As Oxford decides to ignore the campaign of students and maintains the statue of Cecil Rhodes at Oriel College, Dr Christopher Loughlin examines the role of Rhodes in British History and why #RhodesMustFall at Oxford and beyond.
The governing body of Oriel College, Oxford University, decided on 28 January 2016 to keep two public memorials to Cecil Rhodes. It decided to keep them following a consultation, “including comments from students and academics, alumni, heritage bodies, national and student polls and a further petition, as well as over 500 direct written responses to the College.” They will now, “seek to provide a clear historical context” and added, “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.” This was a reversal of the decision made previously by the ghoulish body before Christmas 2015, when they agreed to remove the plaque and consult on the statue. Their December statement concluded, “Rhodes was also a 19th-century colonialist whose values and world view stand in absolute contrast to the ethos of the Scholarship programme today, and to the values of a modern University.” The ‘Rhodes must Fall at Oxford’ campaign is understandably frustrated by the university administration’s reversal of the December 2015 decision. A leaked financial report to the governing body at Oriel, obtained by the Daily Telegraph, had led to suggestion that finance, not history, influenced the decision. The future of the college was threatened by the furore over Rhodes, including a £100 million bequest. Oriel, it must be said, has been at pain to dismiss finance as an influence upon the decision. Finance, racism, imperialism, ancestry and public memory: the statue and plaque of Cecil Rhodes, a nineteenth-century gentleman imperialist of the late Victorian-era, are emblematic of the uneasy relationship modern Britain has with a bloody imperial past. The ghost of empire seems to stalk a centenary year like 2016.
Cecil Rhodes was an exemplary Lord of Empire in the late Victorian epoch, the son of a Vicar from England, he made a fortune from the ownership and political control of modern-day Zimbabwe and Zambia. The mining company he helped found and run survives to this day as the de Beers mining group. Rhodes was the archetypal white European entrepreneur: expanding religion, civilisation and empire. Rhodes described it, in a fit of understatement, as, “philanthropy plus five percent.” In 1889 he secured a Royal Charter to set up the British South Africa Company. This business practice was a means to an end, that of “painting the map red” on behalf of the British Empire. Empire and the controversial nature of Rhodes’ career are just some of the international issues involved in the confrontation between Oriel College and the ‘Rhodes must Fall at Oxford’ campaign. The campaign itself is a vibrant local expression of an anti-imperialist movement which started at the University of Cape Town in South Africa last year. The campaigns have registered much success in renaming and replacing memorialisations of Rhodes. The local campaign at Oxford lodged a petition with Oriel College on 6 November 2015 calling for removal of both the statue and plaque. Yet in a strange inversion of privilege there has been shrill defence of Rhodes within the press in Britain. Hyperbolically it has been claimed the removal of such a figure from public prominence would be tantamount to re-writing history. Why or how this would be so is unclear, but some of us have not had the benefit of an Oxford education so what would we know? The statue in Oxford is part of a grade listed 2 building, so clearly it will require time and permission to change. The campaign at Oxford has been described as the product of “over-indulged children” and “over-demanding teenagers”. Such a flippant over-indulgent comment is an offensive way to deal with such a serious issue as racism and the legacy of modern imperialism, globally.
The statue and plaque to Cecil Rhodes represent a prominent memorialisation of Britain’s imperial Victorian past. Rhodes was able to accumulate vast wealth and expand the political influence of the British Empire legally. The formation of the de Beer mining consortium, in 1888, is an example of the cartelisation noted by the left in the early twentieth-century. This was the monopoly and finance-capital, a product of modern capitalism, which had such a fatal consequence within Europe in 1914. It is this imperial ‘context’ which Oriel seem unable to confront. The Rhodes must Fall campaign, across the world, should be congratulated for opposing such blatant public expression of imperialism. The campaign wishes to confront the past, honestly and without apology. The provocative and hyperbolic tone, adopted by some, to address the campaign is unhelpful and patronising. The memory and legacy of imperialism is of interest to everyone, globally. The toxic racism associated with the Victorian “race for empire” is a particularly virulent legacy of Britain and modern Europe.
The legacy Cecil Rhodes left is controversial, imperialist and racist. It haunts modern Britain, and I find it personally worrying that so many would defend the public memorialisation of a racist figure such as Rhodes. What message does it send to people in the UK, let alone internationally, to defend Rhodes? The campaign against Rhodes seems, to me, the only sensible position: take the statue down, place it somewhere else, have a museum to give the ‘context’ of Mr Rhodes. The statue and plaque have to go. An anti-imperialist, democratic global history will have space for Mr Rhodes in the story, but his statue should not be on prominent public display at Oriel College, Oxford University.