“The College believes the recent debate has underlined that the continuing presence of these historical artefacts is an important reminder of the complexity of history and of the legacies of colonialism still felt today,” Oriel College said in a statement. “By adding context, we can help draw attention to this history, do justice to the complexity of the debate, and be true to our educational mission.”
Opponents have called Rhodes the “Hitler of southern Africa” and said that his statue at Oriel College reveals Britain’s “imperial blind spot.” And one Rhodes Scholar said the decision to keep the statue in place “reminds us that black lives are cheap at Oxford.”
Rhodes was known in the 1800s for his determined mind and racist views. A staunch believer in British imperialism, he founded Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe and Zambia) and was prime minister of the Cape Colony in southern Africa when the government limited voting rights for black Africans.
Still, Rhodes was — and is — a fundamental figure at several storied universities. He was a student at Oxford’s Oriel College and, upon his death in 1902, donated more than $100,000 to the college — money that was used to create the Rhodes Scholarship program for foreign students.
A building was named after Rhodes and his statue was built above its doors.
But opponents say a man who saw the English a “master race” has no place on the campus.
“I contend,” Rhodes once said, “that we are the finest race in the world and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race. Just fancy those parts that are at present inhabited by the most despicable specimens of human beings what an alteration there would be if they were brought under Anglo-Saxon influence, look again at the extra employment a new country added to our dominions gives.”
The contentious debate over how schools should handle complicated historical figures is hardly limited to Oxford.
Last year, students at Princeton University wanted Woodrow Wilson’s name removed from buildings on campus, and some students at Harvard complained that the law school’s crest was also the coat-of-arms for a slaveholder.
The Rhodes controversy started at the University of Cape Town in South Africa early last year when some people began to voice their objections to remembrances there, according to BBC News. Activists in South Africa launched a social media movement using the hashtag #RhodesMustFall, and it soon spread to South Africa’s Rhodes University and far north, to Oxford.
Brian Kwoba, a doctoral student and campaign organizer at Oxford, told the Guardian that Rhodes should not to be commemorated on campus.
“Cecil Rhodes is responsible for all manner of stealing land, massacring tens of thousands of black Africans, imposing a regime of unspeakable labor exploitation in the diamond mines and devising proto-apartheid policies,” he told the newspaper.
“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 memorialized with statues, plaques and buildings demonstrates the size and strength of Britain’s imperial blind spot.”
Oxford activists launched an online petition to pressure the university to remove his likeness.
This statue is an open glorification of the racist and bloody project of British colonialism. An architect of apartheid in Southern Africa, Rhodes is the same apartheid colonialist who said: ‘I prefer land to n—— … the natives are like children. They are just emerging from barbarism … one should kill as many n—— as possible.’ Rhodes’s actions in Southern Africa were informed by this philosophy, and in putting his murderous colonial project into practise — he committed a multitude of crimes that deserve international outrage instead of tacit complicity.
The debate also brought up questions about Oxford University’s low admission rates for black and ethnic minority students.
“The decision by Oriel College to unilaterally reverse its public commitments on Rhodes, without any consultation, basically reminds us that black lives are cheap at Oxford,” Rhodes Scholar Ntokozo Qwabe wrote on Facebook early Friday. “Oriel has basically said … who cares about black lives and the concerns of BME [black and minority ethnic] Oxford students anyways?”
The college admitted in Thursday’s statement that the Rhodes controversy had “highlighted other challenges in relation to the experience and representation of black and minority ethnic students and staff at Oxford” but that school officials are committed to promoting more diversity on campus.
“Oriel takes these very seriously and, as previously announced, is taking substantive steps to address them,” the statement said. “The college supports the work the university is doing in this area, and reaffirms Oriel’s commitment to being at the forefront of the drive to make Oxford more diverse and inclusive of people from all backgrounds.”
Late last year, the Oriel College administration said it wanted to initiate an open debate and listen to the response. Thursday, the college announced that “we have received an enormous amount of input.”
“The overwhelming message we have received has been in support of the statue remaining in place, for a variety of reasons,” the college said in a statement.
The activist group Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford has since slammed the school’s decision.
“This recent move is outrageous, dishonest, and cynical,” the group said in a statement. “This is not over.”
Indeed, the Telegraph reported that the college’s decision to keep the statue came after donors threatened to pull financial support if it was taken down.
A leaked copy of a report prepared for the governors and seen by this newspaper discloses that wealthy alumni angered by the ‘shame and embarrassment’ brought on the 690-year-old college by its own actions have now written it out of their wills.
The college now fears a proposed £100m gift — to be left in the will of one donor — is now in jeopardy following the row.
The college did not address those claims in its statement.
Still, some have praised the college’s decision to stand strong.
“One of the crucial lessons of life is to deal calmly with things you disagree with,” Harry Mount wrote in the Telegraph. “Who knows? You might even change your mind. Or, even if you don’t, you might at least accept the other person in the argument has a valid view, too.”