Outside of Oriel College, Oxford, in a second floor niche above a doorway stands a statue of the British colonialist and architect of apartheid, Cecil Rhodes. On a nearby building, also part of the College, there is a plaque erected “in recognition of the great services rendered by Cecil Rhodes to his country”.
The autumn of 2015 saw protests by students at Oxford calling for removal of both of these. A petition was handed in to Oriel on 3 November, and they responded on 17 December. The College said they would be seeking consent to remove the plaque, adding: “This plaque was erected in 1906 by a private individual. Its wording is a political tribute, and the College believes its continuing display on Oriel property is inconsistent with our principles.”
The issue of the statue was deemed to be more complex, which Oriel said “cannot be resolved quickly”, although they recognised that “In the absence of any context or explanation, it can be seen as an uncritical celebration of a controversial figure, and the colonialism and the oppression of black communities he represents”. But a way ahead was proposed: “the College has decided to launch a structured six-month listening exercise on the statue, running from early February 2016, seeking the views and ideas of students and staff of the College and the wider University, alumni, heritage bodies, Oxford City Council, residents of Oxford, and other members of the public, as we seek a positive way forward. This is a commitment to seek views in as inclusive a way as possible on how controversial associations and bequests, including that of Rhodes to Oriel, and the record of them in the built environment, can be dealt with appropriately.”
Both of these commitments, on statue and plaque, would be broken.
In late January, 2016, before the consultation on the statue's future had even begun, the College announced that they were reneging on their promises. The plaque would stay and the consultation on the statue would not be happening. The decision that could not be made quickly could, as it turned out, be made in a matter of weeks without any of the promised inclusive listening.
The Daily Telegraph, a right wing British paper that favoured keeping the statue, revealed how such a difficult decision could suddenly become so easy: the College faced losing donations from alumni – presumably worried about what history would have to say about their legacies. Oriel’s principles, that six weeks earlier had said the plaque must go, were swiftly forgotten. They were, quite simply, bought.
Besides money, the intellectual arguments that have been made for keeping the statue are (i) that it is better to remember history than to forget it and (ii) that Rhodes was a man of his time.
To the first, I would simply say that a statue, in our society, will always appear as celebration of a person. There is no getting around this: we put up statues of the “great and good”, not of those we would rather forget given the opportunity. The context of the statue, above the doorway looking down on everyone entering and leaving the College, is completely out of keeping with any idea that the statue will remind people of Rhodes’ evil. While for historians it might be possible to view the statue as history, for black students in Oxford today it is the present.
The second is more complex. Historical figures are never perfect; William Wilberforce, the famous anti-slavery campaigner, opposed granting equal rights to Catholics, for example. But an important point here is that we don't commemorate Wilberforce for his anti-Catholic position, we commentate him for his part in the campaign to end slavery. With Rhodes, the statue commemorates the money he left Oriel, which he had accumulated as a direct result of “the colonialism and the oppression of black communities he represents”.
Furthermore, it is far from clear that Rhodes truly was a “man of his time”. In 1876, while Rhodes was an undergraduate at Oxford, Fourah Bay College in Sierra Leone became affiliated to Durham University in England. The Durham University Journal printed the following:
“In reflecting upon the origin and growth of the Fourah Bay College, it must be borne in mind that it was at the first purely experimental. There were many who considered that the children of Ham could not be taught, and that they were decidedly inferior to the average of Europeans. But the chill of heathendom and slavery had frozen them. In the genial warmth of Christianity their faculties expanded, and it was soon discovered, as the universal testimony of those who have taught them shows, that this low estimate of their capabilities was a delusion, and that the African under favourable circumstances can effectually receive the highest education.”
Durham, which only a decade earlier had become the last university in Britain to open its degrees to non-Anglicans, was hardly a hotbed of liberalism. It was still strongly tied to the Anglican church: the head of the University was the Dean of Durham Cathedral, and the canons of the Cathedral formed its governing body. The affiliation of Fourah Bay to Durham helped maintain the colonial structure, putting an end to the campaign for it to become a locally-run independent university.
However, it does demonstrate that in England, at the time Rhodes was himself being educated, people knew there was nothing inherently inferior about Africans. The first Durham BA at Fourah Bay was Nathaniel Davis in 1878, with an external examiner from Oxford ensuring the degree was equal to the one Rhodes himself took in 1881.
Davis was the first but by no means the last. By the time Rhodes returned to Africa, it was clear that African students could compete alongside English students for English university degrees. The idea of African inferiority was exploded: “this low estimate of their capabilities was a delusion”. Rhodes revived the concept in South Africa and Rhodesia in order to justify his exploitation of the native people. He was, by the standards of his own time, a vicious racist.
The Oxford Union (the posh debating society, not the Students’ Union, whose £248 membership fee ensures it’s anything but a bastion of radicalism) debated the issue and voted to take the statue down. Yet Oriel came to a different conclusion, choosing not only to keep the statue up without the promised consultation, but also to preserve the plaque, even after saying this went against their principles. It is hard to escape the conclusion that Oriel, and by extension Oxford University’s Committee to Review Donations, have allowed money to talk louder than addressing institutional racism. The statue of Rhodes, representing “colonialism and the oppression of black communities”, will continue to stand proud; Oriel and Oxford should hang their heads in shame.