Twisting Rhodes | On this day

It’s an irony of history that the legacy of arch-imperialist Cecil Rhodes includes the education of many Caribbean intellectuals — like Jamaican Rex Nettleford, who arrived in Oxford sixty years ago, writes James Ferguson

  • Illustration by Rohan Mitchell

It grieves me to say this about my alma mater, but Oxford University has a long tradition of accepting money from bad people. Both the university and individual colleges have rarely shown significant scruples in welcoming donations from an unsavoury array of slave owners, arms dealers, and human rights violators who have been happy to offer bequests — perhaps to salve their consciences (unlikely) or to show off their philanthropic credentials for posterity (more likely).

The controversial figure of Cecil Rhodes (1853–1902) is prominent among Oxford’s dubious donors, his £3 million–plus bequest in 1902 having funded a new building in his former college, Oriel, initiated the Rhodes Trust — of which more later — and created Rhodes House, a library and headquarters for the trust. Rhodes is a pervasive presence at Oriel and in Oxford generally, with buildings, portraits, a fellowship, an annual dinner, and an infamous statue commemorating him. “No one has more memorials in Oxford than Cecil Rhodes,” remarks Richard Symonds in Oxford and Empire.

The problem is that Rhodes, even by the standards of his age, was a virulent racist and white supremacist. The sickly vicar’s son from Bishop’s Stortford in Hertfordshire was to become a multi-millionaire diamond trader and founder of the De Beers gem empire. He also became prime minister of South Africa’s Cape Colony and was instrumental in the formation of Rhodesia (named with characteristic modesty), today’s Zimbabwe. He is widely credited with the advent of apartheid and many of the other economic and social ills that have blighted southern Africa. He was in no doubt as to the virtues of imperialism, and his notion of empire was based on race. “I contend that we are the first race in the world,” he wrote in his will, “and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race.” As for the black majority in South Africa, they were “a subject race” whose land could be stolen with impunity and who were not “civilised” enough to vote.

The Oxford of 1902 clearly had no objection to such opinions, even if Rhodes was despised by many liberals and by the growing African black nationalist movement — and so it remained for over a century, his bequest added to by other philanthropists. But in 2015 something happened. Inspired by students at Cape Town University, who had campaigned for the removal of a statue of Rhodes on the university’s campus, a group of Oxford students demanded that Oriel College remove the Rhodes statue overlooking the High Street (on the building he had paid for). The demand turned into a social media cause célèbre, branded Rhodes Must Fall, with supporters talking of “decolonising education” and opponents arguing that such historical re-trials were pointless acts of political correctness. As Peter Scott argued in the UK Guardian newspaper: “If we are to begin a cull of not very nice people, there will be a lot of empty statue plinths.” Oriel, it was reported, was worried that other donors would withdraw funding if the statue was removed. In the end, compromise prevailed; the college agreed to provide “context” that would help explain “historical complexity.” To the protestors’ dismay, Rhodes stayed where he was.

It did not escape the attention of the British tabloid press that some of the main anti-Rhodes activists were Rhodes Scholars — that is, beneficiaries of grants from the Rhodes Trust designed to allow them to study at Oxford. The implicit charge was one of hypocrisy and ingratitude. But however they reconciled their status with their beliefs, this system of international scholarships was (and is) arguably the most significant aspect of Rhodes’s legacy. Intended to encourage leadership qualities among what he termed “young colonists,” the scheme aimed to bring “the whole uncivilised world under British rule” by allowing students from the Empire (now the Commonwealth) and the United States to pursue a second degree or research. As of 2016, precisely 7,776 individuals had benefited from a Rhodes Scholarship. Some are famous, such as Bill Clinton, Kris Kristofferson (both from the United States) and Malcolm Turnbull (Australia), and there are thousands more high-achievers in every field.

The programme is nowadays heavily skewed in favour of the US (thirty-two out of eighty-three annual scholarships in 2013, with only one to Pakistan and ten to southern Africa). The Commonwealth Caribbean, receives one, and Jamaica one.


Which brings me to the anniversary in question. It was sixty years ago that Ralston Milton (“Rex”) Nettleford, one of Jamaica’s most eminent cultural luminaries, arrived at Oriel College as a Rhodes Scholar to begin a three-year MPhil in political science. There he was taught by, among others, Isaiah Berlin, perhaps Britain’s greatest twentieth-century political theorist. Oxford would enhance Nettleford’s already conspicuous intellectual gifts (he already had a first-class degree from the University of the West Indies) and propel him into an outstanding academic career as a historian and social commentator, writing about Rastafari, the politics of twentieth-century Jamaica, and much else besides.

What interested him was the importance of African identity in the diaspora, especially Jamaica, and he saw Africanness, as exemplified by the folk religion of Pocomania, as intrinsic to Jamaican culture. Mirror, Mirror (1970) analysed Jamaicans’ complex relationship with their African heritage and the temptations of abandoning it in the face of mainstream western influences.

A committed educationalist, Nettleford grew up in relatively humble conditions in Trelawny Parish, but made the most of his schooling to reach university and then Oxford. He would return to UWI and remain there for the rest of his career, until his death in 2010.

It is, of course, a pleasing irony that Rex Nettleford, who advocated a reconnection with African traditions and cultural values, should have benefited from the largesse of a man who openly professed to despise such values. At Oxford, he not only delved further into political science, but he also enjoyed a lively artistic scene, working with Dudley Moore and others on theatrical and musical productions. Dance was his great love, and he was an accomplished dancer, choreographer, and producer, co-founding Jamaica’s National Dance Theatre Company, which incorporated African folk music into a fusion that he termed “the rhythm of Africa and the melody of Europe.” Nettleford retained his affection for Oxford, and in a further gratifying irony the Rhodes Trust tastefully marked its centenary in 2004 by creating a Rex Nettleford Fellowship in Cultural Studies. One suspects that Rhodes himself would not have approved.

In Pamela Roberts’s book Black Oxford, which looks at African and Caribbean Rhodes Scholars, there is a reproduced cutting from the Oxford Mail of 14 February, 1958, which describes how postgraduate Rex Nettleford gave lessons in “Afro-Caribbean dancing” to members of the Oxford University Ballet Club. Charmingly diplomatic, he is quoted as saying, “Now, I don’t agree with the myth that the English haven’t got rhythm in them. The English have as much rhythm as anyone else — a little inhibited, that’s all.” How true. And how his generosity of spirit stands in stark contrast to the arrogance of the man who unwittingly helped him — and many others — in their chosen careers.

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