The Cecil Rhodes statue at Oxford University is coming down

It’s a landmark moment in the long-fought campaign to force the institution to reckon with its racist history.

by Mahoro Seward
18 June 2020, 10:36am

Photo by Adrian Dennis/AFP via Getty Images

It’s been a tough few weeks for statues of genocidal racists. Just under a fortnight ago in Bristol, a bronze statue of 17th-century slave trader Edward Colston was torn from its pedestal by Black Lives Matter protesters and drowned in the waters of the very harbour where his ships once docked. Statues of Christopher Columbus have come down across the USA. Winston Churchill's been hiding in a box for a week.

And now, attentions have turned to the statue of 19th-century mining magnate Cecil Rhodes, which stands above the High Street entrance to Oriel College, Oxford. In a landmark announcement, the college’s governing body has voted to “launch an independent Commission of Inquiry into the issues surrounding the Rhodes statue” and “expressed their wish” to have the thing come down, a statement reads.

A quick 101 on Cecil Rhodes. Best known as the founder of the De Beers Mining Company and the spearhead of Britain’s imperialist agenda across Southern Africa, Rhodes was personally responsible for upholding a regime of tyrannical racism, serving as the Prime Minister of the Cape Colony for six years. His most dearly held beliefs were that “the Anglo-Saxon race is the first race of the world”, and that “the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race". His rule inflicted unthinkable trauma on tens of millions of lives, trauma which has been inherited by generations since and continues to inform the sociopolitical landscape of Southern Africa today.

Like many tyrannical racists of the era he studied at the University of Oxford, where his criminal legacy is celebrated in the form of one of the world’s most prestigious academic scholarships, a mansion and library, and the statue that has stood at Oriel, his alma mater since 1906.

Obviously, times have changed a little since then, with a larger, though still disproportionate, a number of BAME students and academics now part of University. Understandably, many took umbrage at the statue of the murderous racist that watches over the city’s High Street, a daily reminder and ostensible vindication of brutal violence committed against Black bodies.

In response to the removal of the statue of Rhodes at the University of Cape Town in March 2015, Oxford students mobilised to start their own chapter of the Rhodes Must Fall movement. Their demands were the statue’s immediate removal, as well as the decolonisation of overwhelmingly white curricula, and pledges to actively combat the racial discrimination rife throughout the University.

After months of protest and community organising, conversations between the movement’s organisers and Oriel seemed to be heading in a constructive direction, at one point at least -- a six-month-long “listening exercise” was even opened, in which BAME students and their allies were able to voice their thoughts to college officials. That was until the college abruptly about-turned, refusing to entertain further discussions around the statue’s removal. It was later leaked that their decision was motivated by a revolt on the part of the wealthy (mostly) white donors on which all Oxford colleges rely, who threatened to pull up to £100m in bequests if it was so much as scratched. Cute, right?

This context only makes the statement issued by Oriel last night all the sweeter, even if it is probably just a placatory gesture -- the statue has become the natural focal point of Oxford’s BLM protests, which have drawn participants in their hundreds. It’s also worth noting that no firm decision to remove it has been reached. “Although ‘wishes’ have been expressed, we will continue to push for firm commitments and actions,” reads a post on Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford’s Facebook page. It should equally be stressed that, even if the statue does go, this is just the beginning of the fight. “While this is but a first step, we are grateful and proud of all the support we have received thus far,” the post continues. “At this point, we also want to emphasise ALL our demands again: 1. An official public and permanent admission of the colonial violence upon which Oriel College is built; 2. The removal of Cecil Rhodes' statue; 3. The establishment of a reparatory scholarship scheme for Southern Africans of African descent.”

Right now, though, it’s well worth basking in the glory of the moment that finally: Rhodes. Will. Fall.

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