Burma’s Bovine Borders

What does a substance as seemingly innocuous as milk have to do with the political geography of British imperialism in Burma? Probably not a question at the forefront of your mind. But milk drinking, it turns out, was a marker of cultural difference. It was also a product the making of which was bound up with tensions around immigration.

Who drank which creature’s milk mattered to British imperial writers in the colony. A definitively mammalian product for nourish young creatures, the consumption of milk was a form of interspecies intimacy. As such it, was subject to certain taboos and framed by historically contingent cultural understandings. It was commented that Indian ‘martial races’, such as Punjabi Sikhs, drank milk and ate cheese and thus were muscular and manly. In contrast, it was claimed Burmese Buddhists did not drink milk because of their sympathy for animal life. Some writers went further, recounting in disgust apocryphal stories of Burmese women nursing orphaned animals. These descriptions of milk drinking fed into British representations of Burma as a place distinct to India and behind Britain in the development of decorous sensibilities and secular thinking.

At the same time colonial officials worried about the plight of plough cattle in the colony. By the end of the nineteenth century Burma was the largest rice producer in the world. The cultivation of this staple was dependent upon the labour of oxen who ploughed the fields, provided manure and transported people and rice across the colony. Officials believed that local Burmese breeds of ox were hardier than those found in India, although both were of the species Bos Indicus and neither had been subjected to the same intensity of anthropogenic selective breeding as bovine livestock in Europe. As result, officials became concerned that the migration of dairy herds from India were a threat to the Burmese ‘breeds’ of cattle. These Indian herds were said to spread diseases and to promiscuously mate with local oxen leading to a degeneration of local plough cattle. The measures the colonial state put in place to rectify these supposed problems were coterminous with similar policies put in place to regulate the movement of Indian people into the colony.

Evil Effects of Crossing: Cross-bred cow
The Supply of Plough Cattle in Burma, Agricultural Survey No. 7 of 1928 (Rangoon: 1929)

In an article published in the Journal of Historical Geography, I argue that both the cultural observations made about dairy consumption and the state controls put on Indian dairy herds were part of a wider naturalisation of Burma’s political geography – a mapping that was always and remains contested, complex and contingent. But how did milk even come to emerge as a subject to study? Certainly, I did not ever envisage that I would be engaged in uncovering a history that, taken at face value, sounds so esoteric and niche. The topic came into focus only after I had started a new research project into the history of animals in colonial Burma. By decentring humans as the default starting point of my study, I have found myself reading archives in different ways in order to tease out the records in which histories concerning myriad other creatures resided. This was particularly apparent when I went back through the annual reports of the Rangoon Lunatic Asylum. I had scoured these reports several years earlier for an article on colonial psychiatry, but during this research I had entirely missed the fact that the institution had its own dairy herd with over forty heads of cattle – despite the asylum’s chronic overcrowding. My turn towards animal history has not so much been to put animals into history, but to recognise the ways in which I had previously ignored and overlooked their presence.

JSaha 

Jonathan Saha is an associate Professor at the University of Leeds specialising in the history of colonial Burma. His blog Colonizing Animals looks at the history of beasts, British imperialism and Burma.

 

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‘Infamus calumniations’, or, a petition goes awry at Rothwell Church, 1603

On the morning of 13 October, 1603, Sir Thomas Tresham summoned his tenants to Rothwell parish church, Northants, like naughty students to the headteacher’s study. He had got wind of a petition they sent to the King in the summer ‘to prevent sr Thomas from renewinge his lease’ of their home village of Orton, on the basis that he had been a cruel landlord. Sir Thomas had been fuming for a while but, ‘respectinge their harvest tyme’, postponed his florid telling-off until after Michaelmas – a not entirely unselfish pause, since they’d been reaping in his rent money during the harvest. And so he dragged the tenants to Church on a Thursday morning to give them an alliterative earful, and to ‘defend his Credytt, … against the infammus imputations which they impudently taxed on him in their petition to the kinge’.[1]

Information signed by JPs concerning complaints against Sir Thomas Tresham, 1603. The National Archives, E 163/16/19
Information signed by JPs concerning complaints against Sir Thomas Tresham, 1603. The National Archives, E 163/16/19

That the tenants had put their names to a petition was not unusual. Then, as now, petitioning was a popular form of politics that attracted wide participation – as the ‘Addressing Authority’ symposium over on the Many-Headed Monster blog recently laid out. Early modern petitions survive in their tens of thousands, and were used by people of all social ranks to try to improve their lot, or get their voices heard. And, on occasion, to lie through their teeth.

