Old Imperialists

A couple of old (indeed, dead) imperialists have been in the news recently. The first is Cecil Rhodes, whose statue outside Oriel College Oxford I had never noticed, until the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ protest movement at Oxford University earlier this year – imported originally from Cape Town, whose Rhodes statue is rather more prominent – brought it to all of our attentions. The second is Kipling.

According to its organisers, the rationale behind the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ movement was to highlight the university’s ‘implication in colonialism and the violence that accompanied it’, and to persuade the authorities to better represent ‘black voices’ in their curriculum. (This is from Wiki.) Both of these are laudable objects, although the first raises the obvious question of ‘where to stop’ – which institutions haven’t been implicated to some extent or other in the darker aspects of colonialism and other evils in the past; and the second presents the difficulty that it might not be the best means of achieving the aim of furthering ‘Black Studies’. Indeed, it could be counter-productive, if it alienates more people than it wins over: anti-‘PC’ backwoods-people, of course; but also those who might regard pulling down statues from a past civilization to be too close for comfort to what the Taliban and Isis do. As a historian, I find the idea of destroying history deeply troubling. I regard most mediaeval culture as pretty abhorrent, but wouldn’t want to raze its cathedrals and castles to the ground for that reason. I have no plans to pull down Thatcher’s statue in the lobby of the House of Commons. Successor generations need to be reminded of everything about the past, good and bad. That’s the only way in which any ‘lessons from history’ will ever be learned.

Rudyard Kipling’s name has come up in connection with the new Disney film of The Jungle Book, due for general release soon. Here’s a pretty typical attack on that: http://io9.gizmodo.com/reminder-rudyard-kipling-was-a-racist-fuck-and-the-jun-1771044121. (Thanks, Robin.) You’ll get the general tenor of it from the title of that link. Actually the article is not quite as strong as this implies, with the author calling not for censorship of the film, but for it to be placed in some kind of – racist and imperialist – ‘context’. How this is to be done is not made clear. A re-edit of the whole thing? A ‘Health Warning’ on cinema tickets and DVD boxes? Subtitles drawing attention to the implicit racism? A compulsory lecture at the beginning from an anti-imperialist (like me)? It’s clearly problematical and, I would have thought, unnecessary.

I’ve not seen the film yet, of course, but racism and imperialism were not essential elements of either the book or the earlier Disney animated version; and I’m pretty certain were not the aspects of them that were picked up by my own children and grandchildren when they read or watched it, or even could have influenced them subliminally. That’s not to say that Kipling was not an imperialist, a racist, and a pretty unpleasant human being all round. You can read my unflattering view of him here: http://www.lrb.co.uk/v24/n08/bernard-porter/so-much-to-hate. (Perhaps they could give copies of that out to cinema-goers.) The inconvenient fact remains, however, that unpleasant people can produce wonderful and even beautiful art. Kipling did. So did Wagner and Larkin. The Renaissance composer Gesualdo was a murderer yet still wrote some beautiful madrigals. In all these cases their art – or most of it – can be separated from their lives. Even imperialists can be complicated human beings. Imperialism itself is very complex thing. (That’s the main theme of my British Imperial.)

The second ‘excuse’ that is usually trotted out for monsters like Rhodes and Kipling is that they were ‘creatures of their time’, and so should only be judged by the less enlightened standards of their age. That might have something to be said for it; except that in this case it just won’t wash. I know that the general opinion now is that everyone in late nineteenth century Britain was an imperialist and a racist; but that simply wasn’t so. Again, you’ll need to go to another of my books, The Absent-Minded Imperialists, for evidence of that. With respect to the two men under consideration here, it is a fact that they were loathed in Britain at the time, at least as widely and fiercely as they were loved, and for the very same reasons we disapprove of them today. Proposals to raise statues to Rhodes were controversial then. (It might be significant that the Oriel one is so hidden away.) They were by no means typical, except of a very small minority of Anglo-South African and Anglo-Indian society. Which might be a more logical reason for pulling down their statues and censoring their films; except that – in the last resort – nothing can justify that.

About bernardporter2013

Retired academic, author, historian.
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