- Imperial History and the Human Future
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Fire burning! Fire blazing!Fire burning! Fire blazing!Judgement morningah by the gate and ah waitingcause I begging the mastergive me a work with PeterThey got some sinners comingwith them I go be dealingcause the things that they do weI got to fix them personallyPeter waitPeter waitPeter look Cecil Rhodes by the gate:Burn he! Burn he! [End Page 156]
So Black Stalin, the Trinidadian calypsonian, began his 1987 sung essay on imperial history: 'Burn dem!'.1 Looking forward and back from the Apocalypse, he consigns Rhodes, Drake, Ralegh, Columbus, Mussolini, Ian Smith, Vorster, Reagan and Thatcher to the flames, adding to them some post-colonial Trinidadian politicians. This chiliastic vision of an imperial order turned upside down recurs across the popular intellectual life of the Caribbean after independence, from Bob Marley's 'Slave driver/the table has turned/Catch a fire/yuh gonna get burned . . . today they say that we are free/only to be chained in poverty', to Peter Tosh's 'Downpressor man/ where you gonna run to/on that day'.2 It is one of the traditions which produced me, and for which I speak.
Its perspective is directly opposed to how the founders of the Rhodes Chair of Imperial History and its first three incumbents viewed the past.3 If Cecil Rhodes, for us, is a symbol of a regime of oppression, of a racial order premised on contempt, for them he was an emblem of global mission, if not of patriotic pride. Alfred Milner, who ensured that the Rhodes Trust from 1913 funded imperial history at King's College, and secured the initial endowment in 1919, was quite clear what it was paying for: 'I think it only fair', he wrote, 'that that side of the case (which happens to be Rhodes's side) should be heard.'4 None of King's historians, it is true, conflated British power and divine purpose quite as exactly as Hugh Egerton, the first Beit Professor in Oxford, who wrote of 'the sense of an unseen superintending Providence controlling the development of the Anglo-Saxon Race'.5 On Lord Rosebery's similar epiphany in 1900 - when we look at the empire, 'Do we not hail in this less the energy and fortune of a race than the supreme direction of the Almighty?' - Vincent Harlow drily remarked, in his own inaugural as Rhodes Professor: 'Very English, of course, to take with both hands and then thank God for exercising his inscrutable will in their especial favour'.6
All the same, Harlow and the other early Rhodes Professors took a uniformly benign view of British imperium. Arthur Percival Newton (Rhodes I) wrote confidently in 1940 that while the other empires of history were based on brute force and conquest, the British Empire had expanded by 'wholly peaceful means'.7 Harlow (Rhodes II) ran the Empire section of the Ministry of Information from 1941-44: at a time when Britain held in detention thousands of anti-colonial nationalists, especially in India, it published a stream of propaganda turning on the idea that the British Empire was an empire of freedom, which was based on voluntary affinities and promised self-government in the long run to all its Commonwealth.8 Gerald Graham (Rhodes III), chose to acquire the object pictured, which now comes with the Chair: a white statuette of Rhodes, which you will see I have today dressed in the colours of the African National Congress (Fig. 1). Graham wrote to a friend in 1979, 'It might well go to Ian Smith's successor, provided he can kill off sufficient guerrillas and protagonists of the United [End Page 157] Nations'.9 All this might place me in a rather uncomfortable place, were I not to remember that my obligations lie to those from whom Rhodes extracted the wealth with which he tried to buy...