Few statues in Britain have been more controversial than the stone figure of Cecil Rhodes that has stood in front of Oxford University’s Oriel College for more than a century.
The 122-centimetre depiction of the British diamond merchant has been sitting atop the Rhodes Building at Oriel since 1911 and has long been seen as a symbol of the country’s dark history of slave trading and empire building. While Rhodes is best known as the creator of the Rhodes Scholarship and the founder of De Beers Group, he is also notorious for benefiting from slave labour and for his belief that the “Anglo-Saxon race” is “the best, the most human, most honourable race the world possesses.”
For years, Oriel’s governing body refused to remove the statue of its infamous alumnus despite repeated calls from students, faculty and the public. But now, amid the international outcry over the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers, the college has relented.
On Wednesday, the board of governors voted to launch an independent commission “into the key issues surrounding the Rhodes statue” and supported removing the monument, as well as a plaque on another building that commemorates Rhodes.
“Both of these decisions were reached after a thoughtful period of debate and reflection and with the full awareness of the impact these decisions are likely to have in Britain and around the world,” the college said in a statement. It added that the commission will look at a host of issues to improve the college’s diversity.
Activists cautiously welcomed the decision. “We have been down this road before where Oriel College has committed to taking a certain action but not following through,” said a spokesman for the group Rhodes Must Fall, which has been campaigning since 2015 to bring down the statue. The group said it also wants the college to double the number of Black students and staff and “decolonize the curriculum” by expanding the range of perspectives.
Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh, an Oxford doctoral candidate who helped start Rhodes Must Fall, said in a recent interview that the objective of the movement went beyond the statue. “The idea was really to use the statue as a litmus test to say that it’s very easy to pay lip service to racial equality and racial justice, but it’s harder to put your money where your mouth is and to show what values really matter to you,” he said. “And so if you aren’t prepared to confront even the symbolic legacy of white supremacy, then what hope is there that you would confront its structural and material legacies?”
The college’s decision has not been universally welcomed. Oxford’s chancellor, Chris Patten, called the demonstrators hypocrites and said the Rhodes Scholarship has benefited more than 8,000 students from around the world since its creation in 1902.
“There is a bit of hypocrisy … in Oxford taking money for 100 scholars a year, about a fifth of them from Africa, to come to Oxford, and then saying we want to throw the Rhodes statue in the Thames,” he told the BBC recently. He added that in 2003, Nelson Mandela paid tribute to Rhodes for his philanthropy and set up the Mandela Rhodes Trust to help heal divisions. “For all the problems associated with Cecil Rhodes’s history … if it was all right for Mandela, then I have to say it’s pretty well all right for me,” Mr. Patten said.
Michelle Donelan, the Minister of State for Universities, also described the move to pull down the statue as “quite short-sighted.” During a recent webinar hosted by an education think tank, she added: “We cannot rewrite our history. Instead, what we should do is remember and learn from it.”
The Rhodes statue is one of many that are likely to fall as the Black Lives Matter protests intensify and researchers uncover new details about Britain’s slave trade that have begun to shame some businesses.
On Thursday, pub giant Greene King and insurer Lloyd’s of London issued apologies for their historic links to the slave trade and promised donations to charities that support opportunities for the BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic) community. The companies had been called out after research at the University of London revealed that both had direct ties to slave owners. Records showed that one of Greene King’s founders, Benjamin Greene, owned 231 slaves on sugar-cane plantations in Montserrat and Saint Kitts, and was also an advocate for keeping slavery. Simon Fraser, who helped established Lloyd’s, had 162 slaves on a plantation in Dominica, according to records.
“It is inexcusable that one of our founders profited from slavery and argued against its abolition in the 1800s,” said Nick Mackenzie, Greene King’s chief executive officer. In a statement, Lloyd’s said that while the company has a rich 330-year history, “there are some aspects of our history that we are not proud of.” The company added that “in particular, we are sorry for the role played by the Lloyd’s market in the eighteenth and nineteenth Century slave trade. This was an appalling and shameful period of British history, as well as our own.”
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.