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The Battle Between Oxford University Students and the British Empire

Leaked documents show that Oxford University trustees were concerned about losing around $150 million in donations if they removed a statue of a famed 19th century British Empire-builder.
Photo by Eddie Keogh/Reuters

Oriel College sits in the heart of Oxford, a stone's throw from the British city's 1,000-year-old market street. Down the road is the site where the medieval Bocardo Prison once stood — and where, in 1555, a group of martyrs was famously burnt at the stake for heresy. Around the corner, heading north, is the Turf Tavern pub where, according to popular lore, former US President and Oxford University graduate student Bill Clinton "did not inhale."


On the third story of the college, gazing down on passers by, is Cecil Rhodes — the famed mining tycoon who during the 19th century was a key figure in the creation of the British empire, and, according to activists, an architect of Apartheid in South Africa. He is memorialized in stone, wearing loose slacks, and an unbuttoned coat — his hair wavy and sideswept.

If activists have their way, his days will be numbered. Since March, several dozen students have been campaigning to have the statue of Rhodes removed. Working under the banner Rhodes Must Fall, they have organized tiny actions in the center of town, taping their mouths shut, and brandishing hand-painted signs — "DECOLONISE EDUCATION," "#RHODESMUSTFALL." The effigy of Rhodes, the students say, is a metaphor for Oxford University's contribution to the British Empire and complicity with its long-ago crimes. They say it is a physical indignity that, like the empire, must fall.

"The significance of taking down the statue is simple," Brian Kwoba, a doctoral student and Rhodes Must Fall founder, said last year. "Cecil Rhodes is the Hitler of southern Africa. Would anyone countenance a statue to Hitler?"

Until last week, the university had looked poised to cede ground. In January, authorities at Oriel, one of 38 self-governing colleges at Oxford, conceded that a plaque near the statue, which commemorates "the great services rendered by Cecil Rhodes to his country" was an imperfect way to memorialize a man who for many symbolizes oppression.


Quietly, the college, which was founded in 1324 and is home to some 500 students, pasted a piece of white paper in the window of a street-level classroom, reading: "Many of Cecil Rhodes's actions and public statements are incompatible with the values of the college and university today… The college does not in any way condone or glorify his views or actions." That month, Oriel also announced a launch a six-month "listening exercise" on the fate of the statue.

In turn, it seemed that Rhodes really was about to fall. But then came the about-face. Last Thursday, Oxford University announced that Rhodes would stay right where he was — and that "the college will seek to provide a clear historical context to explain why it is there."

The next morning, the conservative-leaning Daily Telegraph newspaper reported that it had seen a leaked copy of the report prepared for Oriel's board of governors, which warned that the college could lose more than a 100 million pounds ($146m) in bequests if the statue were taken down. According to the report, one donor who was planning to leave a "seven-figure sum" had already pulled out.

"Oriel sold out," a group spokesperson charged, at a press conference a few days later, pledging to continue the campaign. "It sold out when Cecil Rhodes first poured his blood money into the college. And it sold out again when it decided that the voices of wealthy alumni were more important than the voices of students." The students want Oxford, among other things, to apologize for its history and to provide scholarships for black African students. They also called for a "decolonized curriculum" that heeds "the voices suffocated into silence by a Eurocentric academy."


"We are wholeheartedly supported by 100 per cent of Oriel College's new undergraduate intake of black British students," said a spokesperson. "Unfortunately, the new black British undergraduate intake at Oriel is made up of one person."

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In his lifetime, Rhodes, the founder of the De Beers Mining Company in South Africa, was a model imperialist, working assiduously to reap riches and expand the British Empire, in large part, by obtaining mining concessions farther and farther into Africa. By the 1890s, he had become Prime Minister of the Cape Colony and had seized control of modern Zimbabwe and Zambia, renaming the territory in his likeness: Rhodesia. "I would annex the planets if I could," he once said. "I often think of that. It makes me sad." In 1894 Rhodes introduced the Glen Grey Act, which wrested large swaths of land from black people — and tweaked the country's voting laws to disenfranchise much of "native" electorate.

When Rhodes died, in 1902, the Guardian eulogized him as having done "more than any Englishman of his time to lower the reputation… of the empire." Despite this, he is now often remembered for his philanthropy, thanks in part to generous bequests to Oriel College and Oxford as a whole — and for his namesake Rhodes Scholarship, which has sent some 7,600 international students, including Bill Clinton and Rachel Maddow, to Oxford, since the grant was established in 1902. One anti-statue campaigner told VICE News that her aim was to spoil "the association game: I say 'Rhodes,' you say 'scholarship.'"


The Rhodes Trust, the administrator of the prestigious scholarship, has so far remained tightlipped, emphasizing that while Cecil Rhodes's wealth does not excuse his wrongdoings, it has been used "to create educational opportunities that have benefited South Africans of all races." On January 20, the Warden of Rhodes House, which houses the trust, sent a private email to Rhodes alumni, which VICE News has seen, noting: "The Trustees have encouraged us to avoid entering the noisy battle going on over the statue."

