NEWS
09/06/2020 11:50 BST | Updated 09/06/2020 12:06 BST

Who Was Cecil Rhodes And Why Do Campaigners Want To Topple His Statue At Oxford University?

Thousands have signed two new petitions calling for the statue of colonialist Rhodes at Oriel College to be taken down, with a protest also planned.

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Cecil John Rhodes photographed in 1895

Calls to remove the statue of imperialist Cecil Rhodes from an Oxford college have been reignited amid anti-racism demonstrations.

The Rhodes Must Fall Oxford campaign group, alongside other student groups, argue that the university has “failed to address its institutional racism” and the impact on students and the city. A protest is planned for 5pm on Tuesday – the latest of several stretching back five years.

An open letter from campaigners to the university’s vice-chancellor says the institution has only made “inconsequential inroads” into tackling the material legacy of imperialism, adding it “is not enough”.

Thousands of people have signed two new petitions calling for the statue of colonialist Rhodes at Oriel College to be taken down.

Dozens of local Labour Party councillors are also calling on the university to work with Oxford City Council, residents and trade unions to “make Oxford a truly anti-racist city” by immediately removing the statue and associated plaque.

It comes after a statue of 17th century slave trader Edward Colston was pulled down and thrown into Bristol Harbour during a Black Lives Matter protest on Sunday.

Who was Cecil Rhodes?

Cecil Rhodes was the founder of the southern African colony Rhodesia, modern day Zimbabwe, which was named after him in 1895.

The son of a Bishop’s Stortford clergyman, Rhodes was a Victorian imperialist regarded as one of the main proponents of white colonial domination. He made a fortune from the mines and endowed the university’s Rhodes Scholarship.

Early commercial success enabled him to fulfil his ambition to study at Oxford, where he was admitted to Oriel College in 1873 and took his degree in 1881.

Cecil Rhodes’ legacy at Oxford University stretches beyond the statue. The scholarship invites students from across the world to study at Oxford. US president Bill Clinton was a notable recipient of the postgraduate award.

Upon his death in 1902, he left 2% of his estate to Oriel College, where he had been a student. His legacy helped fund the construction of a new building, opened in 1911, which is now Grade II listed and includes the now controversial statue commemorating his benefaction.

Rhodes founded the De Beers diamond empire, which pioneered the creation of “closed compounds” – where migrant labourers were racially segregated and locked in for the duration of their contracts.

He was admired by Hitler and had a reputation for being racist, with many historical accounts quoting him as stating: “I prefer land to n******s [...] the natives are like children. They are just emerging from barbarism [...] one should kill as many n*****s as possible.’”

The Art Archive/Shutterstock
A portrait of 'The Rhodes Colossus', reflecting Rhodes' desire to build a railway across Africa from Cape Town to Cairo 

Rhodes served as prime minister of the British Empire’s Cape Colony, including South Africa, in the early 1890s and has been linked to apartheid-style policies including working to alter laws on voting and land ownership, thus disenfranchising most Africans.  

Rhodes considered the English “a master race”. “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,” he once said.

His famously yearned to build a railway across the entire continent of Africa from Cairo to Cape Town, without ever leaving British territory.  

In 1996 Anthony Thomas wrote the biographic epic series Rhodes for the BBC. He said: “Hitler described him as the only Englishman who truly understood Anglo-Saxon ideals and destiny. It is too chilling to think of how Hitler empathised with him.”

In 2015, Cape Town University removed a statue of him, following mass protests which included faeces being hurled at it.  

Rhodes Must Fall 

Demonstrators will protest in front of the Rhodes statue in Oxford on Tuesday as part of the Black Lives Matter movement. The campaigners want iconography that “glorifies” Rhodes to be removed from the university.

It comes amid a wider “decolonise” movement sweeping universities across the world in recent years.

The Rhodes Must Fall movement was established in 2015 at Cape Town University, and later spread to Oxford, where students demanded that the statue of Rhodes was removed from Oriel College.

In 2016, Oriel College decided to keep the statue despite the students’ demands. Campaigners from the Rhodes Must Fall group argued that the row illustrated Britain’s “imperial blind spot”.

An Oxford Union vote resulted in 245 ayes and 212 noes for removing the statue but a poll at the time found that 59% of Brits thought that the statue of Rhodes should remain in place.

According to the Guardian, the college admitted it had been warned “second hand” of the possibility that it would lose about £100m in gifts should the statue be taken down but a spokesperson insisted the financial implications were not the primary consideration.

Campaigner Brian Kwoba told the newspaper Rhodes was “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”.

PA
The statue mounted on Oriel college building of British imperialist Cecil Rhodes

He added: “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.”

Femi Nylander, one of the original Rhodes Must Fall campaigners, said the university made “a series of promises” to Black students around the curriculum and access and representation following the movement in 2015.

But he said these never materialised.

The open letter to the university, signed by more than 6,600 individuals and organisations, outlines five steps that campaigners want it to take to “make upholding anti-racist values a reality”.

Liberal Democrat education spokesperson Layla Moran, who is MP for Oxford West and Abingdon, said: “The statues of white supremacists and slave merchants should not still be standing in our cities. That’s why the statue of Cecil Rhodes must come down.

“I’m not endorsing vigilante action, but I would urge Oriel College in the strongest terms to think about what message this statue sends in 2020, and to remove it.”

The official website for Oriel College itself, states:

“The nature and coherence of Rhodes’s thinking have been much debated and cannot easily be summarized. In some respects he can be compared with other nineteenth-century men of wealth and ambition in the colonial world and the USA. He shared with many others of his time theories of cultural evolution according to which most Africans were not yet ready for equal treatment with Europeans [9]. He became a staunch imperialist and in his ‘Confession’ of 1877 wrote ‘I contend that [the British] are the finest race in the world and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race…’ [10]. He established the Rhodes Scholarships, however, on the basis that ‘no student shall be qualified or disqualified for election … on account of race or religious opinions’ [11]. Rhodes was a businessman and a political deal-maker who prosecuted wars in pursuit of his goals. He held late-Victorian ideals of public service, institution-building, and the importance of an educated ruling class.”