Tresham thought the Orton petition was full of ‘trothelese and infamus Calumniations’ against him, ‘that they, ther wifes, ther Childern and familyes were utterly undone by the extremitye of their fynes, Rentes, paymentes and servis innumerable as by vexationes with processes, and inclosure’. In other words, the tenants had accused him of increasing rents and fines, harassing them for money, and enclosing their shared land – all fairly common stuff in this type of complaint.

When everyone had assembled, ‘Sr Thomas produced the sayde petition and caused yt to be publicklye red’. He then ‘duely proved that their fynes were verye reasonable… [and] that their Rents was as of autentique tyme they had beine’, with apparently little objection from the tenants. None of them admitted being harassed for rent. The enclosure or land that was ‘complaynd of so bytterlye, and with such extremitys of Raylling words’ was no more than four acres. Finally, Sir Thomas ‘proved by testymonie’ that some of the tenants had ‘marked’ the petition even though they didn’t know the contents. By the end of the lecture, ‘all the tenantes of orton … disclaymed from their petition, and in publike presence ther, beseched Sr Thomas Tresame to forgive them’.

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Rothwell Church, by Martinevans123, from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Holy_Trinity_Church,_Rothwell.jpg

This story was recorded in an ‘information’ signed by Justices of the Peace who had been there at the church. Tresham enclosed the document in a letter complaining of being ‘delayed by the peevish and paltry proceedings of my Orton tenants’, but I haven’t (so far) been able to track down the original petition against Tresham, or any further mention of it.[2] In any case, the document paints an unusually vivid picture of the relationship between a landlord and his tenants, and the aftermath of a petition.

We were discussing popular politics this week on Durham History’s first-year module ‘Early Modern England: a social history’, and petitions inevitably cropped up. I brought along copies of Tresham’s ‘information’ and we considered how far we could read it ‘against the grain’. How do assumptions we make about the motivations of those involved change the way we imagine the scene that unfolded in Rothwell church? We came up with a couple of possible scenarios.

Maybe Sir Thomas was the victim of a mendacious plot to deprive him of his manor. The tenants would have been aware of his uneasy relationship with the Court (an eccentric Catholic, Tresham had spent years in prison and under house arrest[3]), and of the successes and failures of similar action. Petitions were not unfiltered expressions of popular complaints; they were artfully constructed towards a particular goal, sharing rhetorical tropes that were known to be effective. Early modern people (and not just the many lawyers) were familiar with the law, comfortable and confident with how they could use it to their benefit.[4]

http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details/collection_image_gallery.aspx?assetId=151147001&objectId=1621488&partId=1
Emblematic portrait of Sir Thomas Tresham, emphasising his Catholicism and scholarly pursuits. British Museum, O,5.143

On the other hand, maybe Tresham was a consummate bully. What if it had been a genuine petition, filled with real complaints, put down with a display of flamboyant rhetoric and symbolic force? Put yourself in the shoes of the petitioning tenants for a moment. Summoned to the parish church by their priest, under the gaze of their landlord and more than a dozen gentry (not to mention the creepy dogs carved into the pillars at Rothwell), you might be intimidated into silence. JPs were often called on to arbitrate disputes like this, but the signatures suggest that four of the gentlemen present shared the unusual surname ‘Tresham’ – scarcely a disinterested bunch. In the presence of their landlord and his kin, tenants would be used to speaking only when spoken to, and to self-censoring. If not they risked being accused of disrespectful or seditious speech, and finding themselves in the stocks – or relieved of their ears.[5]

