin and Blair and Cromwell.

      How can the destruction of a symbol ever be “more than symbolic”?

      Yes, the Rhodes Must Fall thing is PC. That doesn’t necessarily make it wrong. How we shape our public realm makes a statement about our community. Is it necessarily the case that it’s better to curate the past amorally than it is to think about the values we are choosing to preserve and project?

      Were I an Oreil student I wouldn’t care about the statue. But I certainly don’t see why anyone who isn’t should care whether they want to get rid of it.

      • Jack

        A good leader is, by definition, moral. Good = morally good.

        The destruction of the statues in question were conducted by enraged victims of the individuals subjugated. It was more than symbolic.

        Political correctness is always wrong. It is inauthentic, phony.

        Removing the statue of Rhodes would demonstrate a serious lapse in intelligence, understanding, and grasp of historical reality.

        • StrategyKing

          A little late to the discussion, but um don’t you see the flaw in your position? If a good leader is by definition moral, then Rhodes was definitely not a good leader. Case closed.

  • The_greyhound

    There isn’t a problem with having a statue of Rhodes, so there’s no requirement for a “solution”.

    This is merely about some self-adverting dork on the make. But here’s some important information for the dork : we don’t care what people in Bongo-Bongo Land think. We will attend to our affairs, and you get on with daubing your hair with cow dung.


    • MathMan

      The self-advertising dork in this case is the son of a SA politician who has made many millions due to his position in the ANC ( I wonder how his son got the Rhodes Scholarship?). Without the likes of Cecil Rhodes SA would still be like the rest of Africa.

  • I don’t see any argument for putting up statues to foreigners in this country, unless they are people who have actually served the UK in some way.

    So Mandela should go, suggesting Lobengula is just a silly joke, and we can keep Smuts in Parliament Square as he ended up as an ally.

    • Jack

      Actually, Smuts was a racist, so …

  • Emmet Krull

    One of the most disturbing things about the whole ‘Rhodes must fall’ farrago, is the demands from the foreign students of colour that Oxford change what it teaches to make it less ‘Eurocentric’. Students should attend University to learn , NOT set the agenda via spurious charges of ethnocentricism. Oxford University is indeed ‘Eurocentric’ as it is the product of European culture, ie.the dominant culture worldwide due to the multiplicity of it’s achievements.

    If the syllabus were changed to include the achievements of African culture, then I’m afraid there would be precious little material for course work.

    Attending Oxford University and complaining of it’s ‘Eurocentricity’ is as feeble minded as comments which occasionally pop up in the Guardian from some person of colour complaining that there are too many white people in Britain (!) Presumably the fact that as ethnic North Europeans, Britons are white escapes them.

    • Mr B J Mann

      Perhaps Oxford Colleges should provide a new, less Erocentric, more Sub-Saharan Afrocentric courses for these students.

      And if they do really well give then a Grade C GCSE in African Studies.

      Perhaps something similar for the Gender Studies courses should be organised?!

  • Bertie

    Don’t see the logic of putting up statues of non British nationals in this country – not surprised Parris came up with this limp wristed compromise. His “Mugabe being a ‘great leader” remark is utterly astounding.

    What have such people ever done for Britain? We are meant to be remembering our “own” people, not those of every other nation.

    Political correctness is akin to cancer spreading through society. We seem to be in its vice like grip currently.

  • Vinnie

    why does Parris write for the Spectator?

  • StrategyKing

    Late to the discussion, but what a gorgeous essay, providing historical perspective and fresh insight. The actions of Robert Mugabe and his followers make more sense now.

  • Why not put the statue up in Cape Town university?