Professor Rex Nettleford, Rhodes Scholar extraordinaire

Peter Goldson
The Gleaner
Jamaica, W.I.


I write on behalf of the Rhodes Scholar community in Jamaica and throughout the world to join the citizens of Jamaica and the Caribbean in mourning the passing of Professor the Honourable Rex Nettleford, OM.

Truly, he was a Rhodes Scholar extraordinaire, embodying and exemplifying to the highest degree the standards by which Rhodes Scholars were to be judged:

Truth, courage, devotion to duty, sympathy for and protection of the weak, kindliness, unselfishness and fellowship.

Moral force of character and instincts to lead, and to take an interest in one's fellow human beings.

Rex was awarded the Rhodes Scholarship for Jamaica for 1957. He attended Oriel College, Oxford, where he read for a Bachelor of Philosophy degree and continued the brilliant academic career which had flourished at the University College of the West Indies.

But Rex was not an ordinary Rhodes Scholar.

The minutes of the Jamaican Rhodes Scholarship Selection Committee held at King's House on May, 30 1963, record him as being welcomed as a new committee member by Sir Clifford Campbell, then governor general and chairman of the selection committee, along with the other new members, Dr J.T. Burrowes and Dr E.V. Ellington (secretary).

Rex subsequently served on the selection committee for several years and was party to the selection of Rhodes Scholars Richard Fletcher, Dennis Morrison and David Panton.

Brilliant lecture

To describe Rex as a Rhodes Scholar is to fail to appreciate the high esteem with which he was held by the entire Rhodes community worldwide. I recall being present with my wife in the Beit Room in Rhodes House in 2002 when Rex delivered a brilliant lecture to celebrate Commonwealth Day. It was truly remarkable for us to observe the warmth and respect with which he was greeted by old friends and prominent academics from around the Commonwealth.

When, as part of the centenary celebration of the Rhodes Scholarships in 2003, the University of Oxford conferred the degree of Doctor of Civil Law, honoris causa, upon prominent Rhodes Scholars from around the world, Rex was one of the only four so honoured. The other three were Robert Hawke (former Prime Minister of Australia), John Brandemas (President Emeritus of New York University and former member of the Congress of the United States), and David Woods (Vice-Chancellor of Rhodes University, South Africa).

I remember the pride and delight of the Jamaican audience present at the conferment of the degree on Rex as the Jamaican National Anthem rang out in the august halls of the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford. Rex had a way of carrying Jamaica to the world.

The English paraphrase of the Latin oration read on that occasion in the Sheldonian is as follows:

Marcus Cicero, the very greatest of all Orators, in his judicial defence of L. Licinius Murena against the weighty prosecution of Cato, makes a show of great indignation and outrage. "My opponent," he says, "has called Murena a dancer." To call a Roman magistrate a dancer, says Cicero, was disgraceful to the man who dared to utter it. "Of course," Cicero goes on, "nobody dances when he is sober, unless of course he is crazy."

Professor Nettleford, our next honorand, can serve as a visible refutation of that absurd judgment, which leaves his dignity unimpaired. The Greeks knew very well, though the Romans did not, that the same man can combine exquisite dancing with the highest rank and dignity. Professor Nettleford was born in Jamaica and came first to London and then to Oxford where he applied himself to the study of the manners and rituals of contemporary society, and to the illumination and understanding of our own lives.

Further promotions

He soon began to teach, and it was not long before he was a professor; further promotion made him pro-vice-chancellor; that post itself was soon left behind as he became vice-chancellor, and for five years he has been at the head of his university. He has written some brilliant books, in which he has shed unequalled light on the mentality of his people. I can refer to two: one on West Indian cultural identity, another on roots and rhythms, in which he discusses and celebrates the origins and the typical music of the people of the West Indies. I mention also his treatment of a set of legends of the Anausi people; as they say, 'acting fool to catch wise'. We recognise a kinship with the fables of Aesop, in which also we are pleased to see the guile of the weak defeat the force of the strong.

He is a painstaking but benign editor, who has repeatedly shouldered, in a self-sacrificing spirit, the burden - understood by us all - of editing journals. Despite all these commitments, he is himself a dancer and a choreographer. One is reminded that the tragic poet Sophocles was, with his other accomplishments, a choreographer of power and originality. The unanimous view of those who know is that our guest is unmatched in the learning and the acuteness of his understanding of the lives of his people.

I present to a chancellor a vice-chancellor, a man of the greatest versatility: effective in action, outstanding in erudition, and most supple in the dance, Professor the Honourable Rex Nettleford, OM, M.Phil, for admission to the honorary degree of Doctor of Civil Law.

Such an oration is hard to better. Perhaps, only Rex himself could dare try.

In 2004, Rex was further honoured by the Rhodes Trust's establishment of the Rex Nettleford Fellowship in Cultural Studies, the purpose of which was to mark the centenary of the Rhodes Scholarships in the Caribbean and to honour Rex's distinguished contribution to higher education and the cultural life of the Caribbean.

The Rhodes community will forever remember Rex as a man who exhibited the best of Cecil Rhodes' aspirations of a scholar who was not a mere bookworm but one who valiantly and colourfully engaged in the world's fight.

Peter Goldson is Jamaica and Commonwealth Caribbean Secretary to the Rhodes Trust, Secretary to the Selection Committees.