Evidently Sir Thomas did ask for the tenants’ input at the Rothwell meeting, but only in answer to a series of leading, almost catechising, questions. Are your rent and fines not fair? Yes they are. Am I not as kind and generous in my terms as any other lord? Yes you are. Were you not wrong to say such mean things about me? Yes we were, and we’re sorry. It took a brave subordinate to speak out alone, and only one tenant seems to have disagreed: ‘one of the tennants [said he] payd twelve pence more then of auntient tyme was payde. To this Sr Thomas replyed that yf yt were so yt was more than he earst knew, but verelie did thinke yt to be untrew’. Case dismissed. Now hold your tongue.

Perhaps the real story was a bit both. If Tresham had been upping rent and building hedges, he wouldn’t have been alone. Likewise, the tenants probably embellished their claims with the help of someone well versed in this kind of law. Perhaps the ringleaders did put pressure on a few of their less willing neighbours to add their mark to the petition. But in the face of a direct confrontation in Rothwell, they (almost) unanimously backed down, and a number disavowed it altogether. Social relations in early modern England were marked by both deference to the established social hierarchy and a defiant and violent streak that frightened elites. But most episodes, like the incident at Rothwell, sit somewhere between these extremes.

http://ebba.english.ucsb.edu/ballad/22023/
Two farmers, from ‘A Dialogue / Between Tom and Iack, / Two / North-Country Plow-men’ (c. 1675-95)

[1] All the quotations are from the pictured document: The National Archives, E 163/16/19.

[2] Historical Manuscripts Commission, Report on manuscripts in various collections, Vol 3 (1904), pp. 126-7. Free online: https://archive.org/details/variousmanuscripts03greauoft

[3] See ODNB: http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/27712

[4] This was a recurrent theme in papers at the memorial conference for Durham’s Professor Chris Brooks. A book of the proceedings will be published soon.

[5] Andy Wood, ‘“Poore men woll speke one daye”: plebeian languages of deference and defiance in England, c.1520-1640’, in Tim Harris (ed.), The Politics of the Excluded (London, 2001), pp. 67-98.


andyburnrev

Dr Andy Burn is a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of History, working on a project, funded by the Leverhulme Trust: Social relations and everyday life in England. He writes about early modern economic and social history, and tweets from @aj_burn

The changing attitude towards German migrants in Britain during the First World War

The advent of the First World War was a defining event in the lives of civilians as well as those in the military.  So-called ‘enemy aliens’, people who had settled in territories which were now at war with their homelands, have until recently been overlooked in the study of the war.  North-East England was home to a thriving German community, with many of the immigrants having lived in the region since the mid-nineteenth century.  German Evangelical churches had sprung up in South Shields and Sunderland, and German butchers’ shops were common; at the same time, many of them anglicised their names and became naturalised.  However, with the war came frenzied anti-German sentiment whipped up by the press; the Germans’ commitment to integration would not count for much.

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TWCMS:2001.4958 A photograph from the South Shields Museum & Art Gallery Collection of Market Place in South Shields

Months of well-publicised spy-scares and German military atrocities, culminating with the torpedoing of the Lusitania passenger liner in May 1915, sparked the outbreak of rioting across the country in that month.  Violence in the North East was concentrated in Newcastle and South Shields, where on the night of the 15th May 1915, it was reported that 7,000 rioters assembled in the Market Place, destroying shops belonging to Germans and shouting, “Remember the Lusitania!”.  But more personal issues were also at play.  A young Gateshead labourer named Arthur Adams received news on 10th May that two friends had been killed at the front.  His response was to enter the butcher’s shop owned by Charles Frederick Seitz, and to attack the startled German with a brick, forcing him to barricade himself in the back room.

