Updated: Sep 21
Thousands of protesters stood, knelt, and sat in solidarity at the Rhodes Must Fall protest on Tuesday evening, June 09, 2020. This is the second time in the past five years that students and activists have gathered in force to challenge the structures of oppression within Oxford University.
The first Rhodes Must Fall Oxford protest was sparked in response to the campaign at the University of Cape Town, calling for the removal of a similar statue of Cecil Rhodes. The statue in South Africa came down, the one in Oxford did not.
The debate about statues is not a new one, and it did not begin with Cecil Rhodes.
What do statues mean?
Statues themselves should be taken in context. Not all are celebratory – a good example of this is the Sonyeosang, the Comfort women/Peace statue erected in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul. This statue stands in silent protest and memory of the many women who were victims of sexual slavery by the Japanese imperial military. It does not celebrate, but silently implores you to remember the injustices of the past.
Other statues shout at you in celebration of injustice. Many of the Confederate statues in the United States fit this description. Most were erected as statements about white supremacy during the Jim Crow Era, or coincided with the peak of the Civil Rights Movement. These statues were erected as idolizations of a past when white Americans stood at the pinnacle of social and political power, and black people were enslaved and oppressed.
Let’s not forget that slavery was also a formative part of British imperial expansion. And before you say it – yes, Britain was the first European nation to abolish the slave trade, but it also holds the title of being one of the nations that transported the most African slaves across the Atlantic Ocean.  The British slave trade lasted for nearly three hundred years and in that time, British merchants are estimated to have carried over three million slaves into the New World.  The great paradox of today is that Britain is congratulated for liberating those they enslaved in the first place.
The statue of Rhodes which stands on the front of Oriel College on Oxford’s High Street is emblematic of this tension about past injustice and historical memory. Cecil Rhodes was not a slave owner in the traditional sense. He lived in a time (1853-1902) when slave holding had already been officially banned in the British Empire. He was, however, a white supremacist. Rhodes believed that the greatest race in the world were the British, and that it was the destiny of the British nation to rule over the lands and nations of non-white peoples. This belief guided his actions as both a businessman and a politician in the Cape Colony, supplemented by a deep thirst for amassing wealth and an unlimited personal ego. Even his obituary in the Guardian labelled him as an ‘unscrupulous’ man who put profit and personal gain above humanity. 
Who was Cecil Rhodes?
Rhodes was born in Hertfordshire, England, to a vicar. When he was eighteen, he joined his brother in diamond mining in southern Africa. Rhodes would go on to secure mining rights over vast portions of land through a number of dubious treaties that displaced indigenous peoples from their lands and asserted British authority over territories. Rhodes founded the De Beers Mining Company, which enforced strict pass laws on its African workers and confined them to prison-like compounds for the duration of their contracts. He would be a millionaire before the age of 30 and eventually the prime minister of Cape Colony. In this role he enacted many policies restricting the rights of black people and is considered the architect of Apartheid. Rhodes was also influential in passing laws that allowed for arrest and detainment without trial, which was used to justify more land grabs from non-white citizens. 
Despite poor health and a weak disposition, Rhodes had a strong craving for advancement and power. This brought him to Oxford University, and he matriculated from Oriel College in 1873. Oxford would give him the connections and credibility he thirsted for in his career, though it took him nearly ten years to graduate. He left Oxford for extended periods of time due to illness, and went back and forth between his business enterprises in southern Africa and his studies at the university. An unremarkable student, he left little impression on his tutors. His health hindered his athletic ability and he was no great orator. Living in obscurity at Oxford, he realized that he would have to make his mark in another way.  This is when he settled on his imperial mission and a belief in his own personal role in the furtherance of British power. In 1877, he wrote his most famous will, declaring:
“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… What a dream, Africa is still lying ready for us, it is our duty to take it.” 
Take it he did. Rhodes made it a personal mission to annex as much territory as possible in the name of Anglo supremacy and he would go on to name that territory after himself – Rhodesia. His expansion was quick and brutal, including the first uses of the destructive Maxim gun on the continent, which tore through the bodies of resistant tribes with murderous ease. 
