Oxford University is busily engaged in dealing with its guilt complex about slavery and the British Empire.
A re-write of academic curricula to rid them of ‘pale, stale, white men’ and become more inclusive of black, Asian, female and gay figures will not be enough, it seems. Even the return of artefacts ‘looted’ from imperial possessions will be a step or two short of what is required. What, then, is coming next?
Funded by a ‘kick-start’ grant of £20,000, a university working party has come up with the novel idea of setting up a copy of the Cecil Rhodes statue at Oriel College and inviting students to adorn it with comments and obscenities. The university’s pro vice-chancellor, appropriately named Rebecca Surender, told the Sunday Times that the university had agreed to fund the colonial project because it was ‘exciting, innovative and very relevant to our current goals . . . We are very happy that this is happening’.
If such an esteemed national institution as Oxford University sees an urgent need to put its house in order in this way, should other establishments be lining up to do the same?
If so, most likely the British Museum will need to put itself at the front of the queue. It is an obvious example of a British institution with a lot of catching up to do. Even its classical portico could be construed as offensive since it references a civilisation built on slavery. And why should an equestrian statue of that renowned imperialist and slaver, Caesar Augustus, welcome visitors as they enter via the Great Court?
Worse, a greater horror is on display in the main Greek and Roman Antiquities section. It is a marble statue depicting the African Roman emperor, Septimius Severus. Yes, that very Septimius of Leptis Magna who was in Britain between 208 AD and 211 AD. That very Septimius who was so opposed to an early form of Caledonian self-determination that he concluded slavery was too good a fate for them. He decreed genocide.
According to the Roman historian Cassius Dio, a contemporary of Septimius, the Emperor was so keen to avoid any ambiguity about his orders that he quoted Agamemnon’s call in the Iliad for the Greeks to massacre the Trojans:
Let no one escape utter destruction
Let no one escape our hands, not even the babe in its mother’s womb . . .
Fortunately for those living north of Hadrian’s Wall, the Emperor died in York (Eboracum) before his order could be implemented. Any self-respecting SNP supporter should be up in arms about the display of such a statue in London, and especially those who watched the final episode of the BBC’s blockbuster Troy: Fall Of A City.
Not that southern Brits, like me, can be blamed by the SNP this time round. After all, we were forced into membership of the original European Union and became fully signed-up slaves of the Roman Empire. We were an early example of a people being enslaved by a foreign imperial power.
Certainly, those Romans could teach the British Empire a thing or two about subjugation, as another Roman historian, Tacitus, reminds us:
They plunder, they butcher, they ravish, and call it by the lying name of ’empire’. They make a desolation and call it ‘peace’.
If our intellectual institutions wish to vilify imperialism and slavery, they should start with the classical world. Rather than calling for the return of the Elgin Marbles to Greece, they should be demanding they be crushed into powder for being products of a slave empire. Equally, they should be urging the Italian government to bulldoze the Roman Forum and to pay us reparations for the best part of four centuries of enslavement.
As for Hadrian’s Wall, our greatest symbol of imperial oppression, it should be dismantled stone by stone, and used to build a memorial to the enslavement of Britain.
Oxford University has enough brainpower to work out the logical conclusion of its new slavery and imperialism project.