Judging the Legacy of History Carved in Stone

rhodes_laxton statue‘Rhodes must Fall’ was the rallying cry of the campaign demanding the removal of Cecil Rhodes’ statue at Oriel College, Oxford on the grounds that a symbol of racist, imperialist Britain unbefitting of the modern political era must not be immortalised in stone. The Rhodes statue stands as a testament to the endowment that Rhodes left Oriel College in his will, and is similar to the little-noticed statues of Sir William Laxton at Oundle. When comparing the two legacies, why should ‘Rhodes must Fall’, when Laxton will stay?

Cecil Rhodes was a Victorian, colonial-era businessman responsible for the founding of Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia) as well as the De Beers diamond corporation. He is best known for the highly regarded scholarship scheme that he endowed to fund an Oxford education, the Rhodes Scholarships.

Although little thought of aside from the scholarship awards, he recently entered news headlines when South African Rhodes Scholar Ntokozo Qwabe said that the statue of Rhodes on the façade of Oriel College represented a racist monument ‘to a man who murdered tens of thousands’, who usurped the area for its minerals and imposed a brutal labour exploitation system. He established a campaign to demand the statue’s removal.

Cecil Rhodes was a racist and ruthless capitalist. Not only did he exploit a native population by rising to power through his western affiliations, but he proceeded to profit through capitalising on the untapped diamond and mineral reserves.
Although there are no reported figures of the number of natives killed through his expeditions, the students pushing for the removal of his statue claim it to be in the tens of thousands. One of the more infamous acts he is blamed for is the Jameson Raid, designed to infuriate British expatriates into an uprising. In spite of its failure, it is considered to have incited the second Boer War.

The campaign raises the questions: would the statue’s removal mean the consequential removal of all statues depicting historic figures deemed unfit to stand up to modern standards? Because if so, then let’s be prepared for debate. Towns and building across the country are crowned with thousands of statues of prominent historical figures. How about the statues of serial wife executioner Henry VIII?

Closer to home, what about the two statues of Sir William Laxton that were erected in acknowledgement of his financial legacy, one at the top of the Great Hall and one on the façade of the Cloisters? Does Sir William Laxton stand up to the scrutiny of modern day ethics? As a successful businessman who left his fortune to fund educational opportunities, there are some similarities to Rhodes to be drawn.

According to historian G. W. Walker, Sir William Laxton must have been born in Oundle at the very end of the fifteenth century. From the ages of 7 to 14 he was most likely a pupil in the grammar school maintained by one of the priests of the Gild. William Laxton must have started in a small way, but abandoning retail trade, he probably owed his prosperity to overseas trading ventures, which in those days led to either immediate ruin or the rapid amassing of wealth.

To have been an Alderman from 1536 onwards, Sheriff and Lord Mayor of London, and eight times Master of the Grocers’ Company was no small achievement for the son of an Oundle tradesman. He acquired arms and a knighthood, lands in four or five counties as well as property in the City of London.

Like many favoured men, Laxton benefited from the spoils of the Reformation, acquiring a portion of the lands of dissolved religious communities. On 22 August 1544, Henry VIII granted a portion of the Manor of Shepereth, formerly belonging to the dissolved Priory of Chatteris, to William Laxton. While Laxton’s views on the religious and political upheaval of the times remain unknown, it is clear that he was a player, and knew how to keep his neck; he conformed to the times under Edward and also under Mary.

Sir William Laxton married, but did not have any children. Having come from humble beginnings, he obviously felt indebted to the education that had benefited him. That is why he gave to the Grocers’ Company a portion of his valuable London property, out of the income of which he asked that a school be founded in his home of Oundle to educate local boys, along with an almshouse for ‘seven poor honest men’.

Given his success, it is no stretch of the imagination to assume that the trade deals that Laxton struck would have been ruthless, and by modern standards, perhaps even unethical. However, there is no historical paper trail that impugns his legacy, only a legacy that was left for the greater good, and that promoted the value of education for local children.
If we judge and condemn great men or women by the simplistic measure of modern standards, we are in danger of losing sight of some history’s greats. Rhodes was not a blameless man, even by the standards of his day. Yet in taking down the relatively small statue at the top of Oriel College, we are in danger erasing the historical memory that is important to retain and learn from.

There is one thing we can be sure of though, and that is the confidence and even pride that we can retain in those statues of Sir William Laxton, which we pass by everyday, but never really stop to think about – until now.

Harry Jenkinson – 11 May 2016