The Cecil Rhodes dispute

Take that: A student attacks Rhodes’s statue in Cape Town after it was removed last year. © PA

Students in Oxford are calling for a statue of Cecil Rhodes, a 19th-century imperialist politician, to be removed. Why is Rhodes controversial, and what implications could the campaign have?

  • Who was Cecil Rhodes?

    An English businessman and politician who was prime minister of Cape Colony — an area now in South Africa and Namibia — from 1890 to 1896. His impact on southern Africa was profound; the state of Rhodesia, which encompassed parts of Zimbabwe and Zambia, was named after him.

  • Why is he in the news?

    Last April, a statue of him was removed from the University of Cape Town in South Africa, in response to a campaign called ‘Rhodes Must Fall’. In recent months students have begun calling for a similar statue at Oriel College in Oxford to be taken down. On Tuesday, the Oxford Union voted to support them.

  • Why does Oriel have Rhodes’s statue?

    He attended the college in the 1870s and left them money in his will. The money was bequeathed to maintain buildings and infrastructure, keep up ‘the dignity of high table’ and fund Rhodes scholarships, which have paid for students from former British colonies to study at Oxford.

  • Why is he being criticised?

    Rhodes was an imperialist: Cape Colony was part of the British empire. He believed in extending Britain’s global influence and building a railway across Africa. He called on British rulers to ‘treat the natives as a subject people, as long as they continue in a state of barbarism and communal tenure’ and launched a military attack on the Transvaal. White supremacy endured for decades after he died, as South Africa adopted the system of apartheid.

  • Is this just about a statue?

    The campaigners say the statue’s presence undermines Oxford’s commitment to ‘fostering an inclusive culture’. Taking it down is part of a wider drive to ‘decolonise the institutional structures and physical space in Oxford and beyond’. Leading campaigner Ntokozo Qwabe has said ‘Oxford as a space is, to be quite frank, racist’, citing low numbers of black professors and a ‘eurocentric curriculum’ as evidence. But some have criticised his view as hyperbolic.

  • How have the authorities responded?

    Oriel will soon begin a six-month ‘listening exercise’. It has applied for permission to take down a plaque to Rhodes which acts as a ‘tribute’ and put up a temporary notice below the statue, explaining its historical context. But the building is listed, largely because of the controversy which surrounds Rhodes, and Historic England are reluctant to give permission to remove the statue. And Chris Patten, the Chancellor of Oxford University, said last week that students who tried to enforce their views should ‘think about being educated elsewhere’.

  • Why not remove it?

    Few of the campaign’s critics support Rhodes’s views. But they say it is neither possible nor desirable to remove everything which could be considered offensive. Monuments from historical eras when values were different are all around us. If Rhodes is removed, other acts of iconoclasm could follow. The statue should remain, as a reminder of a complex and uncomfortable past.

  • Who else could be removed?

    One speaker at the Oxford Union warned that, according to the campaign’s logic, the statues of Winston Churchill or Oliver Cromwell in Westminster could be removed, and pointed out that even Mahatma Gandhi described black Africans as ‘savage’. Meanwhile, at Princeton University in the USA, a campaign is underway to remove all mention of former president Woodrow Wilson.

  • Do the authorities ever approve of removing statues?

    Some campaigners have drawn a parallel between Rhodes and Saddam Hussein. On the day the Iraqi dictator was overthrown in Iraq in 2003, the US army helped to remove a statue of him in Baghdad, in a symbolic act which gained headlines worldwide.

You Decide

  1. Should the statue of Rhodes be removed?


  1. Write a letter to Oriel College explaining how you think they should respond to the Rhodes Must Fall campaign.

Word Watch

Rhodes helped to create De Beers, the major diamond firm.
Oxford Union
A debating society which Oxford University students can join, separate from the Oxford University Students’ Union.
Among those who have studied on a Rhodes scholarship are former US President Bill Clinton and former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott.
From 1948 to 1994, the ruling all-white National Party enforced policies of racial segregation in South Africa.
Winston Churchill
Churchill was the prime minister during Britain’s victory in the Second World War. But some policies he espoused in his career inspire revulsion among critics today, particularly as he was an imperialist.
Oliver Cromwell
Cromwell’s victory in the English civil war helped to establish the constitutional monarchy Britain has today. But his military campaigns were often brutal, and he was responsible for massacres in Ireland.
Woodrow Wilson
Wilson helped win the First World War and found the League of Nations, predecessor to the United Nations. But he is accused of expressing racist and pro-segregation views.

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The Cecil Rhodes dispute
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