On Friday Oriel College finally decided to keep the statue of Cecil Rhodes on its façade facing Oxford’s High Street. I for one am glad that the issue has been resolved, and that February has not begun with a six-month long consultation over the future of a statue. Fees, funding, and student welfare must present more pressing problems.
I was curious as to why even though the petition to remove the statue was defeated by a counter-petition to keep the statue, and the plaque below the bust of Rhodes on No.6 Edward Street did not feature in the demands of the protesters, Oriel College still felt the need to remove it. The plaque commemorates “the great services rendered by Cecil Rhodes to his country”, but Oriel declared it an unsuitable “political tribute”, for a man who had been Prime Minister of Cape Colony, lent his name to Rhodesia, and envisioned a railway between Cape Town and Cairo. Yes, he had held racist beliefs and raped the land of its material and human resources, but such colonialist behaviour did not clash with attitudes at the time, and if we are to remove all the statues that have fallen out of sync with today’s attitudes then there’s no telling where the decolonising movement will stop. For academics used to reading the small print, surely it has not escaped them that the named dedicator of the bust is not Oriel College.
As it turns out, Rhodes was unpopular by the time he died, and only a fellow diamond merchant and the recipients of his fortune would have commended his “great services”. He was blamed for the disastrous Boer war, but still the Guardian acknowledged “a real inclination to serve his country” behind his greed. He died not loved or hated, but pitied.
If it is this offence, i.e. Rhodes’ delusional and overreaching ambition, that has led Oriel to remove the plaque, then I would argue that the college has not reacted cowardly but with a smart and appropriate compromise.