The Legacy of Cecil Rhodes at Oriel College

Oliver Anthony Articles , , ,

When a protestor left a sign on the doors of Oxford’s University Church reading ‘Rhodes, You’re Next’, there was little doubt that the monumental Black Lives Matter movement, sweeping the world after the death of George Floyd, would next be turning its attention to the statue of the imperialist figure adorning Oriel College’s entrance arch. 

With the pulling down of a statue of Edward Colston in Bristol only days earlier, a fresh series of protests, beginning on Tuesday 9th June, sought removal of the controversial monument of Cecil Rhodes, fuelled by the 19th century mining magnate’s association with colonialism and racism on multiple accounts.

On the 12th June, the University’s Vice-Chancellor, Professor Louise Richardson, released an open letter that reached no binary view about Rhodes’ legacy, though did warn against “hiding our history and indicated little accord to the aims of the protestors. Her statement was also later criticised by fourteen dons at the University who wrote that it was “inappropriate” of Professor Richardson to “ventriloquise” the anti-apartheid leader, Nelson Mandela, by using his words to defend a colonial-era statue. (1)

Following Professor Richardson’s statement, significant headway was made within Oriel College’s Middle Common Room (MCR – graduate student body of Oriel College) in response to the renewed protests. On Sunday 14th June, numerous motions were passed in support of the Rhodes Must Fall movement, including 124 votes for and 62 votes against endorsement of the removal of Cecil Rhodes on the high street façade of Oriel College, with a further 143 votes for and 32 votes against preserving Rhodes’ statue in a museum/exhibition. (2) 

On Wednesday 17th June, the governing body of Oriel released a much-awaited statement, recommending the removal of the statue and the King Edward Street plaque (3). The report stated that an Independent Commission would be launched to  examine Rhodes’ legacy, chaired by Carole Souter CBE, the current Master of St Cross College, and former Chief Executive of the National Lottery Heritage Fund (4). It has more recently been announced that broadcaster Zeinab Badawi, former Conservative shadow culture secretary Peter Ainsworth, and Oriel College’s alumni advisory committee chairman Geoffrey Austin will also sit on the inquiry group (5). Alongside deliberating on the legacy of Rhodes, the commission will additionally consider improvements to BAME access and attendance at the College. A public notice is expected to be posted near to the statue, outlining how people are able to contribute their views, including both written and oral submissions, as well as further oral evidence public sessions to take place at a later date.

It will undoubtedly make for an interesting case to reflect upon as the Commission’s findings are published in January 2021, particularly since a similar consultation was organised by the College in 2015, when the Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford campaign initially called for the removal of the statue. In this earlier instance the Oriel’s governing body released a statement suggesting they were seeking information from the city council relating to the removal of objects of listed status (of which the Rhodes Statue is Grade II listed) (6). A six-month listening exercise was also set to take place but fell short of becoming fully realised, with some leaked documents to The Telegraph suggesting that this was in part because of threats made by College Alumni to withdraw funding equating to £100 million if the statue were to be removed (7)

Since the protests in June there have already been pledges to cover any withdrawn funds. Particularly notable is that of Oxford alumni, Husayn Kassai, founder of Onfido, who has pledged to “make up for every penny any racist donors pull”, further stating that, “All racist status and symbols belong in museums, where we can safeguard our history, in all its gore and glory” (8). While there are yet to be any reports of donors withdrawing support to Oriel, there is certainly the capacity for future disputes to arise from stakeholders less receptive of the statue’s removal.

The decision made by Oriel College to seek consultation to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes has been described by Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh, a founder of the Rhodes Must Fall campaign, as a “greatly vindicated” feeling (9). Although, as he further outlines, a successful outcome is only dependent upon the Commission’s decision to remove the statue, which, given the the earlier short-lived inquiry of 2015, is certainly not one which is inevitable. In an exclusive interview with The Telegraph, the current inquiry’s Chair, Carole Seuter, said it “was not a forgone conclusion” that “Rhodes would fall”, adding that, “We acknowledge politely that the governing body has expressed a view but there wouldn't be any point at all setting up this sort of Commission if it was already a foregone conclusion” (10).

Oriel College’s recent statements have certainly not quietened protests. Further Black Lives Matter marches took place in Oxford on the 18th and 26th June, with sustained emphasis on Rhodes, further calls for the removal of a statue of slave owner Christopher Codrington at All Souls College and demands for decolonisation of the curriculum. Discussions of Oxford’s problematic past are clearly not diminishing, with organisations such as Uncomfortable Oxford dedicating tours, talks, and blogposts to the histories of inequality, discrimination, and imperialism throughout Oxford (11). Taking these movements as indicatory of unresolved points of contention, it is fair to say that campaigns for social justice in Oxford are only just beginning. In regard to the statue of Cecil Rhodes, it will be an interesting case to watch now that significant advances have been made with regards to its future legacy.