Oriel College has installed a plaque next to a statue of the mining magnate and politician Cecil Rhodes, describing him as a “committed British colonialist” who obtained his fortune “through exploitation of minerals, land, and peoples of southern Africa”.
The explanatory panel about the former prime minister of the Cape Colony has been placed outside Oriel College at the University of Oxford during Black History Month. The sign is understood to be a temporary measure though, to be replaced with a permanent response at a later date.
Cecil John Rhodes was a former student at Oriel College. He left £100,000 (about £12.5m in today’s money) to the college through his will in 1902. This money funded the construction of the Oriel College building where the statue is located.
The statue in Oxford was the target of the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ protest movement, which originated in Cape Town and argues Rhodes is a symbol of colonialism and the violence that accompanies it.
The broader row over statues of controversial historical figures has become emblematic of the so-called culture wars in the UK and the US, with monuments to figures such as the slave trader Edward Colston and the Confederate general Robert E Lee being subject to a similarly heated debate.
Oriel College angered campaigners in May by backtracking on its previous decision to remove the statue, ignoring the views of an independent commission.
The explanatory plaque says Rhodes was a “committed British colonialist” who “obtained his fortune through exploitation of minerals, land and peoples of southern Africa. Some of his activities led to great loss of life and attracted criticism in his day and ever since.”
It adds: “In recent years, the statue has become a focus for public debate on racism and the legacy of colonialism. In June 2020, Oriel College declared its wish to remove the statue but is not doing so following legal and regulatory advice.”
A college spokesperson said: “Because of planning restrictions and the building’s Grade II* status, more comprehensive and permanent contextualisation will take longer to achieve. The college has placed this notice outside of the building without making alterations to the building or its frontage, which would require consent.
“The college is fully engaged in enacting the recommendations made by the independent Commission of Inquiry earlier in the year to contextualise the Rhodes memorials.”
A commission was set up in June 2020 after the governing body of Oriel voted in favour of removing the statue. The commission was asked to look into the issue after a statue of Edward Colston was torn down in Bristol at the height of last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests in the UK.
A majority of the commission’s members supported the expressed wish of the governing body to remove the statue. However, in May, the college said it would not move the statue, stating that its removal would be subject to difficult legal and planning processes.
David Abulafia, emeritus professor of Mediterranean history at Cambridge and a member of the History Reclaimed campaign, told The Daily Telegraph newspaper that the sign should be “balanced and measured”, adding: “It should look at the whole of Rhodes’ career, explaining properly who he was and what he was trying to do. One needs to explain where he stands in the context of the attitudes of his day.
“He believed he was bringing benefits to Africa. We might now argue that he did more harm than good, but one has to understand what his intentions were. He is portrayed here as some sort of devil incarnate.”
Dr Zareer Masani, a historian specialising in the British empire, said: “We are pressing for a balanced plaque to be put up, possibly with fairly minimal information but presenting both his flaws and his virtues.”