Students at Oxford are campaigning to tear down a statue of Cecil Rhodes, on the grounds that the Victorian colonialist was a racist. To help to inform the next steps in their campaign, we thought it worth submitting some suggestions for other famous figures whose unsavoury views might merit their deletion from the historical record.
During his time in South Africa, Gandhi was a vocal advocate for Indians in the colony. However, he had rather less supportive views on the African population, whom he called “Kaffirs”. In 1896, he wrote: “Ours is one continual struggle against a degradation sought to be inflicted upon us by the Europeans, who desire to degrade us to the level of the raw Kaffir whose occupation is hunting, and whose sole ambition is to collect a certain number of cattle to buy a wife with and, then, pass his life in indolence and nakedness.” Today, his statue stands in Parliament Square.
In 1887, the man who was to found the Labour Party railed against foreign workers, suggesting employers were bringing in “Russian Poles” either to “teach men how to live on garlic and oil, or introduce the Black Death, so as to get rid of the surplus labourers.” If a politician tweeted that today, their phone would melt from the outraged replies, and they would swiftly face a 400,000-signature petition calling for their sacking. Fortunately for Hardie, Twitter was still well over a century away – instead, there are now over 40 streets named after him, and numerous other memorials across the UK – and of course the Party he founded remains the official Opposition.
As if being a bloodthirsty totalitarian wasn’t bad enough, this particular “hero” was also a racist. In his famous diary, he wrote: “The blacks, those magnificent examples of the African race who have maintained their racial purity thanks to their lack of an affinity with bathing, have seen their territory invaded by a new kind of slave: the Portuguese. The black is indolent and a dreamer; spending his meager wage on frivolity or drink; the European has a tradition of work and saving, which has pursued him as far as this corner of America and drives him to advance himself, even independently of his own individual aspirations.” Today, Guevara’s romanticised portrait adorns millions of lefties’ posters and t-shirts.
So the choice for Oxford’s social justice iconoclasts is clear: demolish Gandhi’s statue, delete Keir Hardie’s name from the street maps and burn your Che Guevara t-shirts, or grow up and accept the fact that the people of the past did not live by modern values. In the words of Mary Beard, “It’s not the job of the present to tick the past off”.