Sam Ashworth-Hayes Sam Ashworth-Hayes

If Rhodes falls, we’ll regret it

A Rhodes must fall protest in Oxford (Getty images)

Why should we leave memorials to evil men standing? Even for those who oppose the toppling of statues like Edward Colston’s, it’s a hard question to answer. But one reason to stand against the destruction of memorials to those who have come before is because of what it might mean for those who come after us.

While some wealthy people make donations or leave bequests to good causes out of a simple desire to build a better future, others are motivated more by the selfish, vain, and utterly understandable desire to be remembered, or to add a gloss to a life that would otherwise be viewed as without redeeming features. Believing that the future will despise and erase you does not leave a strong motive for donations of this sort.

The concept of buying salvation has a long and chequered history. From the 13th century onwards, the wealthy started engaging in the practice of leaving money for the founding of chantries; chapels or altars where priests would say masses for the soul of the dead benefactor, assisting with the atonement for misdeeds and hastening their time in purgatory. For those without as much money, there was the option of donating your way onto the bede-roll of names read out in church, securing prayers for your afterlife. While these practices channelled funds into churches, they also funded the other duties of the clergymen, frequently including the education of the poor.

A culture which marks its lack of respect for past benefactors may find that it takes some time for that mark to fade

The secular version of this idea still holds weight today. Alfred Nobel is remembered primarily as the generous benefactor of the Nobel Prizes that have done so much to advance the causes of science, literature, and peace. That his establishment of the prizes in his will was inspired by reading a less than glowing obituary written in the mistaken belief that he had died – drawing particular attention to the consequences of his work as an arms dealer – is less well remembered.

Similarly, Cecil Rhodes set about funding scholarships and the expansion of Oriel College, Oxford, in an attempt to secure a legacy that would long outlive him.

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