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Suspected arson attack guts Cecil Rhodes landmark in Zimbabwe

A neglected memorial museum to Cecil Rhodes in Zimbabwe has been gutted in a suspected arson attack.

The historic building, built in 1897, was used as stables for the Victorian colonialist and former prime minister of the Cape Colony's horses.

It stands just outside the Matobo National Park in Southern Zimbabwe – the country formerly known as Rhodesia founded by the vicar's son from Bishop's Stortford.

Cecil John Rhodes Matobo Memorial Museum (36398966)
Cecil John Rhodes Matobo Memorial Museum (36398966)

Rhodes, born at Netteswell House in South Road in 1853, had a farm in the area close to the country's second city, Bulawayo.

After he died in 1902, the gold and mining magnate now reviled as a white supremacist was entombed nearby at World's View, also known by its Ndebele name Malindidzimu, in the Matobo Hills.

The stables were protected by the National Museums and Monuments Act as a landmark and, although neglected, had remained a tourist spot until damaged by the blaze on Sunday, May 31.

The stables on fire from Moira Fitzpatrick's Facebook post (36398969)
The stables on fire from Moira Fitzpatrick's Facebook post (36398969)

On her Facebook page, Moira Fitzpatrick, regional director of the Natural History Museum of Zimbabwe posted: "It happened early evening. I was out there with police and fire brigade while they put out the fire.

"All I can say for sure is that someone deliberately started a fire on the wooden loft floor."

In both Zimbabwe and in Oxford, where Oriel College has a statue of former student Rhodes, commemoration of the imperialist has prompted demonstrations and demands for their removal by the #RhodesMustFall movement.

Recent #BlackLivesMatter protests across the world have renewed calls for the Rhodes Arts Complex in South Road, Bishop's Stortford, to be renamed too and after a trio of petitions signed by thousandsof people, the centre and museum trustees have agreed to look at the issue as part of general rebranding and reorganisation already underway. A sign outside the centre has now been defaced.

Daisy Aylott (36398971)
Daisy Aylott (36398971)

In 2018, as part of the dissertation which helped her win a first class degree from Exeter University, former Herts and Essex and Bishop's Stortford High School student Daisy Aylott interviewed town residents about Rhodes and how he is remembered.

She said: "I found a clear divide in opinion. The majority argued he is part of Bishop's Stortford's history whether we like it or not, and removing his name allowed him to be re-written out of history.

"The minority believed Bishop's Stortford needs a wakeup call to re-assess its understandings of the British Empire and the brutalist role Rhodes had within this. This showed me how distorted our understandings are of the British Empire, with many knowing very little about how we exploited foreign lands and massacred indigenous populations under the guise of financial gain.

"In light of my findings and the global Black Lives Matter movement gaining momentum around the world, we need to be educated and re-learn about the British Empire for all its horrors to understand why having Rhodes' name linked to Bishop's Stortford should not be a cause for celebration.

"Much like the slave trader Edward Colston's statue falling in Bristol, Cecil Rhodes' name should 'fall' from Bishop's Stortford, and then be placed in the museum for all to learn about his dark oppressive past and appreciate why the British Empire and Rhodes are coming under the spotlight once again. You cannot remove Rhodes and take action without first changing our education and understanding of our collective past."

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