Cecil Rhodes and the Proceeds of Crime

Part 7 of the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 reformed the criminal law of money laundering. It is an offence to acquire, use have possession of, conceal, disguise, convert, or transfer the proceeds of crime, or remove them from the UK,  or to enter into or become concerned in an arrangement which you know or suspect facilitates (by whatever means) the acquisition, retention, use or control of it by or on behalf of another person. 

Many great philanthropists have done things that we would now regard as crimes, but used the proceeds for uncontestable public benefits, which long outlast their evil origins. Time will launder a reputation, but not all the stains can come out. Endowments to educational establishments tend to be the dry-cleaning solution of choice for those who desire a shiny posthumous legacy.

Thus, Cardinal Wolsey, loyal torturer of the King’s enemies in the Star Chamber, founded Christ Church, Oxford:

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Christopher Codrington’s profits from his slave plantations endowed the library at All Souls that bears his name and his statue in a heroic pose – the most beautiful place anywhere to read a book:

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The horrors of sugar cultivation by slaves in the West Indies paid for the Tate Galleries.

Remorse, guilt, the desire to redeem a sullied reputation by good works, or just personal vanity may each play a part in this type of philanthropy. Or maybe the donors and their contemporaries saw no contradictions.

Oriel College, handsomely endowed by its alumnus Cecil Rhodes, has come under fire for keeping a statue of Rhodes and a commemorative plaque on public display, and is debating what to do about them. He comes in for criticism as an aggressive empire-builder in late C19 Africa, who grew rich from diamond mining and went on to Rhodesia. His legacy includes the Rhodes scholarships – a wholly admirable system for funding exceptionally bright students from across the world to study in Oxford.

Oriel’s statement about the Rhodes issue is balanced and sensible. The College does not dismiss the complaints. It recognises that the statue and the plaque are capable of giving offence, and acknowledges that attitudes to Rhodes and his activities have changed over the years. It seeks views about what it should do.

Staying in Oxford: compare and contrast Wadham College. The sister of the last Shah of Iran gave her name and the dynasty’s dirty money to the Ashraf Pahlavi library in the 1970s. There was a monumental fuss at the time that the College was taking money from so tainted a source, while the Shah was still in power, torturing and murdering his enemies. Wadham quietly renamed it the Ferdowsi Library, after the classical Persian poet. A small uncomfortable truth was wiped away.

I think that the Oriel students are making a serious mistake by demanding the removal of Rhodes’s visible traces.  If being offended by a statue is the worst thing that has happened to them, they have no idea how lucky they are. Erasing visible signs of the past erases memory of the past. Go to Germany, and see the frequent reminders of that country’s darkest days. We all have a duty not to forget. An evil past must be remembered, not obliterated, but a legacy from an evil time may not itself be evil: whatever the motives of the donor, the gift itself can do good. The statues of Rhodes, or Codrington, should remind us that we cannot deny the truth of our historical legacies, however uncomfortable they make us feel. Better to confront them for what they are, explain their context, and point out that what drove a Rhodes or a Codrington does not drive modern institutions devoted to education and scholarship.

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About Francis FitzGibbon QC

I am a QC and member of Doughty Street Chambers, London (www.doughtystreet.co.uk) & an associate member of Trinity Chambers, Newcastle (www.trinitychambers.co.uk). Chair of the Criminal Bar Association of England & Wales. I practise criminal law. Please do not look for legal advice in this blog as you won't find any. The views expressed here are entirely personal.
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