In April 2015, students at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, mounted a successful campaign which led to the boarding up of the Cecil Rhodes statue. Following the protest against the effigy of the British colonialist, a group at Oxford University have followed in their footsteps to demand the removal of the Rhodes statue at Oriel College. They have already achieved the removal of a commemorative plaque, and are now seeking the eventual eradication of the statue itself.
So who was Cecil Rhodes, and why does he inspire such controversy? Cecil Rhodes was born in 1853 in Hertfordshire. He moved to Africa aged 17, starting out in the cotton growing industry and then moving on to mine diamonds. He gradually became dominant in the trade. He returned to England in the 1870s to attend Oriel College at the University of Oxford, and then went back to South Africa, where he founded the De Beers diamond empire. He gradually rose to become one of the world’s wealthiest men. He became prime minister of the Cape Colony from 1890 to 1896. He died in 1902, aged 48.
The controversy that surrounds Rhodes comes from his involvement in the cotton and diamond trades, which employed slave labour. He also spoke openly about his view of the English as a ‘master race’. As prime minister, his government raised the financial qualifications for voting which in turn restricted the rights of black Africans. He also gave his backing to the Jameson Raid of 1895, in which a small British force tried to overthrow the Afrikaner president of the Transvaal Republic, which was rich in gold. The raid helped contributed to the Second Boer War, which carried a high death toll. Rhodes was also thought to have paved the way for Apartheid, which was introduced in South Africa in 1948 and ended in 1991.
Rhodes’s statue sits at the centre of the University of Cape Town’s campus because he bequeathed the land on which it was built. His statue stands at Oxford University because he is a notable alumni of Oriel College and also founded the Rhodes Scholarship, which allows 83 students from the United States, Germany, Hong Kong, Bermuda, Zimbabwe as well as a number of Commonwealth countries (including southern African nations) to study at Oxford University each year. Former US President Bill Clinton studied at Oxford through this scheme.
In December 2015, Oxford’s Rhodes Must Fall group succeeded in persuading the college to move a plaque dedicated to him. Now they are pushing for the removal of the statue. Brian Kwoba, a 33-year-old doctoratal student at Oxford and campaign organiser, stated that the Oxford group was inspired by recent events at the University of Cape Town. The campaigners threw paint and excrement over the Rhodes statue and used the #RhodesMustFall hashtag to publicise the events. Kwoba said,
“Cecil Rhodes is responsible for all manner of stealing land, massacring tens of thousands of Black Africans, imposing a regime of unspeakable labour exploitation in the diamond mines and devising proto-apartheid policies. The significance of taking down the statue is simple: Cecil Rhodes is the Hitler of southern Africa. Would anyone countenance a statue of Hitler? The fact that Rhodes is still memorialised with statues, plaques and buildings demonstrates the size and strength of Britain’s imperial blind spot.”
Despite these strong words, the opinion at Oxford University is not unanimous. Mary Beard, the Oxford classicist, said,
“The battle isn’t won by taking the statue away and pretending those people didn’t exist. It’s won by empowering those students to look up at Rhodes and friends with a cheery and self-confident sense of unbatterability.”
The Oxford campaigners have made it clear that this isn’t just a protest against Cecil Rhodes – it’s a fully-fledged campaign against racism at Oxford. A 2014 study conducted by Cherwell, the university’s student newspaper, found that 59.3% of black and minority-ethnic (BME) students have felt ‘uncomfortable or unwelcome’ at university due to their race or ethnicity. This was compared to 5.4% of Oxford’s white students. Oxford also has one of the UK’s lowest proportions of BME professors: 3.9% of Oxford’s professors are from a BME background. In comparison, Cambridge has 6.4% of BME professors, and Kings College London has 9.1%.
Although this debate goes far beyond questions about the nature of historical symbols, destroying one symbol has undeniable consequences for another. If the college is to remove the statue of Rhodes, where will the destruction of morally-questionable symbols end? Should feminists campaign for the removal of Asquith’s statue in the Member’s Lobby at Westminster because he opposed female suffrage? Their argument might follow the lines that because Asquith barred the rights of women, his image should not be a symbol that is indulged by the House of Commons. If the House of Commons is truly to be an arena of equality, his statue seems outdated and could almost be viewed as an emblem of sexism.
Of course, Asquith was a Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, and thus he has earned his effigy. He was also, like all people are, a product of his time. This does not excuse his blatant sexism, or indeed Rhodes’ racism; but it is anachronistic to judge the people of the past against the standards of today. If judged by our standards, so much of our heritage and history would be deemed inappropriate or wrong.
It is understandable for Oriel College to want to remove itself from the atrocities of colonialism and racism, but at the same time it is also dangerous to go about destroying symbols of the past. Sir Alan Haselhurst is the Conservative MP for Saffron Waldon and read law at Oriel College. He said,
“Apologising for the past is one thing, but destroying symbols of the past is quite another.”
Although it’s a little ridiculous to imagine a BME student (or anybody for that matter) looking up at Rhodes with a “cheery” countenance, Mary Beard is correct in saying that destroying an inanimate object which signifies a dark past is not going to destroy that dark past. But this is not what the students are aiming to do. Anybody can recognise that getting rid of a reminder of the past does not alter what happened within that past. The students have stated that they are addressing the wider issue of racial equality, but can the destruction of Rhodes’ image make a difference?
Ultimately the removal of a statue of a man long gone is not going to address the issues of under-representation at Oxford University. It is far more understandable for students in the post-colonial country to object to symbols of that colonialism, but within the UK it is a very different situation. Perhaps it would be better to own up to the atrocities of the Empire instead of sweeping them under the rug.
Destroying the statue is to pretend that Rhodes did not exist, and attempts to sever the ties that he had with the university. Rhodes did exist, he attended Oriel College and he is responsible for the Rhodes Scholarship. What will happen to the scholarship, which has enabled hundreds of overseas students to study at the prestigious university, if the statue is taken down? Can the university justify allowing students to study under Rhodes’ name if it cannot allow his likeness to be displayed on campus?
The decision to remove or keep the statue will be addressed next month. If the college rules in favour of removing the statue, then further debates are sure to come of it. What or who will be the next historical symbol to get the chop?
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