But some current Rhodes scholars have broken rank. Last year, several dozen of them joined together to form the group "Redress Rhodes" which is calling for more "critical engagement" with Rhodes' legacy. In January, nearly two hundred Rhodes scholars signed an open letter declaring: "This scholarship does not buy our silence."

One of the most prominent Rhodes Must Fall campaigners, a South African student named Ntokozo Qwabe, is himself a Rhodes Scholar. In response to accusations of hypocrisy, and claims that he is "biting the hand that feeds," Qwabe has insisted that he is not a scholarship recipient at all. "I'm no beneficiary of Rhodes," he wrote on Facebook. "I'm a beneficiary of the resources and labor of my people which Rhodes pillaged and slaved."

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Threaded through all of this is an ongoing national discussion about the empire's place in modern-day Britain. Thus far, critics of Rhodes Must Fall have had something of an association with the old order. In December, for instance, Oxford University chancellor Lord Chris Patten suggested to the BBC that the student campaigners should embrace freedom of thought or "think about being educated elsewhere" — perhaps, he mused, in China.


Presumably, Patten, did not suggest China lightly. The man formerly served as Britain's last governor of Hong Kong. In 1997, at a farewell ceremony marking the handover of Hong Kong's sovereignty from London to Beijing, he stood next to Prince Charles and flicked away tears.

Later that month, former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott (Rhodes Scholar, Class of 1983) warned that Oxford would be substituting "moral vanity for fair-minded enquiry" if it caved to the zealous students' demands.

Further afield, critics have portrayed the Rhodes Must Fall movement as a quainter and less urgent British answer to America's #BlackLivesMatter and "safe spaces" debates. "When America catches a cold, Britain sneezes — eventually," the British columnist Matthew D'Ancona practically sneered in a recent New York Times op-ed.

The Oxford students do nod to American campuses, but their crusade is in fact a spin-off from a South African campaign at Cape Town University, which saw its own statue of Rhodes pelted with excrement by activists and ultimately removed by school authorities —as some onlookers chanted an old anti-colonial refrain, 'One Settler, One Bullet!'

Still, the Oxford iteration is uniquely British, a campaign standing against Britain's colonial past and the way history is written. The students call for class curricula to be "decolonized" and for Oxford to "atone" for its "coloniality," by which they mean the university's literal involvement in the imperial project and its local after effects. They speak of the Rhodes statue and the famous Rhodes Scholarship as the lingering detritus of empire. And they are inspired by the notion of a second post-colonial revolution: first Empire, then collapse, and then "reckoning."


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All of this speaks to a kind of fuzziness, in London, about just how much imperial Britain ought to be condemned today. In Britain, the colonial experiment is still approached with something akin to public ambivalence, tilting towards lukewarm approval. Back in 2014, a YouGov poll found that almost 60 percent of Brits thought the empire was something to be proud of; a third of those surveyed said they would like it if Britain still had it; and half thought countries that were colonized by Britain were better off now because of it.

In January, a new YouGov poll found that 43 per cent of Brits believe that the empire was a "good thing," compared to just 19 per cent who think it a "bad thing," and almost 60 percent thought the Rhodes statue should stay put.

In the United States, the Black Lives Matters debate rests on more solid footing; slavery and segregation are broadly and stridently condemned — though a small fringe would like to "reclaim" the history of Southern confederacy. But what about the industrial force that was empire?

This, in turn, links to an older dispute about how, and even whether, the empire is taught in British schools. In July, leader of the opposition Labour party Jeremy Corbyn told supporters that Britain's national curriculum should be rewritten, to emphasize that the empire was built "at the expense of people." The ruling Conservative party, by contrast, is often accused of defending an "island story" version of history that omits narratives of imperial slaughter, rape and plunder, in favor of boundless lessons on "Hitler and the Henrys."


In this context, British administrations have shied away from official gestures of colonial atonement. Indeed, various governments have rebuffed calls for colonial apology, and suggested that Britain should cease its historical self-flagellation. In 2005, then Chancellor of the Exchequer and later Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown remarked, after a tour of east Africa: "I think the days of Britain having to apologize for our history are over."

"We have to get out of this post-colonial guilt. Be proud of ourselves," said former Foreign Secretary William Hague, in 2012. "It's a long time ago, the retreat from empire."

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Several days before the Telegraph report landed, a handful of Rhodes Must Fall activists met at an apartment a few minutes' walk from the college. "It's easy to throw money at things — to give scholarships to gifted Africans," said one student campaigner, at last week's Rhodes Must Fall gathering. "When you deal with symbols, you have to take responsibility for things." A moment later, she leaned back and shrugged: "In general, I don't think people expect the great Black revolution to come out of England."

"A hole where the statue used to be: that would make people uncomfortable," suggested another. If the statue came down, then the many tour guides who regularly clutter local streets, winding foreign tourists through Oxford's labyrinth of colleges and quads and Harry Potter film sites, would surely point up at Oriel College, to an empty platform, and tell people how students of color entered Oxford University and felled Cecil Rhodes.

Follow Katie Engelhart on Twitter: @katieengelhart