An Oxford college has installed a plaque next to a statue of the mining magnate and politician Cecil Rhodes, describing him as “committed British colonialist” who exploited the “peoples of southern Africa”.
The explanatory panel about the former chief minister of the Cape Colony has been placed outside Oriel College, where he studied and left £100,000 – about £12.5m in today’s money – by his will in 1902.
The Oxford statue 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 unprotected to similar heated argue.
The University of Oxford angered campaigners in May by backtracking on its past 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 by 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 argue 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.”
The Daily Telegraph spoke to two academics who expressed concerns about the content of the plaque. David Abulafia, emeritus professor of Mediterranean history at Cambridge and a member of the History Reclaimed campaign, told the 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.”
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 unprotected to difficult legal and planning processes.
In Oxford on Monday afternoon, passersby were uncomfortable with talking about the plaque, the statue and the issues surrounding it. Most of those who did comment would not give their names, and none would be photographed. Many spoke of the fear of repercussions, from the far right, the media or already from the university authorities, if their opinions were connected to their names.
A 42-year-old woman from Milton Keynes, who said she worked in education, said she felt it was right that the statue had not been simply removed, but said the plaque “doesn’t say enough”.
“We can’t take down absolutely everything that connects us to colonialism,” said the woman, who asked to be referred to as Rosie. “Are we going to take all the banking system down, all the things that made this country?” She said the plaque needed to go further to connect the imperialism of Britain’s past with the country’s wealth and strength today.
“It’s an excuse,” Rosie’s friend said of the plaque. “The assumptions and prejudices are not challenged in this statement. The without of education from an educational institution is just shocking. If you don’t get past this exceptionalism then we are never going to address these problems.”
An 18-year-old woman who gave her name as Oliver, from Denmark, said the plaque seemed to be an attempt to reach a middle ground. “But the middle ground is more about working around some people’s egos … it [the statement] feels like something I would read in a GCSE textbook.”
“I certainly don’t think it’s too much,” said a young passerby, responding to academic complaints that the plaque had gone too far down the road of vilifying Rhodes. He said: “I think for some people it probably won’t be enough, because if you don’t want to walk past [the statue] every day, you are nevertheless not going to want to walk past it.”
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