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STH0004368 A photograph taken from South Tyneside Libraries collection (www.southtynesideimages.org.uk) of Fred Seitz & Sons’ Pork Butcher shop, which was situated at 11 Market Place

Fortunately, it seems Arthur Adams was not representative of the North East as a whole.  Many local people stood by their German neighbours in the face of the mob.  On the night of the 15th May, the butcher’s shop owned by Frederick Seitz (a distant cousin of C.F. Seitz) came under attack.  A twenty-year-old South Shields woman, Matilda Carney, was inside at the time.  As a domestic servant of the Seitz family, she was caught between two loyalties.  Yet Matilda decided to protect the German family, aiding the escape of Mrs. Seitz and her five young children, and sheltering them at her own house overnight.  For some, the wartime rhetoric of the murderous German barbarian did not infiltrate their personal relationships with the real Germans who lived alongside them.

The war eventually saw the internment of most German men of military age (between 17 and 55), and widespread deportation.  In this legislation, the government took its lead from the anti-German press, the mobs of 1915, and the increasingly reactionary feeling in parliament.  But it is important to remember that the war did not turn all British people into violent anti-German rioters.  Those who remained loyal to their long-standing German friends, neighbours and colleagues also deserve their place in the narrative of the German community during the First World War.

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‘The Germans within our gates’ taken from the Illustrated Chronicle, on 6 August 1914 reproduced by the kind permission of Newcastle City Library

Lauren Haikney wrote her undergraduate dissertation on ‘Germans and Geordies:  The Great War and the German Minority of Newcastle and South Shields’.  Her research has contributed to Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums’ new online exhibition, ‘The Kuch family on Tyneside:  A story of changing attitudes towards German migrants in Britain.’ Click here to view it on Google Cultural Institute.

Credit, a conman, and a letter from Cologne

panlondonIn the summer of 1609, Southwark innkeeper William George was targeted by a distant ancestor of the ‘stranded traveller’ scam. A group of respectable-ish men that George knew through his business had decided to take him to the cleaners, but he saw straight through it. They showed him a letter, which ostensibly had travelled from Cologne but in fact had been cooked up just around the corner. The intention of the letter was clear: to indirectly embarrass and threaten George, in order to extort ‘the some of fortye poundes to be shared and devyded amongest them selves’. In the letter, Robert Swadden claimed to be stuck in Cologne, so he couldn’t pay his debts, but he said that George had stolen the money from him and he threatened consequences if the innkeeper didn’t cough up.

Fortunately for us, rather than paying up, George petitioned the King’s Court of Star Chamber to investigate, and records of that case survive at the National Archives. To do that, he had to submit the full letter as evidence, and so we get a window into this interesting episode. The gist is as follows: Swadden owed £40 to Mr Cradock, but this was only because William George had rode away with the money when he and Swadden had been working together in Cambridge. Swadden had since been to prison (for uncertain reasons) and was now in Cologne, he said, from where he wouldn’t return because the quality of the English air was not up to snuff. If Cradocke wanted payment, then he would have to go to George, and if George wouldn’t pay up, then Swadden had all sorts of dirt that he could dredge up.

STAC 8 libel
The Bill of Complaint sent by William George to the Star Chamber (1610), The National Archives, STAC 8/155/1

Why did Swadden think that George be so keen to pay out? The threat to ‘make my Lord Cheiffe Justice acquaynted with that I have wrytten’ is clear enough, but it backfired when George himself sent a copy of the letter directly to the King’s council. The real threat was to George’s reputation, and that’s why he brought the case. There were grounds for a suit because the threat to publicise this letter (technically a ‘libel’) was intended to damage George’s public reputation and his business interests – his ‘credit’. The conspirators, according to George, ‘offered for the saveinge of [George’s] reputacion and Creditt … in not divulginge of the said scandalouse and infamous libell’ – blackmail, in other words.

money_beauty04-26faf1c5c7a127bcb865d66d0232c3528dc18365-s900-c85
The moneychanger and his wife. Marinus van Reymerswaele, 1540.

We often now think of ‘credit’ as something value-neutral, a mysterious but objective ‘score’ calculated on our behalf by the credit reference agencies (though the 2007-8 financial catastrophe should have cured us of such naivety). It reflects our assets, our income, and ultimately our ability to pay back creditors, nothing more. But, as Craig Muldrew showed, to early moderns, financial credit was intimately bound up with moral and social worth. The modern meaning of the word followed from the older sense of ‘favourable reputation’. In an economy with a chronic lack of hard cash, tradesmen and merchants had to know who they could trust to pay later, and the moral virtues of sobriety, sexual propriety and honesty were important factors. For one person to challenge another’s moral character was to attack them financially as well as socially.

