Up Wollstonecraft Street and Down with Rhodes
December 29, 2015 § 4 Comments
There’s no Wollstonecraft Street in the London A-Z, but there will be soon, in a new development behind King’s Cross, where local residents, among others, were given a say in street naming. Mary Wollstonecraft’s was the first name to be picked from a shortlist. It’s an honour long overdue for this passionate philosopher who advocated equal rights and education for both sexes, the author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women, justly known as the mother of feminism; she died in 1797, still in her 30s.
Mary has a blue plaque in Dolben Street near where she once lodged in Southwark, put up by the local council in 2003. In 2011 Islington Council put up a green plaque on the approximate site of the girls’ school she established at Newington Green, where Newington Green Primary now stands. I was there; after the unveiling by the Council’s leader, Catherine West, and a speech by local MP Jeremy Corbyn, we crossed the road to the Unitarian Chapel on the Hackney side of the Green to hear singing by a choir of children from the school.
At the time of revolution in France the Unitarian Chapel was a hub of religious non-conformism and political dissent, and its foremost preacher, the pamphleteer Richard Price, was a central figure in Mary’s intellectual circle. Nowadays it’s open to those of all faiths and none, with not a single religious symbol in sight. I’d been in it once before when it was part of Anna Birch’s site-specific theatre project Wollstonecraftlive!, a performance series with connections to the Mary on the Green campaign for a statue to be raised on Newington Green itself as a memorial to Mary. It’s a fundraising campaign, since no official body exists to put up the money. You might have seen a recent cinema ad, Wollstonecraft the Movie, made as a short, sharp campaign booster.
Meanwhile, there’s been a different kind of attention for an already existing statue, the one on the facade of Oriel College in Oxford, commemorating Cecil Rhodes. A Latin inscription beneath it pays conspicuous tribute to his ‘bountiful generosity’. The ‘Rhodes must fall’ campaign for its removal began in South Africa with a focus on bringing down the Rhodes statue at the University of Cape Town, where it carries an even more oppressive weight of symbolism than the one at Oxford.
Rhodes scholars from different parts of the world study at Oxford courtesy of the vast fortune left by him, but that fortune was amassed by land grabs and plunder as part of the 19th-century colonial enterprise. Rhodes got his hands on diamond mining rights and co-founded De Beers, later founding the Consolidated Gold Fields Company and embarking on a political career whereby his expansionist mission for Imperial takeover of wider territories was pursued through the British South Africa Company. He managed to get a country named after him: Rhodesia.
Eventually Rhodesia achieved independence and ditched the name, becoming Zimbabwe.
The value of facing up to Britain’s imperial past is lost on those who attack the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ campaign, using the flimsiest of arguments. A few days ago The Guardian published a piece by Will Hutton. ‘Rhodes cannot be expunged from the history of Oxford, Britain and South Africa,’ he insisted. The fact is that no one involved in the campaign is aiming to expunge Rhodes from history, but to ensure that his role in it is not celebrated as virtuous or heroic. You can see its stated aims here in a Telegraph article.
Hutton defends Rhodes as a man whose racist views were only those of his day, citing the ideological foibles of the young Keynes (eugenicism) and the racism of Churchill and Woodrow Wilson. The comparisons are spurious: Rhodes did not just articulate racist ideology; he enacted his British-supremacist views of black inferiority on a huge scale that brought him great wealth and power at immeasurable cost to those whose labour and dispossessed status were entailed. He was responsible for untold suffering that laid the ground for apartheid.
It is curious to make a defence of the Rhodes statue on the grounds that ‘history’ would be impugned or falsified by its removal. Countries change their names, rejecting colonial claims or for other varied reasons. Cities re-inscribe their topography when dictators rise, or they are overthrown – like many European capitals in 1945, and Madrid before and after Franco. I have a Madrid street atlas from 1969, when I lived there; the Fascist generals indexed– two pages of them – have long since disappeared from the map. This is part of the upheaval of change, from subjugation to democracy (or vice versa). A statue made of stone or bronze is potentially enduring, more than a street sign. A statue is symbolic, most often through homage to an individual. Is this individual worthy of such honour?
Statues were toppled in Eastern Europe in 1989, then in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East following the ill-fated Arab Spring. Destroying the symbols of tyranny is the work of the tigers of wrath, which Wollstonecraft’s contemporary William Blake told us were wiser than the horses of instruction. In these recent instances it was applauded by onlookers throughout the West, including Britain.
History is never over and done with, it shapes the world we live in and interpreting it is crucial to our understandings of law, custom, rights, politics and governance. Accounts of it, historiography, have varied since written records began. It’s in cities that we are most physically surrounded by its relics and commemorations: monuments, statues, the names of streets and buildings, of underground stops, railway stations and parks. They give us a brushing acquaintance with the past. In London these textures tend towards the conservative – we’re still living with the pseudo-solidities of Empire – and the bland. In the City, mediaeval remnants are smothered by what grows higher and higher on top, monuments to the soullessness of finance.
There are cheering exceptions: I remember, before apartheid ended in South Africa, going to the offices of the publisher Virago on Mandela Street in Camden, and I lived for a while in an area of Hackney where the streets and council blocks were named after poets: Milton, Shakespeare, Wordsworth. But go to Paris and you’re in a city that resonates with layers of culture and history, where dates and descriptions often accompany the names written into the fabric of the metropolis. And what European capital could be more alive with history than Berlin, a city that actively confronts what that past holds before, during and after the rise and fall of Nazism, using its museums and monuments to create a palimpsest that opens up those street names to memory?
So far, the best monument we have to Mary Wollstonecraft is the Unitarian Chapel. It is very proud of her, bearing her stencilled figure on the side of the building and a banner across the front writ large with the proclamation THE BIRTHPLACE OF FEMINISM.
A statue would be nice too, a different kind of landmark, more public. Let’s hope it doesn’t take too long. It would be to London’s credit. And Oxford might yet decide to bring down Cecil Rhodes. There will still be enough of him left for those horses of instruction.