Today, those who still cling to the nostalgia of the colonial past as a representation of British patriotism see him as a hero of the English and a ‘man of his time’. This is a gross misremembering of how Rhodes was viewed in his own lifetime. He had a circle of supporters amongst the wealthy in power, but for many - in England, in Africa, and especially the many thousands who experienced the injustice of his actions - Rhodes was a despised man.
Anti-Rhodes sentiment peaked in 1895, when he backed the disastrous Jameson Raid. The battle cost the British forces – and Rhodes – dearly. Facing public outcry, he was forced to resign as Prime Minister of Cape Colony and step down from his place as director of the British South Africa Company. His reputation went from that of an ‘unscrupulous’ businessman, to that of the man who unleashed an “unbroken sequence of evil” with every decision. 
Even at Oxford he had a number of opponents. In 1899, when the University conferred an honorary degree on him, many students and fellows fiercely protested. The petition was even signed by both proctors.
Why is his statue in Oxford?
He wasn’t a notable scholar and was despised by many towards the end of his life. So why is there a statue (and a plaque, and many portraits, and other symbols) of Rhodes in Oxford? The answer, of course, is money. When Rhodes died in 1902, he left a large endowment to Oriel College – £100,000 (approximately £10 million today). This funded the building on High Street. He also left an enormous sum to fund the Rhodes scholarship program, with the goal of building “character, association, tradition, and bond of race" amongst its recipients.  Although now open to all races and genders, originally the scholarship was intended solely for white, able-bodied men. Indeed, at his death, one newspaper described Rhodes as the “builder of an Empire, and hater of women.” 
His wealth came to Oxford after Rhodes died, through his final will. It was derived from the land he extorted from numerous African tribes and the labor of black African workers confined in his work camps. Although he died a disgraced politician and sub-par student, Rhodes bought his way into admiration. Even Rhodes’ close friends were aware that his legacy was the product of his death, which negated his controversial reputation in England and “revealed him to the world at large” as a man who did “great and famous things” for Britain.  Yet for southern Africa, his legacy was years of racial oppression, displacement, and violence.
Should the Statue come down?
Absolutely. In its current state, the statue stands as a symbol of a society and a university that refuses to acknowledge it has benefited – and still benefits – from the exploitation and oppression of black Africans. Statues are more than structures of stone or metal. They symbolize the values of the society that built them, and their continued presence signals a continued celebration of those values. Too often it means idolizing the perpetrators of horrendous crimes, rather than the victims.
Destruction is not the only method of removing Rhodes from his place in Oxford. Many suggest placing the statue in a museum, or the erection of a plaque to provide context. On our tours, participants have suggested more creative methods of engaging with the statue – such as commissioning art in response, installing red lights to bathe his image in crimson, or carving faces into the surrounding buildings to stare him down. Any of these methods would topple Rhodes’ symbolic power.
If Oriel College and the University of Oxford truly value anti-racism, Rhodes cannot be left unchallenged in his place on High Street. In a future that values equity and fairness, we don't need Rhodes.
Written by Paula Larsson
1] Second only to Portugal. For more information on this, see: The National Archives, 'Britain and the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade," https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/help-with-your-research/research-guides/british-transatlantic-slave-trade-records/.
2] The National Archives, “Britain and the Slave Trade.” http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/slavery/pdf/britain-and-the-trade.pdf
3] “Death of Mr. Cecil Rhodes,” The Guardian (27 March 1902). https://www.theguardian.com/century/1899-1909/Story/0,,126334,00.html?redirection=century
4] Robert I. Rotberg (1988) The Founder: Cecil Rhodes and the Pursuit of Power. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988.
5] George Walker, “‘So Much to Do’: Oxford and the Wills of Cecil Rhodes,” The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 44, no. 4 (2016): pp. 697-716.
7] "Our New South African War," The Speaker 8 (Oct 7, 1893): pp. 369-370.
8] “Death of Mr. Cecil Rhodes,” The Guardian (27 March 1902).
9] "Oxford Degrees," Glasgow Herald (22 Jun 1899): p. 7 and The Leeds Mercury (19 Jun 1899): p. 4.
10] H. Cust, “Cecil Rhodes,” The Review of Reviews, vol. 26, no. 152 (Aug 1902): pp. 164-165.
11] “The Enigma in the Life of Cecil Rhodes,” The Province (June 14, 1902): p. 4.
12] H. Cust, “Cecil Rhodes.”