Cecil Rhodes: More Than Just A Statue

Cecil Rhodes: More Than Just A Statue

Who was Cecil Rhodes? And why are there calls for his statue at Oxford University to be removed? Cecil John Rhodes was born in England in 1853, but spent much of his life in South Africa, playing a key role in the British Empire. Rhodes amassed a fortune by forming a monopoly over the diamond

Who was Cecil Rhodes? And why are there calls for his statue at Oxford University to be removed?

Cecil John Rhodes was born in England in 1853, but spent much of his life in South Africa, playing a key role in the British Empire. Rhodes amassed a fortune by forming a monopoly over the diamond industry. He combined his business interests with politics when he was Prime Minister of the Cape colony (South Africa), by instigating the Glen Grey Act 1894. The act was enforced to put more native Africans into the wage-labour market, by restricting their access to land ownership rights in their own country. The provisions contained in the Glen Grey Act were the precursor to 20th century apartheid, and is the reason for much of the criticism directed against Rhodes today.

It is no secret that Rhodes believed the English ‘race’ was superior to all others, yet many fail to label him a white supremacist. Rhodes’ stringent belief that the English were a superior race is evidenced in one of his famous quotes written under ‘confessions of faith;

“I contend that we are the first 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 specimen of human being, what an alteration there would be in them if they were brought under Anglo-Saxon influence..”


Statue of Cecil Rhodes in Kimberley by Flowcomm licensed under CC 2.0

Following the successful #RhodesMustFall campaign in Cape Town, activists turned their attention to Oriel College, Oxford University. Campaigners are calling for the Rhodes statue to be removed from the College, claiming that its existence implicitly endorses his racist colonial legacy.

Rhodes graduated from Oriel College at Oxford University in 1881. The sum he left to the college in his will funded 8,000 scholarships; Bill Clinton and Tony Abbott being some of the notable recipients. Unsurprisingly, Abbott openly came out to warn Oxford University against removing the Rhodes statue. What has come as a surprise to many though, are the recipients of the Rhodes scholarship who have joined the #RhodesMustFall campaign.

Accusations of hypocrisy and many personal attacks have been directed at Ntokozo Qwabe, for campaigning against Rhodes whilst simultaneously benefiting from his scholarship. However, other recipients of the Rhodes scholarship have come out to defend Qwabe, and argue that benefiting from the scheme does not buy their silence. They claim that the Rhode’s scholarship should be viewed as a form of reparations to the recipients who come from the native communities of the former colonies, who were never the intended beneficiaries of Rhodes’ will.

Why has Oxford decided not to remove the Rhodes statue?

Despite all of the media attention Oxford University has received regarding the Cecil Rhodes statue, Oriel College has decided to keep it. Oriel College had agreed to have a six-month consultation period to decide the fate of the Cecil Rhodes statue, starting February 2016. However, before the structured consultation period even begun the University decided they were going to keep the statue.

A leaked document revealed that had the College failed to preserve the Rhodes statue, it would have been deprived of donations worth in excess of £100 million from one alumnus alone. Several other wealthy alumni were also threatening to take the College out of their wills should the statue be removed. Oriel College maintains that the possible financial implications were not a major factor in their decision.

The Oxford University Chancellor, Lord Patton, went further than just defending the presence of the Rhodes statue in Oriel College, by attributing the global standing enjoyed by Oxford University to the money Rhodes left behind to the University. Lord Patton argued that Universities are a place for debate, but then rather ironically went on to tell the activists to either ‘embrace’ the legacy of Rhodes or study somewhere else ‘like China’.


Statue of Cecil Rhodes at Oriel College by Jonathan licensed under CC 2.0


Where to from here?

The ‘Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford’ campaign group have hit back at the Universities decision to keep the statue and abandon the agreed consultation plan. The group have vowed to continue fighting the decision, and have put forward a list of seven non-negotiable demands to be met by Oxford University.

Seven demands.jpg

The demands should be read in the context of other existing controversies surrounding Oxford’s treatment of Black and other ethnic minority students. In 2014 just 27 Black students were admitted into Oxford. The same year, the ‘I, Too, Am Oxford’ movement gained a lot of attention for shedding light on the isolation many of the Universities ethnic minority students feel on campus. They too called for a more open discussion of race and a need for institutional change to take place.

It’s important to remember that the controversy over the Rhodes statue transcends symbolism. For many of the activists, it is about respect for the students who have suffered the impact of British colonialism, and a serious acknowledgement of the damage caused by the Empire. Although Oxford University has said the Rhodes statue will remain at Oriel College, the debate is far from over.


Further Reading

Cecil Rhodes statue to remain at Oxford University after alumni threaten to withdraw millions http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/universityeducation/12128151/Cecil-Rhodes-statue-to-remain-at-Oxford-University-after-alumni-threatens-to-withdraw-millions.html

Cameron attacks race bias in Courts and Universities http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-35452975

‘It’s time for the arts world to look hard at its own racism’ http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/dec/19/time-for-art-world-look-own-racism

Oxford’s ‘Students of colour’ on being ‘othered’ at university http://www.theguardian.com/education/shortcuts/2014/mar/12/oxford-university-students-of-colour-being-othere

Ayah Reza

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