In this case, the libellers were threatening the innkeeper with a reputation as a thief and a swindler. Swadden’s letter described him as ‘as notable a fellowe and daungerouse as any lives in London’, something of a Thenardier: a menace to his customers and to everyone else. Not only did he rip off both Mr Cradock and Swadden, but he regularly payed ‘only ½ halfe the worth’ for items he bought; he was disloyal to friends; he overcharged at his inn (£2000 in only seven years). And further unnamed dark sins lurked in his past, capital crimes ‘which shall cost him his lyffe’.

starchamberThe ‘conspirators’ vigorously denied any wrongdoing, as we might expect – and the Star Chamber was already becoming known as cruel and arbitrary, so we should consider whether George was simply lying through his teeth. But Swadden’s case was not helped when the court began to dredge up his past. Cambridge merchant Thomas Jewry believed he had ‘used threateninge deceite and consoning to gett money’. And Swadden’s account of how he came to owe forty pounds to Nathaniell Cradock in the first place was contradicted by a number of witnesses. According to one of the inn’s servants, Swadden had come to the Dolphin Inn in Cambridge about three years earlier, under a false name, Johnson. He asked the servant ‘whoe were the greateste traders in the Towne, and likelieste to paie moneye by exchainge from London’. Cradock’s name was suggested, and they agreed that Cradock would give ‘Johnson’ £80 in return for a bill of exchange which he could cash in London (a handwritten note that worked a bit like a traveller’s cheque, meaning merchants need not travel with large sums of cash but instead could instruct that a third party pay out unconditionally on their behalf). Cradock paid half the money, but the bills Swadden handed over turned out to be counterfeit, and he skipped town.

He then, as we have seen, tried to pin the blame on innkeeper William George in a threatening letter from ‘Cologne’. This illustrates another aspect of early modern credit – its networks were spread across oceans and international boundaries. Swadden’s intrigues had long had an international flavour. A trader from Suffolk ran into him two years earlier, though this time he was going by the name of Thomas Smith. He conned Shawberrie out of ‘fifty poundes by counterfeyting of a bill of exchange in the name of Sumuell desbonnerie of London a douchman’ – a German merchant resident in London. Swadden was clearly a Germanophile of sorts, studiously watching the news from the continent as confessional fighting was straining the Holy Roman Empire. He added a touch of authenticity to the end of the dodgy letter with ‘the newes which is heare currant is, that this next Sommer wee expect great wares. Leopaldus is stronge in feild for the Emperor… The Cyttie of Collen have put out all religions except Catholickes…’.

stranded-traveler-appeal-scamsThe modern ‘stranded traveller’ scam ­– when an email account is hacked to solicit money from the victim’s friends with tales of an ‘emergency’ – exploits new technology and booming international travel to fool its victims. In William George’s time, expanding networks of trade and a growing system of debt and credit left room for similar scams. Conmen like Swadden could exploit their understanding of London trade in Cambridge, of Cambridge trade in London, and of goings-on in Cologne to fool their victims into accepting counterfeit bills in return for cash. This pace and reach of trade multiplied over the 16th and 17th centuries, and as Durham’s Professor Chris Brooks showed, so did the number of people coming to court to settle debts and resolve other disputes. It was particularly important for early modern people to maintain their reputation: without it, they had no credit, and without credit, life was much more difficult.


 

andyburnrev

Dr Andy Burn is a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of History, working on a project, funded by the Leverhulme Trust: Social relations and everyday life in England. He writes about early modern economic and social history, and tweets from @aj_burn


Transcription of the libel:

Mr Brett, accordinge to my promise unto yow at my beinge in durance, I will nowe give you some light to recover the fortye poundes which I owe to Mr Cradocke, for my owne parte I had smale reason to stay where I was, when youw last sawe me for I did not like the ayre. Nowe these are to give yuw to understand that ther is dwelling at the Bancke side neere ould parris Garden steares at the signe of the meaden head, on William George, as notable a fellowe and daungerouse as any lives in London this fellowe, sett my plott upon Mr Cradocke. He was with me att Cambridge laye att the dolphin shared ½ of yt and Caried the rest the ostler and tapster doe know him very well, he road uppon a sorrell mare with a shorne mayne which he hath yett, Alsoe he was with me that same tyme att Huntington at Mr Kilbornes, where one Peacocke should have paid me 80li … but that he was gone to London, wee myst it also at that tyme, he and I Receavd 50li of younge Noble, of Newark uppon Trent where he shared halfe, wee laye at the post maysters which servantes do all knowe him and so do kilborne. I protest Mr Brett I have layen at this fellowes house this 7 yeeres as all the neighbours do nowe and have spent in his house above a 2000li … whereas I am fully assured that he cheted me of the one halfe, yett at my beinge in prison of thirtye poundes Ix/xx lent him out of my purse, I would now have a penny but I must confesse untill the last I did Impositon him for any. Also I gave him a Grey mare which he was proferred tenn poundes for, my truncke of apparell did all this while stand at his house, besided, not longe before my trobles I bestowed a blacke suyte of stuffe amd a gonne for his wyffe the which I gott of one about the Queenes head in Patternoster Rowe by a letter, he sett the match and bought it all at ½ halfe the worth, a hundred things more. But I thinke this shall suffce to cause him to give yow sattisfacion, the Reason why I write yow this is when I had gotten out I went pryvilie unto him to send me one of my Rapiars and dagger and a suyte of apparell with other lynen and ten pownd in money this Roge sent me an answere he had bynn before the Justice and there swore yf ever he sawe me to apprehend me and for money or any thinge els he would send none so I not having meanes to procure my owne was fayne to lose it and begone, yett he gott all that he hath by me. I pray yow yf this this fellowe give yow not sattisfacion and content yow make my Lord Cheiffe Justice acquaynted with that I have wrytten yow said wryte unto me at your leasure to Collen at the white horse upon the new markett, and yf this will not suffice I will wrte yow more against him which shall cost him his lyffe, the newes which is heare currant is, that this next Sommer wee expect great wares Leopaldus is stronge in feild for the Emperor arr much assisted by the archduke Reformados, Braughborch on thother side of the Raigne. Also very strong 8000 french newly come into his Ayre, the termes of their strength stand equall Bredenbaint is belevyed by Braughburgh they have sailed from within slaine some hundred horse and foote, the Cyttie of Collen have put out all religions except Catholickes, the Towne of utricke in Armes, and will paye no more assisses or Customes without they mae have wares againe. In hast, I commend me unto you and so comytt in to god your lovinge freind

Robert Swadden.

Engaging with the Past: Commemorative Statues, Imperialism and Cecil Rhodes

OxfordRhodesBritain has a complicated relationship with its past. It loves it. It builds an entire tourism industry upon it. It builds an entire entertainment industry of it. It hates it. It conceals it. It ignores it. At the moment, it’s defending it (selectively, of course). For once, debate over the need to preserve history has come out from the shadows of academia and into the eager hands of the public. The recent #Rhodesmustfall campaign at Oxford University, following on from student protests around South Africa last year aimed at the removal of the numerous statues of imperialist Cecil Rhodes offensively permeating their cityscapes, seems to be both gripping and dividing the country.

rhodes-must-fall(Social) media is distorting the intricacies of the argument and decontexualising the reasoning of both sides. No surprises there, but as a result the public seems to be forgetting the larger implications of the movement and reducing it to a clear-cut dispute: ‘statue’ vs ‘no statue’. While the explicit crimes of Cecil Rhodes (engineering South African apartheid, stealing millions of miles of indigenous lands, exploiting black labour, prompting the Second Boer War, ETC…) are certainly not to be side-lined, protestors are also keen to situate their campaign within the more pressing issue of entrenched racism and discrimination continuing to saturate Britain’s institutions, universities and educational curriculum.

Rhodes was a real person; this point is vital to remember. Yet he has also become a symbol through which change can be positively enacted. As such, another aspect of the debate asks questions about how countries choose to interact with their past. Instead of prompting knee-jerk reactions denouncing the opinions of both sides, it should stimulate discussion about the purpose of historic statues and their evolving place in civic commemoration.

An argument that keeps cropping up from the ‘pro-preservation’ faction is that the translation of Rhodes’ statue to a more appropriate setting amounts to an erasure of history, the equivalent of book-burning, violent iconoclasm, censorship, essentially. This is a bit silly, really, considering that nobody in Britain was talking much about him until recently; that Britain’s engagement with the atrocities of its colonial past has always been quiet, to say the least; and that the entire campaign is centred upon the exposition and discussion of a rather dominant section of our history. Even the more thoughtfully-composed discussions that suggest removal of Rhodes is akin to photoshopping out the dislikeable bits of history ignore the fact that the campaign is not being fronted by those who have the most to lose from acknowledgement of our severely blemished past, but by those who continue to be negatively affected by its absence from public consciousness.

CenotaphWhile the Rhodes debate is about more than just a statue, it is also about statues, which in themselves are about more than just statues (…get it?). The creation of monuments as a method through which to remember, honour, mourn or celebrate pasts events and people has long been a cultural (and often, political) approach to memory. There is something in the visual and artistic nature of monuments that expresses a connection with, and reflection on, the past – in a way that words sometimes cannot. At the same time, monuments, because they have been built for a particular purpose, and (in the case of Rhodes) because they continue to stand, are not just about the past, but also about the present.

I see no implicit problem with the application of twenty-first-century values to historical figures, as others seem to. The manner in which we engage with the crimes of our country’s past is not anachronistic or futile. Rather, it defines how we wish to be viewed as a modern nation and how our future values might be shaped. As such, just as statues being built today are inaugurated to celebrate and glorify the character depicted, those that continue to stand as testament to another time also shed light on modern values and (with no presence of contextualisation) even suggest some form of continued endorsement.

SaddamStatueThe discussions surrounding Rhodes seem to forget that controversy around certain monuments – often in terms of aesthetics, but also because of perceived problems in message and representation – is nothing new. Statues often act as rallying points for protestors to express their dissent over certain political stances. Monuments, moreover, are not permanent – no matter what the material solidity of stone or bronze might suggest. The fall of the Soviet Union in 1989 saw the toppling of vast Lenin and Stalin statues in revolutions all over the Eastern Bloc. In 2003, crowds and US soldiers in Baghdad famously brought down a thirty-nine-foot stone figure of Saddam Hussein. I do not condone violent iconoclasm or brush aside the destruction of cultural heritage in times of political uprising. But I am drawing attention to the possibility that the symbolism of removing statues associated with (often traumatic) pasts can be more a reflection on present day beliefs and hopes for change, than a want to purge memory of their existence. Likewise, as physical representations of memory (rather than history) – which is constantly evolving in relation to its contemporary context – it would make sense that monuments themselves retain some degree of transience.

MosulIt is tempting to interpret the removal of statues as an attempt to forget a certain past and restructure public space to accommodate a modern agenda. Certainly, this is sometimes the case: the removal of historical artefacts by ruling bodies (as is increasingly the case in the Middle East) in order to legitimise a certain ideology has often been a key feature of turbulent regime change. This clearly is not what is happening in Oxford, and any characterising it is as such overlooks the real issues being vocalised here. People seem to be clinging to physical monuments as the only vestiges of the past, but I don’t think we’re at any imminent risk of destroying the legacy of colonialism. Unfortunately, it’s all around us. The real concern here is a reluctance to incorporate our past into public and political discourse despite an abundance of physical evidence. The debate surrounding Cecil Rhodes is hopefully a step in the right direction.


Lizzy Galliver is an undergraduate in her final year of studying History at Durham University: her dissertation focuses on the memorialisation of communism in Eastern Europe.